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Farm CEO: Develop leaders, not labourers

Allowing people to safely struggle is good. Let them know you are there for support, but they’re expected to figure it out and get it done

Part of having an executive mindset on the farm is developing others. Developing others might seem like a basic function of management, which it is, but I want to emphasize that I’m not just talking about teaching basic farm skills but actually developing people’s judgment and ability to make good decisions independently — to effectively lead themselves.

Hiring for “fit” sounds ambiguous, but I have come to learn that “fit” is invaluable in creating a positive farm culture that persists even when I’m not around. “Fit” means the employee possesses and practises the core values of the farm that make everyone work together.

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I want to share some of what I’ve learned and what experts have asserted.

People want (i.e. value) autonomy

The kind of people who are engaged and enjoy the unpredictable nature of agriculture enjoy the variety it offers. Leverage that, don’t suppress it. If people are willing to work extra hours and weekends, allowing them flexibility to partially control their own schedules is a huge perk and affords them the power to build in their own work/life balance.

This also goes for deciding how tasks should be executed. Allowing an employee (including a family member) to decide how to complete a task is part of having autonomy. So is solving their own problems.

If giving autonomy to employees seems idealistic and not realistic — check your mindset. If you believe your people won’t make good decisions or get the work done on time, or if you think they won’t be able to solve their own problems, ask yourself:

  • What have I done to contribute to this situation?
  • Have I been clear about what I want instead of what I don’t want?
  • Have I clearly communicated the task’s importance in terms of its connection to the big picture?
  • Have I clearly communicated what success looks like, and shared my positive experience of their success?
  • Have I shared my wisdom?
  • Does this person want what I want?

If you have negative feelings surfacing around trust, ask yourself, “Has this person given me a reason to not trust them? If so, why are they still working for me?”

If you are anxious about their safety or their knowledge and experience, think about ways to support them without making decisions for them. The cell phone camera in both still and video modes has been invaluable in supporting decisions remotely.

Not sure if the monitor is reading correctly? Send me a picture. Not sure if the outfit is doing the right job or sounding right? Record a video.

Allowing people to safely struggle is good. Let them know you are there for support, but they’re expected to figure it out and get it done.

Acknowledge, allow, accept and appreciate the learning vs. performing paradigm

When people are learning, they tend to not perform very well. Productivity will be lower, time will be wasted and mistakes will be made. The job of the farm CEO is to manage this paradigm.

I regularly ask myself, “How can I incorporate learning into this activity?” Bin checking becomes an inventory, marketing and cash-flow lesson.

High performance usually means mastery — and time to transition to higher responsibilities.

If all of this makes you tense, ask yourself, “What’s at risk if I don’t develop others? How am I going to be able to transition out and keep the business viable? What if I were hospitalized for six weeks?”

As the leader, do I have the right mindset?

Fostering autonomy and learning in others requires that I be able to let go of thoughts and beliefs around perfection, competitiveness, and “the right way is my way.” The benefit is that it creates a more flexible work environment and it frees the farm CEO to work on their business instead of in their business, including taking a break away from the action when we never thought we could. And yes, when the time is right, it will help us transition out too.

Kelly Dobson [email protected] is chief leadership officer of LeaderShift Inc., powering the National Farm Leadership Program initiated by Farm Management Canada for farmers and farm advisors in January 2020.

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