What do you get when a John Deere insider writes about business? Well, this is no run-of-the-mill self-help book. It’s designed and written just like that tractor service manual on your shop shelf.
It’s packed with specific instructions, diagrams and spreadsheets, all designed to help the reader take logical steps and methodically correct problems or make adjustments. Except, of course, you aren’t fixing a tractor this time. You’re fine tuning your farm business — or any business for that matter.
And just as with a tractor service manual, Luke Sheppard wants you to keep his book close at hand and refer to it as needed when problems or important decisions arise. Heck, it even has printed QR codes in its pages that let you go online to access PDF templates that help you follow Sheppard’s steps for making decisions or prioritizing management practices. How “manual” can you get?
It’s clear that Sheppard has earned his business creds. The machinery game has some serious challenges. When commodity prices are high, dealerships can expect a rush through showroom doors. When prices tank, you might as well bring a deck of cards.
It does make some sense from the customer point of view, after all. Having cash on hand and a good profit outlook do help if you’re considering a major equipment purchase. But historically, there’s no denying farm machinery buying has often been impulsive, driven by a full bank account, tax considerations and charged up emotions.
Farmers aren’t alone. These are similar peaks and valleys for new car dealers too. And it doesn’t hold for all farmers. Many stick to defined machine replacement schedules. But with the stakes so big these days, the risks and rewards are greater than ever.
In his new book, “Driving Great Results: Master the Tools You Need to Run a Great Business,” Luke Sheppard, who spent most of his 20-year business career at John Deere, writes that he continually sees business owners across a wide range of industries make poorly thought out business decisions (although he doesn’t mention farm machinery buying trends, specifically). It has convinced him there was a need to write this book and help entrepreneurs bring better decision-making skills to the full range of day-to-day operations.
The book is broken down into four sections that individually focus on: making good business decisions, communicating effectively, managing people and consistently achieving goals. At the end of each sub-segment, Sheppard provides a list of other books that expand on the ideas he discusses, and he challenges the reader with questions designed for some self-reflection about their effectiveness as a manager.
One of the key themes that runs throughout the book is keeping things in perspective. Or as Sheppard puts it, “The effort invested in ‘getting it right’ should be commensurate with the importance of the decision.”
Some of Sheppard’s spreadsheet tools provide help for deciding when it’s fine to just “go with your gut,” or when the decision needs to be based on a bit more Vulcan-like logic, such as deciding whether or not to make those big ticket machinery deals.
Business managers often get bogged down in the weeds and end up having “too much sweat expelled on the small stuff,” Sheppard writes. But they need to recognize that “High priority decisions should be made rationally and based heavily on facts and data.”
So Sheppard also gives readers a tool to help clearly evaluate which decisions are the important ones and which instead will have limited impact on the farm’s overall operations.
The next two sections, Communicating With Purpose and Managing People focus on interpersonal relations, which is something today’s larger-scale producers have had to learn as more and more farms need a hired workforce.
Anyone who’s had the opportunity to work under a lot of different managers has found some were good, others not so much. A manager’s ability — or lack of it — greatly influences how much anyone enjoys a job and how long they stay at it. Sheppard gives business owners tools to help ensure they understand how to recruit and hire the best people for the job. And perhaps even more importantly, keep them. That means creating a workplace environment that allows them to take some satisfaction in their work and enjoy it.
Sheppard acknowledges many entrepreneurs struggle in this area. “Communication is a discipline in which so many entrepreneurs and managers often fail,” he writes. “What you say, how you say it and how you make people feel about your message matter.”
The book discusses how to get employees to feel invested in their jobs, allow them to achieve that satisfaction and feel a sense of belonging at the business they’re helping to prosper. That takes leadership, and in one segment Sheppard reveals how he has effectively used a technique I’ve seen employed elsewhere.
During a factory tour in the U.S. several years ago, I was with a group of machinery writers who were touring an assembly line that builds swathers. We were being led by the plant manager, the most senior executive to work there. As we walked through the very large facility, I kept noticing how the manager greeted the workers on the floor by name and briefly engaged almost every one we walked past in conversation. I was taken aback by the relationship he had with the lowest-ranking workers, who seemed to genuinely like him. That had to be a real benefit for the overall labour-management relationship.
Sheppard talks about the many benefits of this kind of daily mingling with the rank-and-file workers and how to make the best of those encounters, noting that most of the best ideas on how to improve daily routine operations come from the people who perform the tasks, not senior managers.
In his final chapter, Sheppard talks about strategies for prioritizing management objectives and for balancing the seemingly non-stop demands of running a business with a satisfying personal life, referencing a concept all farmers can almost certainly relate to. “Tidying your personal space allows you to tend to your psychological space,” he writes.
Anyone with a cluttered workspace, whether in a farm workshop, office or other location, eventually finds the mess too distracting. During busy times, like spring seeding or harvest, messes can pile up quickly when everyone and every machine is working flat out. Eventually, though, it becomes necessary to simply sweep the workshop floor, organize tools and machinery both inside the shop and out in the farmyard. It’s just too difficult to focus on new tasks until things are tidied up.
Taking on too many tasks as a manager, writes Sheppard, has the same effect as a cluttered environment. It wastes time and energy. And even though there are many business and personal obligations we all have to meet, each day only has 24 hours in it. Everyone’s time is limited. To put an exclamation point on that thought, he includes a quote from Charles Darwin.
“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”