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Execute on that business plan

If your business plan is gathering dust, here’s how to put it into action

We’ve all been there. You’ve just come back from an amazing course that has guided you through the arduous process of developing a business plan for your farm business. You have identified your core values, you have articulated a vision, and you have chosen the strategies to get you to where you want to go.

You’ve written it all down. You’re pumped, you’re primed, and you’re going to start firing on all cylinders the minute you get back to the farm. BUT…

Implementation is often the stumbling block with farm plans. Too often it leaves us blaming the plan, or blaming the process, saying, “It just isn’t me.”

In truth, it isn’t just you. Instead, you may have stopped the planning process just before the last, crucial step. It’s essential to build the tools and processes for implementation into the plan itself.

Measuring results

Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada, says once a farm or business gets over the hurdle of identifying the strategies it will use, it’s vitally important to measure the outcome of them to ensure they align with the actual business. “Your business plan is where strategy and operations meet. In fact, they hold hands,” says Watson. “Strategy only works if you set practical, measurable activities against them, enforced by concrete deliverables and timelines.”

Remember, though, that you have to be realistic, Watson adds. “You don’t have to tackle the whole elephant at once. Try to do one thing at a time. You will approach the next activity having gained that experience.”

Part of making sure things get done is to figure out who has the knowledge and skills needed to accomplish the various activities or figure out how or where they can be found. 

“Your strategy may tell you to improve your market share to stand out against the competition,” Watson cites as an example. “Do you know what your market is? When was the last time you truly engaged with this market? Should you do a survey? Attend an industry meeting? Do an Internet search? Ask fellow farmers? Many farmers have joined farm management groups for the opportunity to delve into one another’s operations to identify areas for improvement by sharing beneficial management practices. By working together, the groups simultaneously raise the bar.”

The rubber hits the road

Implementation of the business plan was foremost in the mind of Larry Martin, the founder of Agri-Food Management Excellence Inc (AME), when he developed his agricultural management training programs. 

AME offers two executive management programs. One is CTEAM (Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management) aimed at producers and ranchers, and the other is CFAME (Canadian Food and Agri-Business Management Excellence) aimed primarily at senior managers and executives in the agri-food sector.

Those programs get scored for helping managers achieve change, so it can be useful to look at how they encourage participants to cross the gap between planning and implementation.

“We try to put together programs that help specialists be generalists,” says Martin. “Once you become a CEO or general manager or whatever, you need to look at what are the big functions that you have to worry about if you’re going to be the person in charge of implementing strategies for your business in the most logical way. We are going to help you incorporate whatever you are learning into a strategic operating plan for whatever you are responsible for in your business.”

Each program has four intensive, week-long modules that are held in different cities across Canada and include tours for participants to various farm and business operations, along with the opportunity to speak to managers across different agricultural and agri-food sectors and in different provinces.

CTEAM and CFAME expect participants to come up with a complete business plan for the farm or the area of the business that they are responsible for, but they also provide tangible tools to implement it.

“The most significant thing that we have as part of the planning process is what we call our strategic review document,” says Martin. “It says you are going to have three or four major strategic intents. Then it asks how you are going to implement those strategic intents. Let’s look forward to quarter one — what are the actions against strategic intent No. 1? Who is responsible? What is the timeline? What are the resources that are going to have to be used to make sure it gets done? How do you measure that you did it and what the impact of it was on your outcome? You do this for every strategic intent for each quarter going forward. So you’ve now got your operating or action plan.”

That action plan can form the foundation for daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly planning and review meetings, depending on the business, to make sure things stay on track and are getting done. 

“This is harder for farms where one person is the management team, but it also gives you the opportunity to develop a balance score card, which at a corporate level the board can hold the general manager responsible for, from strategy down to what are we going to do next week,” says Martin.

CTEAM’s modules encompass the themes of setting a vision and mission, strategic business planning, financial management and analysis, human resource management and succession planning including development of contracts and agreements and an examination of public policy, how it affects agriculture and how that trickles down to them at farm level.

CFAME has much the same curriculum but has a greater emphasis on marketing and doesn’t discuss succession, since it’s designed for senior management employees of farms or other agricultural businesses.

There’s even some psychology thrown into both programs with a session that uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment tool aimed at teaching participants how to work as a team and communicate effectively with people to solve problems that may arise from personality conflicts.

Martin knows that networking with peers and other experts can encourage and prompt implementation, and he incorporates this important element into the AME training programs.

“For the most part in agriculture, you’re working alone a lot, particularly if you’re the manager at the business or the farm owner,” agrees Trish Fournier, who took AME training in 2005 in preparation for assuming the role of CEO for Lake Erie Farms at Tillsonburg, Ont., where she has worked since 1999, originally as financial manager.

“You may have employees but you often don’t have a lot of colleagues at your same level that you bounce ideas off,” Fournier says. “What was great about this course was that as a group we were all talking about our businesses and working through the strategic planning process together. We were all learning from each other and seeing what others were doing that was working and what didn’t work, which was very valuable.”

Working as a team

The AME training programs have been in existence in some form since the mid-1990s and were formerly run out of the George Morris Centre at the University of Guelph until Martin and business partner Heather Broughton established AME in 2012 and took over delivery of the programs that Martin developed. An emerging trend over the past few years has been for more members of a farm family or couples to take the training together.

“Many times we are getting more couples, because, from my experience, if both are integral partners in the operation and only one takes the course, it’s hard to take the knowledge home and say this is what I want to do, because if the other partner doesn’t have a basis of understanding of why, it’s really hard to implement it,” says Broughton, who was a past participant herself. “It’s advantageous if all the integral partners in the business can take it, and we are seeing a lot more couples or fathers and their sons and/or daughters.”

Fournier says that being able to step back from the day-to-day operations and see the bigger picture is essential to make sure that you are implementing the right strategies that are going to help you achieve your own targets.

The people you are relying on to help you do that need to see that bigger picture too, Fournier adds. After visiting some Calgary-area businesses during her training and seeing how they were implementing employee engagement strategies because of stiff competition for workers from the oil patch, Fournier has implemented some employee incentives that offer simple rewards, like a pizza party, for employees who come up with some great ideas to help the business in some way.

Fournier also has regular meetings with her greenhouse manager, who in turn meets with his employees to make sure everyone in the company feels more engaged. “We’re constantly sitting down in informal meetings, and once a month we’re looking at the internal financials,” Fournier says. “We’ve got a budget that we put together month by month and we’re comparing what we actually did to that budget and comparing it with the prior year. We’re discussing where there are differences, the reasons why, and what we might do to improve it. I think it’s important that your manager sees the bigger picture because he or she is the one that’s out there working with the employees and making purchases.”

Farmers who take advanced training tend to be serious about wanting to build and grow their business, says Broughton, and it doesn’t matter what size it is. “It’s all about what do you want to do, where do you want to go and how do you want to get there,” Broughton says. “Even if you only have a 1,000-acre farm and want to grow bigger, the course will help you develop a plan to get there. Because it’s your plan and it’s developing the skills you need and learning how to use them.”

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Angela Lovell

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