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Leadership on the go

What does it take for farmers like Saskatchewan’s Bernie McClean to make themselves into better business leaders?

"I look to every board member I’m involved with as mentors. I am learning as they are learning,” says Bernie McClean.

Growing as a leader takes stretch goals, and it takes finding out about your weaknesses and strengths. It might also take consciously building a network of smart, capable people, and finding mentors and role models to look up to. Plus it takes learning how to really listen, and how to be really heard. And none of it happens without the right attitude.

In school, Bernie McClean was like a lot of other farm kids. He was the quiet boy in the back, watching and learning but hardly showing signs of leadership potential.

“If anyone had told me 10 or 15 years ago that I’d be on ag boards, doing what I’m doing, I’d never have believed them,” says that school kid, now 41 years old. “I’m glad that some people saw the potential in me, that I’m able to contribute, and I’m excited for the future of agriculture.”

McClean grows about 1,500 acres of canola, wheat, oats, barley and hay. He’s also a director and the research chair for SaskCanola, and he is currently vice-president of the Canadian Canola Growers Association (CCGA).

Bernie and Cara McClean farm near Glaslyn, a couple hours northwest of Saskatoon, but it wasn’t always the classic tale of farm kid becomes farmer.

They had started their family early and only with the help and encouragement of an outside person were both Cara and Bernie able to complete college. After a few years they bought three of the family’s four quarters from his family. Along with Cara’s parents, they got involved with a custom combining business but soon found it too competitive to break into and moved to custom hauling grain across Western Canada.

Over the next decade, they slowly bought some acres. By 2005 they had a family of three and still hoped to someday be able to farm full time. McClean pulled back the trucking business to hauling only local grain in a partnership with a friend.

Those trucking years taught him a lot about business, and gave him hundreds of opportunities for conversations with farm customers talking about agronomics and marketing. Those by-the-auger chats taught him how to talk and listen to strangers and not to be afraid to ask questions.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, those networking skills would come in handy for his later board work and also for his farm. He was learning leadership skills, without trying to be a leader. “Every farm stop I’d talk to the farmers and try to glean information about farming,” says McClean. “For a shy kid, now I can get around a crowd and have conversations.”

By 2011, the McCleans’ dream came true — over the years they had accumulated 13 quarters of land and with better prices, they could finally forgo the trucking business. Since then, McClean has connected with a local farmer to form an equipment-sharing partnership for a roller and sprayer, and recently their oldest son has become interested in farming.

Knowing the power of working toward a goal and deeply understanding the challenges that many new, young farmers and other businesses face has helped McClean contribute a much needed perspective on commodity boards. “In the future we are going to have to continue to deal with high equipment, land, seed costs,” he says. “But our industry is already quite highly leveraged. If interest rates go up one per cent, two per cent or three per cent, it could be devastating.”

When he says this, McClean’s voice wobbles slightly with authentic pain from the hard-fought lessons he learned during the late ’90s and early 2000s. This is a touchstone place for him and probably part of his ability to see the proverbial glass as half-full even when others can’t.

One of the lessons he learned from those lean years was how important it is to surround himself with other positive people. He has found that’s a commonality he has with the other people on the boards with which he’s been involved. “They tend to be positive solution finders, even in bad situations,” he says.

“For that reason, I’ve enjoyed it personally and it has helped our farm.”

Build relationships

When his friend and former agronomic adviser, Errin Willenborg (now on staff with SaskCanola), first suggested he run for a director position, McClean admits he felt intimidated.

“I don’t think of myself as a leader,” he says. “I needed encouragement to move into my new role in agriculture.”

"For a shy kid, now I can get around a crowd and have conversations,” says the transformed McClean. photo: David Charlesworth

However, when he stepped up to the challenge, he found the motivation and mentoring came from the others who had also risen to the challenge. “I looked around at the people sitting around the boardroom and it’s a group that I look to as leaders,” he says. “I look to every board member I’m involved with as mentors. I am learning as they are learning.”

Because he could never afford the cost or time away from the farm to develop these leadership skills formally at courses, McClean has learned about leadership mostly from mentors. It doesn’t have to be complicated, he says, but it does have to come from a sincere desire to improve. “I’ll just call them up and ask them what I can do better,” he says.

During the process of asking he also built relationships with some strong leaders, which happens to be a key requirement to getting things done and building bigger and more influential networks.

For example, one of McClean’s mentors is Jack Froese, president of the CCGA. When McClean was asked to represent the CCGA on a trade mission to China, he asked Froese to introduce him to the federal minister of agriculture at an event in Ottawa before they left.

Then, on the way to China, standing in Vancouver airport, he bumped into the right honorable Lawrence MacAuley and his wife, Frances Elaine O’Connell. Since they had already met, McClean started a friendly conversation. It’s all about building relationships, he says.

Those relationships are built in person-to-person conversations, even in places where culture and government are much different than in Canada. “In China we have a huge opportunity to expand canola’s markets,” he says.

In November, McClean and a few other CCGA board members attended a lobby day on Parliament Hill. They divided into small groups and met with individual MPs to discuss agricultural issues. “I actually felt the strength of the voice of the farmer is real. It’s a real thing… I didn’t realize it until I got involved,” he says.

The need for the voice of farmers to be heard was the catalyst for one of North America’s most respected agricultural leadership programs, California Agricultural Leadership Foundation (CALF). Almost 50 years ago the program was born and funded when the political system in the state became population-based instead of representation by county. The organizers and sponsors wanted politicians and the public to continue to hear rural and farmers’ voices, needs and opinions.

Today CALF has nearly 1,200 alumni. President of CALF, Barry Bedwell, is an alumnus and says the most powerful part of the program is the statewide network that has developed, from not only within individual classes but also from year to year. “We are now connected to discuss issues, to find resolution,” he says.

In a state where over 400 crops are grown and the political arena seems loaded with notoriously erratic ideas, these agricultural leaders tend to support each other and stand up for the whole industry, not just their own farms. “Alumni work together on a long-term basis,” says Bedwell. “It’s the return on investment that’s expected from the program.”

It is becoming more important to teach leaders how to have a respected voice to get agriculture’s message out to the public. Bedwell has found in the political realms today, it also helps to have spokespeople with more diverse backgrounds. About a third of CALF’s current class is women and about a quarter are not Caucasian and all are from a wide variety of sectors.

Being able to stand up and clearly state a position is one of the key skills McClean has needed for his position on boards. He says it’s sometimes difficult, but he’s getting better at it. The only training in public speaking he has had was a course at college but at the time he thought it was a skill he’d never need in the future.

Time is money

Like many farmers, time constraints are also a real problem for McClean, with some hefty travel distances to meetings. Committing months, even years, to a leadership training program has been out of the question.

Furthermore, he has found many shorter non-agricultural leadership training opportunities conflict with his farm’s intensive seasonal schedule. Mandatory sessions during spring or fall simply don’t work for him and these programs tend to be on the weekends, which works well for non-farm businesses but just doesn’t matter to farmers.

To counter this very practical problem, many agricultural organizations have moved to conference calls, online video meeting formats, and video-leadership training.

However, for board work, McClean prefers to be in the room with the other decision makers, to see body language and to hash out solutions in the group. It’s about group dynamics driving creativity, inclusiveness and involvement.

Besides, he says it’s easier to hide at the end of the phone line than around a boardroom table. “I love to get the conversation started, to throw an idea in and ask questions,” says McClean.

And then there’s the cost. Financially, many leadership training opportunities are out of reach for farmers like McClean, especially during the building phase of their farms and families.

Today, the CALF program stretches over 17 months (originally it was three years) and includes national and international travel. Every year 24 people, about half from farms and the other half from associated agricultural businesses, are selected and fully funded, which equates to about $55,000 for what Bedwell describes as a master’s-level program.

To be selected to participate in the program, they must be already showing some community activity and intent for leadership. “We are trying to make better leaders who are more influential,” says Bedwell.

Better leaders, better farms

According to the International Association of Programs for Agricultural Leaders, Michigan pioneered the first statewide agricultural leadership program in 1965, and subsequently 40 states and seven other countries have established similar programs. This includes the Ontario-based Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program or AALP.

However, the CALF program is different, says Bedwell because it isn’t advocacy or issues orientated. Instead it teaches people how to better influence the processes.

One of the core parts of the program is teaching emotional intelligence (EI), a term popularized by the 1996 book by psychologist and former New York Times science journalist Dan Goleman.

Because EI is about personal development, Bedwell has noticed every individual gets something different out of CALF. The topics include everything from succession planning to conflict resolution and are taught at four different campuses throughout the state. “We try to grow leaders who make a difference,” says Bedwell. “… better farms, better businesses, better personal lives.”

Being self-aware is about understanding his own weaknesses and strengths. McClean’s leadership is an area where he needs to improve, but he feels that the nature of farm politics ensures that directors contribute their best. “I feel deeply responsible when representing other growers,” he explains.

There are benefits at home too, he says, in part because work within boards and organizations teaches great lessons about focus. Says McClean, when he thinks of the farm, “We still need to lead, to set a vision.”

About the author


Maggie Van Camp is BDO national agriculture practice development lead, co-founder of Loft32 and CEO of Redcrest Farms Ltd.

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