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Outward-looking business

AME Management: It takes discipline, but an outward focus pays off in more business

Businesses can avoid becoming hamstrung by finding out what customers want instead of focusing on selling what they have.

Have you ever been disappointed that people who work for you don’t take initiative to do what you want done? You don’t feel comfortable getting away for a week because things won’t get done the way they are supposed to? You and the generation ahead of or behind you have ongoing tension that stands in the way of progress in your farm business?

If so, you are not alone. I facilitate a peer group of farm families with a desire to strengthen their internal organizations by improving communications and decision-making. A consultant to one of the farms recommended a series of fascinating books on leadership by the Arbinger Institute. Two are called Leadership and Self-Deception and The Outward Looking Organization.

The books teach a lot about ourselves and our organizations.

Many businesses are hamstrung because they are inward looking. They sell what they have instead of having and finding out what customers want; they may have top-down internal communication and decision-making processes that limit initiative and innovation; they may have employee incentives that drive competition instead of teamwork, or reticence instead of initiative.

Becoming inward looking starts with “self-deception,” not doing something you know you should do, and then rationalizing it by building yourself up and/or tearing someone else down. One employee may have information that would help another do her/his job better, but not share it, even though it would be better for the organization.

The rationales may be that the first person doesn’t want to make the other look good, the first person wants to build up their own reputation, or they think the second person is getting ahead and this will slow their own progress. The self-deception is knowing that the information should have been shared. If other similar actions occur, it leads to an inward culture in which everyone looks out for themselves instead of helping each other achieve the organization’s goals.

Another possibility is that the senior person doesn’t give a junior, whether an employee or the next generation, clear instructions or authority, but rather expects them to do as they are told. It’s self-deception because what is needed are training and small opportunities for the junior to successfully take responsibility. The rationale for the self-deception may be that the senior has years of experience that the junior can’t or doesn’t appreciate, encouraging the senior to take a morally superior attitude. Because the senior doesn’t provide a process for learning and taking responsibility, it allows the senior to villainize the junior and make her/himself a victim because she/he can’t get good help.

Conversely, the junior’s self-deception may be to not acknowledge the senior’s knowledge and not show interest in learning from the senior. Here the rationale is that the senior is over the hill and junior is the victim of senior’s arrogance.

The resulting inward culture fails to attract, retain and prepare for the next generation of management and, most likely, failure to take advantage of opportunities for the business because the senior is spread too thin and the junior doesn’t have the skills.

Types of self-deception that can lead to an inward-looking culture are legion. These are just three examples. The question is, how can we prevent it from happening in our own organizations? How do we change the existing culture to be more outward looking?

The books have some suggestions for how to answer this:

  • Ensure that people in your farm business see the needs, objectives and challenges of others, including those inside and outside the business. Managers and employees need to understand the needs, objectives and challenges of customers, the person to whom they report, others who are parallel to them, and people who report to them. In other words, this means seeing each set of people as people with real goals and problems, not as objects.
  • Once they start seeing people as people, they need to adjust their efforts to be more helpful to them. In the example above, if the senior sees that the junior doesn’t know how to do things, the adjustment may be training and a plan for how the junior can take on additional responsibilities.
  • Once adjustments are made, then people must measure and hold themselves accountable for their impact on others. Following the example above, this means the senior needs to hold her/himself accountable for following through on the training and the responsibility plan, then have measures in place to determine whether the abilities of the junior improve, and provide monetary or equity compensation for it.

I saw a perfect illustration of this in a recent CTEAM class. A grain farmer wanted to increase revenue by adding value. One option was to work with other growers to supply grain, just in time, to area feedlots and hog farms, bypassing the costs of the grain elevator and feed mill system. The issues and opportunities to put the three previous suggestions in place are many: the livestock guys may not trust a bunch of farmers, they may have very specific requirements on quality and time of delivery; the grain guys may not trust each other and have no experience at working together (someone has to invoice and distribute revenue); then there are the transporters, either commercial or part of the grain farmers’ business, who have their own issues in ensuring timeliness; and finally, there are the employees of the grain growers who need to understand what is required and who may have issues that need to be resolved in order to make this endeavour work for everyone.

There is no magic wand which, when waved, will change or improve an organization’s culture to be more outward looking. It requires very hard work on soft skills, often the most difficult to acquire. But in both my CTEAM and management coaching experience there is no doubt that acquiring them opens up opportunities for new business and for internal improvements in efficiency and cost.

Larry Martin is a principal in Agri-Food Management Excellence, which runs the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management (CTEAM) program.

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