Farmers today are being called to be leaders, not just managers,” says Bob Milligan, professor emeritus of applied economics and management at Cornell University.
Minnesota-based Milligan is now semi-retired and consults with farmers about their human resources. He says leadership of a farm business today is much more than developing an annual strategy. Farmers today need to articulate and communicate a compelling vision to their team, they need to implement a winning strategy and they must develop a healthy farm business culture.
Generally, farmers are much better at production and financial skills than emotional intelligence. Yet such skills are essential for leading a high-performance team, Milligan says. “The CEO is the key leadership role of the business, and its absence has been devastating to many dairies, agribusinesses and other small businesses.”
Milligan also says it comes down to leaders helping their team feel competent, autonomous and emotionally related.
Similarly, Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, describes leadership as “using yourself as an instrument to get things done in the organization.” In her research she found becoming a great boss is a lengthy, difficult process of learning and change, driven mostly by personal experience.
Most people, Hill writes, don’t even know when there’s a problem. Worse, because they don’t understand the nature of the journey, they’re all too likely to pause or give up along the way.
Improvement only comes with regular self-assessment, says Hill. She suggests starting each morning with a quick preview of the day’s to-do list, and for each item on the list asking yourself how you can use it to develop as a leader and learn from it.
Actually think about this as you delegate each task. What questions you could ask, what limits should you set, and what coaching you might give?
You might also want to think and maybe try some new approaches because if you don’t move outside familiar patterns and practise new approaches, you’re unlikely to learn.
To start, here’s a list of questions to help you think about your own leadership styles and skills. Are you as good a boss as you need to be?
1. Do you develop the people you supervise so they can make decisions on their own?
Leading a farm operation is fundamentally about constantly planning for the future. You are literally planting seeds with the harvest in mind. That lesson of reaping what you sow can be directly applied to managing people too.
Autonomy is the feeling we get when we are in control of our lives, says Milligan. “I’m not saying that it should be complete anarchy, but employees need to be trained well enough that they can have input.”
The idea is to stop micromanaging. Trust the people you selected for your team. If you explain what needs to be done clearly and allow for questions or review, you’ve basically planted the seeds and watered them.
2. Do you provide ample opportunities for those you supervise to ask questions?
One of the best ways to lead is by example — pitching in where needed, lending a helping hand. It’s also an opportunity to make sure the work is clearly understood by your team, and for you to be available for questions.
Regularly blocking off time to work side-by-side with workers may seem like time spent away from higher-level tasks but it allows time for valuable two-way communication. It’s also a great time to ask yourself and others how to help improve efficiency and make things better for your team.
3. Do you listen more than you speak when interacting with your team?
Active listening may be the most important skill leaders need and often lack, says Milligan. Are you ever thinking about something else when employees are speaking to you? Do you interrupt or give instructions before the whole question is answered?
Not allowing others to fully express ideas, opinions, and feelings and/or not fully listening can be very costly. The current conversation is not brought to a successful conclusion and you’ve told the person you do not want to listen, so future ideas, concerns and feelings may never be communicated.
Often people listen to the other person not to respond to what they are saying but to use what they are saying against them in an argument. By contrast, active listening means being careful to understand what the other person is saying and how they are feeling about what they are saying. This means the listener is taking responsibility for understanding both the content and the feelings behind what is said.
Milligan suggests pausing for two seconds before replying. Be ready to ask for clarification with statements starting with “tell me more.”
4. Do you value your team for who they are, not just what they do?
This is a shift away from managing tasks and into building relationships. In fact, Hill identified three imperatives to being a good boss — managing yourself, your network and your team. To influence others you must make a difference not only in what they do but also in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions.
Strong leaders relate to the people on their team. They want to know about them and create a bond. They create relatedness, i.e. an emotional link.
It’s not about being BFFs, but leaders need to appreciate who they are supervising instead of being solely focused on what they can do. One of the most de-motivating factors is feeling estranged from a group, says Milligan. Strong leaders need to link to each of the individuals so everyone feels bonded to the team. Your team must trust in your competence and your character.
At the University of Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, researchers have identified leadership as a function of competency, commitment and character. The chart below by Professor Gerard Seijts shows the dimensions and elements of character. He says these character elements are interconnected and exercised through judgment calls and revealed by behaviour. They can also be grown.
5. Does everyone on your team understand and are they engaged in the mission, vision, and core values of the farm?
Is your team mutually committed to a common purpose and to the goals related to that purpose? Collective teams are more creative and productive than groups of individuals who only co-operate. Members should share a genuine conviction they will succeed or fail together and hold themselves and each other accountable.
On the positive side, most farms have small teams, mostly family, maybe with a few trusted full-time employees and some seasonal staff. That’s good, because it’s easier for smaller teams to stay focused. Everyone knows everyone else, and there’s more accountability. Nobody can hide or slack off without someone knowing, and there’s less politics with small teams.
Family businesses require collaboration and sometimes sacrifice from the entire group. However, Milligan says sometimes family farms neglect to include employees in this very valuable culture. “They will assume employees are only motivated by money, but if you let those employees become a part of your family culture, they are more likely to act like your family.”
The power of family can be extended to employees. “They will be working not only with their legs and arms, they’ll be working with their head and heart,” says Milligan.
Managing a group is different from managing one-on-one because of group dynamics. Leaders can influence individual behaviour much more effectively through the group, because most of us want to fit in and be accepted as part of the team. The intangible team spirit makes members feel part of something worthwhile. So it’s important to celebrate successes and arrange fun activities as a team.
Relatedness is also about the feeling that you are doing something worthwhile. “For the Millennial this is non-negotiable. This is what they need,” says Milligan.
6. Do you look for opportunities for your farm outside of current operations?
Sometimes we get so absorbed in our tasks that we can’t see beyond our own fencerows. Successful farms tend to be led by people who constantly look for opportunities, even in difficult situations, and they create a farm business culture that views change as opportunity. “Leaders think ahead and out of the box,” says Milligan. “They see change as opportunity.”
The CEO must always seek and capitalize on opportunities to enhance income or reduce risk by contracting product and inputs. To do this well, they need to understand and network in the external environment, especially the industry and overall business environment.
It’s all part of positioning the farm to withstand or even flourish during transition or the inevitable ups and downs of the market. The consistently successful farmers are on top of ensuring that world-class production and marketing procedures are in place.
7. Do you continue to encourage, support and give feedback after those you supervise have learned a task so they can go on to master IT?
Fundamentally, farming involves trying to control a series of unpredictable, unexpected events, because we are dealing with biology and nature. So training for mastering of tasks is often necessary. People need to feel so confident at the task that they are able to see all the potential other things that could go wrong or are not within control. Training employees to master tasks enables them to make decisions while they work and to adjust on the fly. For example, with grain and oilseed production, employees often work remotely so they need to be trained to a level of expertise which means they see when the environment or the equipment is changing and they can adjust, fix or make decisions on their own.
Encouraging with constant specific positive feedback does pay back, says Milligan. He teaches his clients to make an effort to see specific things staff are doing and comment on those particular efforts. “Many of the people farms hire do not have a lot of self-confidence,” says Milligan. “They need to be told they are getting better. It’s about creating a culture of continuous improvement.”
Also, Milligan says to redirect negative behavior instead of reprimanding. He says you can react two ways to someone doing something wrong — reprimand or re-direct. “Most leaders do neither and then eventually they blow up,” says Milligan.
A good boss knows that the most common cause of being unsuccessful is not enough training or setting expectations too high. “Just give them the training. That’s what they need to be successful,” Milligan says.
8. Do you and those you supervise agree on expected measurable outcomes so they can assess their own success?
Operating a farm is often mostly just about managing day-to-day chaos. Unplanned problems and opportunities frequently arise, so as a leader it’s important to create focus and ensure progress is made toward goals.
Most of Milligan’s clients have a Word file that they fill in with measurable tasks. This can be as simple as a list, as long as it has two or three goals so the employee knows where to focus their energy. “It helps us all keep focused on the game,” he says.
This is also where you can help individuals shift behaviours and actions. “You’re not going to change their personality, but people can learn to act differently,” says Milligan.
9. Do you discuss how your team’s performance compares to established expectations?
Longer-term feedback is essential too. Milligan says monthly or annual meetings with individuals are more strategic in nature. This is when together you discuss what skills are needed, what kind of career positioning will keep employees engaged and working on the farm.
It’s up to the CEO or team leader to ensure performance management programs are in place and that they are being used so every employee is achieving their potential.
10. Do you have a empathic but straightforward way to fire someone if they are not performing or willing to improve?
Not only do you need to have a thoughtful process to guide helping individuals, you need a process to fire them.
Remember all problems are leadership problems, so if you have to fire someone, somewhere in the process you maybe didn’t lead or offer enough training. Essentially, you may be part of the reason your employee is now out of a job.
11. Do you know what you could do better?
After an action, examine what you did and how it turned out. Being thoughtful and objective about it will help you learn how to be a better leader.
Annual review of your own performance is also important. Beyond looking at the balance sheet at year-end, assess if you’ve built the farm’s capability to innovate, be productive and get the most from your team.
Approach this assessment with the knowledge that improving leadership is never done, and there are many, many different kinds of leaders and effective ways to lead.