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Up to the job

You’re home for the summer. Now, how are you going to show Mom and Dad that you’re a safe bet for taking over the farm?

It’s a phrase that means just what it says. Leadership succession is real, and it’s catching on. If your succession plan only looks at how the financial picture will unfold down the road, that’s not enough. Increasingly, it’s clear that it has to deal with who can handle what responsibilities too.

Are your kids up to the job? How can you know?

And here’s a question for the kids. What are you going to do today that will prove to everyone that you’ve got the attitudes, the commitment, and the talent for developing the skills that the farm is going to need?

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So much is riding on the line. That’s why the successful transfer of the farm to the next generation (read “millennials,” who are about 19 to 31 right now) also involves the dedicated and thorough transfer of leadership skills.

Yes, you need leadership in the field and the barn, but you also need it in managing the financials, HR, marketing and much more. And on top of it all, you need insight into the critical strategic decisions that will shape the farm’s future, like expansion and diversification.

But how is anyone going to assess that?

“Building leadership in the young is an important topic with the demographic changes that are happening in the farming industry,” says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director at the Canadian Agri­cultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC). “There is going to be significant turnover in business leadership in all sectors of our economy.”

To successfully transition farm business leadership to the younger generation, the 20-somethings who want the farm must obviously be willing to take on more and more responsibility. Their parents, in turn, must provide them with the opportunity to take on increased duties and decision-making as time passes.

It’s not just about ramping up responsibility, however. The older generation must also provide assistance so the younger can properly handle those opportunities.

“Succession is a long-term journey and to do it well, you have to coach them along that journey,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “They need the opportunity to grow and learn and develop their leadership skills, but they need help on the way.”

Get started right

Leadership and management professor Sean Lyons at the University of Guelph has studied millennials in the workplace for some time. When asked for his best advice for farming parents to coach their millennial children, Lyons says the toughest message may be about letting go.

“Learning requires room to make mistakes,” he asserts, echoing the thoughts of MacDonald-Dewhirst. “A coaching perspective, rather than a highly directive one, means that the parent gives their child latitude to try new things and encourages them to reflect on how it has worked, rather than trying to impose a specific viewpoint.”

Lyons acknowledges that it can be incredibly difficult for parents to stand by and watch as someone makes choices that are very different from the ones they’d make, particularly when their choices are guided by a wealth of experience. “But it’s important to remember that times change — technology, customers, business models all evolve — and it’s important to be open to moving forward.”

But for millennials who want to take over the farm, Lyons reverses his advice. Yes, it can be tricky to convince parents to trust new ways of doing things, which is why millennials need to learn how to convince their parents that it can pay off.

Which takes us to a crucial point, he says. “The ability of a millennial to listen actively to members of older generations also demonstrates a concerted form of leadership.”

“My advice is that the generational tension should not be the ‘elephant in the room’ that nobody talks about,” Lyons concludes. “Both generations should engage in an open discussion about their values — what’s important to them in the way the farm is led — as well as their relevant strengths and weaknesses. When millennials approach the conversation from a focus on values and strengths, it’s a much more productive conversation than when the argument is phrased as ‘right or wrong’ or ‘my way versus your way.’”

To properly train the next generation, older farmers must be cognizant of how millennials think and what they need to be successful.

In an article called “Why Millennials Keep Dumping You: An Open Letter to Management,” author and speaker Lisa Earle McLeod and her daughter Elizabeth (a millennial) share insights about what top-performing millennials want.

Among other things, they urge us to remember that millennials were raised to believe they can change the world, and that they need “to be surrounded by people who are ‘on fire’ for the work.” Millennials also need managers who are “motivated to push boundaries and think differently.”

Coach, don’t give orders

Of course the older generation must provide tips and how-tos, but they must also serve as sounding boards, suggest strategy options and more. “Coaching has been shown in many industries to be critical in success of the young person, and also for ensuring that they stay in the position,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “They have to be supported to thrive and grow, or they will leave the farm.”

However, not everyone is a natural coach. “Farmers have run their farms for years and do things automatically and are not necessarily realizing all that they do and all that needs to be explained,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “They have to be aware of this and give the information to the young leader-in-training. It’s about giving the process of leadership building their time and energy.

“It really does sound common sensical but we have to remember, farmers are extremely focused and busy running the farm. However, they need to carve out the time for this important activity. And the young leader in training needs to realize this as well. Building their leadership skills is an ongoing task that they need to make room for, in addition to learning about production and so on.”

An understanding of how the broader business works is also critical for young leaders to succeed, notes MacDonald-Dewhirst. “This process is more formalized in other industries and in big corporations, where leadership talent is identified and those young people are moved around within the company and exposed to all aspects and gradually given the training and leadership opportunities,” she says. “Of course, not all companies do it well. It takes time and energy. It’s a strategic investment in the future, and you have to have your eye on the long-term prize.”

That’s where farmers have a kind of advantage, she notes. Farmers know they have to think about the long term. They intuitively know that the future needs thinking about.

Now, they have to convert that intuitive knowledge into a form of action plan that they will commit themselves to. It isn’t only the younger generation that needs to show commitment. Both generations do.

Still, the process of leadership transition can’t be rushed. “It’s not going to work if you overwhelm the young person,” MacDonald-Dewhirst says. “You need a training plan that’s balanced, not one that you’re trying to jam into two months. There’s a lot to successful farm business management.”

Outside training

Of course, young farmers can’t expect that all their training will be completed on-farm. “This is an industry where those opportunities (for leadership and management training) already exist and they are getting more numerous and better all the time,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “There are many important things that can and should be learned from outside the farm, including best HR practices.”

MacDonald-Dewhirst is among many who believe the use of online tools and technology are great assets during the process of leadership succession. She says the farming community is very fast at adopting production-related technology and that’s now being transferred to other areas of business operation such as HR management.)

CAHRC’s “AgriHR Toolkit,” first published 10 years ago and constantly being updated, is a mixture of instructions, case studies and specific tools for every situation related to recruitment, management and retention of employees.

The toolkit costs $99 per year but various ag industry associations provide membership discounts. There is also an HR Management Basics online training course.

There are also two programs currently running in Saskatchewan to help turn young farmers into leaders, one established and one brand new. The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan’s Youth Leadership and Mentorship Program was established in 2014 and “aims to help young producers gain valuable experience, take advantage of networking opportunities, and develop the skills necessary to become a future industry leader.” Participants are matched with a farm leader over the age of 40 in a mentee-mentor relationship.

Brand new is a mentorship launched by the Canadian Western Agribition in February 2019. In the Next Gen Agriculture Program, eight successful applicants have just begun an 18-month “mentorship experience that includes industry knowledge, advocacy, business education, networking, board and governance training and social connections.” It aims “to create a community of graduates with a deeper understanding of agriculture, business, community, leadership and advocacy for the industry.”

In Ontario, more than 150 farmers recently participated in a training program to develop their supervisory and management skills — the basics of hiring, developing interview questions, writing job descriptions, selecting employees and conducting performance evaluations.

Dr. Sara Mann, professor of leadership and strategic human resource management at the University of Guelph, and her colleagues helped develop the program as part of their work to help farmers get value from investing in HR, with a focus on how HR practices in the agriculture sector can be improved. Stay tuned for a close look at these programs and others across Canada in an upcoming issue of Country Guide.

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