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A learning plan in action

Nicole Stratychuk’s sudden need for her own learning plan offers insights into how an HR pro would develop management skills on your farm

When Nicole Stratychuk moved to Alberta she didn’t think she would end up working in agriculture, something she knew nothing about. With two university degrees in kinesiology and human resources (HR), she had been working in various HR roles for large organizations such as Health Canada and a casino resort in Edmonton.

In fact, when she and her husband arrived in Lethbridge a few years ago, it was to pursue an opportunity for her husband to start a martial arts business. So, with her HR experience, Stratychuk looked for a job in her field.

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That’s how, when a position came up with Kasko Cattle Company, a large cattle feedlot business, Stratychuk applied and suddenly found herself human resources manager of a 40,000-head feedlot with over 50 employees.

It was a business she had no background in or experience with, and she realized she needed to develop a strong learning plan to come up to speed about the company, the cattle industry and agriculture in general.

It’s similar but opposite to the challenge for many farmers, who know farming (which Stratychuk didn’t) but need to learn about HR and other business techniques (which Stratychuk does.) It turns out her strategies can work in both directions.

Setting learning goals

Stratychuk started with a learning analysis. “For me, it was coming up with the things that needed to be learned right away in order to do my job and maybe some longer-term things that needed to be learned, and then setting that into goals,” she explains.

That led her to identify three main priorities that became her immediate learning goals. “The first thing was understanding basic feedlot operation,” she says. “I needed to learn how a feedlot ran and what the whole goal of a feedlot was.”

Her second goal was to learn about the company and about its human resources, and finally, she needed to learn about the cattle industry.

She then began to identify the resources she would need to achieve her goals, starting with the front-line staff. “I did a lot of job shadowing, riding along with feed truck drivers, I worked with the pen riders to understand how their jobs worked. I did some cattle processing, which was a whole new thing for me,” says Stratychuk.

In terms of human resources, she needed to understand what had been done or attempted before, what policies and strategies were currently in place, what was working and what was not. Logically, she turned to the company’s managers and owners to provide her with much of this information.

General manager, Ryan Kasko was also vital to help her understand not just the company but the cattle industry she was now a part of. “One of my requests when I was hired was to have one-on-one meetings and dedicated time with Ryan, and that he would be available for questions,” says Stratychuk.

“Also, I went to every cattle- and agriculture-related conference that I could just to get my feet wet and understand what was happening in other cattle businesses and what the challenges were, what the opportunities were in cattle, and also the agricultural industry as a whole.”

Stratychuk also needed to figure out a way to know when she had learned what she needed to learn, so as she thought more about that, she began to frame it in terms of one of her main roles at the company, which was to help the managers hire people. “So, if I was able to make better hiring decisions and better understand the needs of the managers and the employees then I would say yeah, I have learned what I needed to learn,” says Stratychuk.

Measuring learning success

“Within six months I really understood what was happening on the feedlot, what the managers needed and what the other employees needed. Some of the other things took longer. It probably took me a year to have a well-rounded understanding of the cattle industry, what their challenges were and what my contribution could be.”

Another measurement against her learning plan for Stratychuk was whether she was able to give Kasko Cattle Company better strategic human resources suggestions or proposals. “If I am able to do that then I know that I’ve learned what I needed to learn,” she says, emphasizing that she is speaking about the most immediate learning needs, because she fully believes that learning is a lifelong process.

“Learning is always ongoing, so with my development plan, it always includes going to industry conferences,” she says. “I still do a lot of specific HR learning, but it’s important that I stay connected with the cattle industry and with people in that area.”

The right mindset

It’s never easy for someone to come into a business “green,” i.e. not knowing a lot (or in some cases anything at all) about the business or the industry it’s involved in.

And while you might think that doesn’t happen as often on the farm because family members have likely grown up on or are involved with the operation, there is always something new to learn. And the skills to operate at a senior level on any aspect of the farm are technical and complex, and likely a lot different than they were just a few years ago.

But remember there’s also the possibility too that someone else may get their nose out of joint, especially if they perceive the newcomer as a bit of a hotshot wanting to make changes to the status quo.

No one wants to stifle enthusiasm or new ideas, but there is a time and a place for that and usually a few dues have to be paid first. That’s why, says Stratychuk, it’s important in learning something new to maintain a respectful mindset and be humble enough to realize the business or farm has been managing quite well without you to this point.

“It’s about being respectful of the people that are doing the work, and being open to what their ideas are,” she says. “Sure, I have HR training, but these businesses, and these employees and managers have all gotten the company to this place, so how can you add to that without being disrespectful to what has been going on already.”

It’s also important not to approach learning with preconceptions. “It’s dropping any kind of biases or judgment in the beginning that you might have had and it’s having an open mind to just learn,” says Stratychuk. “I don’t think you can truly learn unless you’re willing to put down your guard a little bit and just take it all in.”

Helping others learn

Besides continuing to focus on her own learning, a big part of Stratychuk’s HR role is helping employees to identify what their learning needs are and develop a plan of action to connect them with the resources to help them achieve their goals. She has implemented employee engagement surveys and performance reviews that, of course, focus on how employees are doing but also on how they would like to develop within the company.

As part of the performance review process, employees can talk about their goals, what they want to learn and what a manager feels an employee can learn more about. “It’s a review, but it’s also an opportunity to add to that employee’s learning plan specifically. Where does this employee’s interest lie and where are their skills going to be most utilized, and is there training that we could provide to them to help them use those skills better on our feedlot?” asks Stratychuk.

This individualized approach also helps to retain employees. “If we can help them get to where they need to be, that helps with our retention a hundred times over,” says Stratychuk. “That’s one of the things that HR worries about, can we hold onto our people and provide training and opportunities for them to learn?”

Stratychuk believes developing individual learning plans is as vital to successful transition planning on the family farm as it is for a huge city-based corporation.

“If there is no plan to learn in place, then how do we keep track of what the kids are learning, or when Grandpa or Dad is no longer part of the business, will those kids be ready to step up?” she asks.

As she prepares to go on maternity leave, Stratychuk will soon be training her replacement and says her own learning plan is now going to help define someone else’s.

“She’s also someone that has HR training but doesn’t know anything about cattle,” says Stratychuk. “So I’m going to put this person through exactly what I put myself through, which is cool because I am putting into practice the transfer of knowledge.”

(Note: Next issue, see Seven Steps to a Learning Plan for insights on how to set educational goals and develop a learning plan for your farm.)

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