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Are you a good leader on your farm?

Like never before, your farm needs new leadership for a new business environment. Are you getting the job done? Rate yourself on these five key leadership traits

Quick, name five strengths that farmers need in order to get their day’s work done. It’s simple, right? You need technological, financial, production, and mechanical skills, and of course, we should never forget hands-on experience.

Now, just as fast, list five leadership skills that farmers need for success into the future…

Not so easy, is it?

“Leadership is about change,” says Bob Milligan, professor emeritus of applied economics and management at Cornell University. “And about continually improving.”

Milligan is currently based out of Minnesota as a human resources consultant for large farms, and although there are many ways to be a great leader, he has noticed successful farm leaders all have the ability to embrace change and to lead their businesses through turbulence.

Ironically, one of the big changes in today’s agriculture is that farmers are getting past the misconception that leadership skills are something that you’re either born with or you’re not.

Over the years, Rob Black from the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program based in Guelph, Ont. has taught leadership skills to hundreds of farmers. He says the interest in leadership, board and organization development by individuals and organizations is on the rise, and that farmers apply and learn leadership skills by sitting on boards and volunteer groups.

“Some organizations now have board and individual or personal leadership development as a budget line item, and others have leadership programming for their board members and delegates to participate in,” Black says.

With help from Milligan and Black, Country Guide developed five questions to test yourself. Have you got what it takes to lead your farm business? Or, perhaps even more important, can you identify the leadership skills that you should be prioritizing for improvement?

1. Do you understand the difference between leadership and management?

Understanding leadership versus management, and knowing when to use each is something every farm leader should know. But many don’t, says Black. Instead of only managing the work, the leader of a farm business must also develop and implement vision, culture and strategies for their farm.

There’s no doubt this is different than it used to be, says Milligan, who captures it with a quotable quote: “The progression from worker to manager to leader is the new challenge for farms today.”

Even though leadership may not take the majority of a farm CEO’s time, it’s at least got to be a priority for that person. The leader must get out of bed in the morning thinking about the future of the business, not which field to plant or what cows to cull, says Milligan. That can happen after coffee.

Once a clear vision is shared that lays out why and how the farm is going to reach a key goal, then everyone can succeed at their own role on the farm.

This means that at least one owner must have the future of the farm business as their top priority, with the job of setting goals and making opportunities happen. It also means that this individual must be mentally ready for the unexpected.

Identifying this leader (or leadership team) is imperative, says Milligan. Not everybody is happy thinking at this level, since it doesn’t generate the same immediate satisfaction as tasks, and since it also involves passing control on to others.

Strategic leadership means owners and partners must know why the work they are doing is important, and they must ensure everyone on the team understands it too. They must know the direction the farm is taking to get to this vision, and how the people of the farm are going to behave to make it happen. The strategy needs to align with passion, and with operational excellence, says Milligan. “It should drive and motivate what we do every day.”

2. Do you communicate clearly, especially on difficult issues?

Leaders must be able to put their vision of the future of the farm into clear, understandable words. “Thinking like a CEO means communicating to every member of the farm the vision, mission, and strategy, and enlisting their support in the farm’s journey,” says Milligan.

Farm culture is key, and it is both underrecognized and underappreciated, says Milligan. The person acting as chief executive officer must develop and communicate the vision for how the farm will maintain or return to financial stability, and how it will succeed in future. Then CEO needs to lead the team to fulfil that vision.

The leader of the farm should clearly explain their strategy to everyone — all the employees and family — so the whole team understands the goal and how they are going to get there. It’s also a prime opportunity to listen and learn about new ideas and the potential implications of applying the plan.

Strong leaders understand communication must be two way, and how important it is to listen to feedback. They also know ways to get to the heart of the matter quickly, and deal with conflicts and emotionally charged situations. Leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses and how to adjust the way they communicate according to the situation.

Among other groups, AMI offers a communication skills workshop for agribusiness managers, where participants get tools for tackling challenging conversations and engaging others over the long term more effectively.

3. Do you enjoy working in a team?

In the past, individual farmers made operational decisions for their sole proprietorships. The equation was simple: If you work hard, if you invest and if you are aggressive, it will lead to expansion.

“Primary producers as leaders are more likely to have a work focus rather than a people focus, but both are important depending upon the situation and issue,” says Black.

However, as farms become bigger and more complex, success requires more focus on team-based decision-making. Collaboration results in synergy, so one plus one becomes greater than two, says Milligan. “This is crucial to the leadership team, to all of the farm’s teams, and to the total workforce,” he says.

When we think of historically strong leaders, we often picture politicians or warriors who rallied people to a better future. In small business, being a great inspirational speaker may not be as important as understanding that people are the greatest asset of the farm. These leaders understand one of their most crucial roles is acquiring, developing and retaining a great workforce.

To lead like a CEO, farmers need to establish the expected performance for all members of the team, including members of the leadership team. The group also needs to set ways of holding everyone accountable to those performance levels. “Establish the operating rules for the team and develop a culture of synergy, collaboration and excellence,” says Milligan.

This ability to collaborate extends to the larger industry, including other farmers, trusted sales people, lawyers, and accountants. Black says networking and negotiation skills can be developed to help farmers learn to collaborate.

4. Do you spend any time thinking about time efficiency on your farm?

Time management skills are among the top five skills farmers need today to lead their farms successfully, says AALP’s Rob Black.

Farm leaders need to continually ask themselves and their staffs how efficiency can be gained. It’s important for the leader to understand how all the parts are interconnected on the whole farm, and to have a clear knowledge of work flow.

Farm leaders develop operational plans and procedures to take the business to a higher performance and cost-control standard, says Milligan. He also says that it’s up to the CEO or farm leader to ensure performance management programs are in place and that they are being used so every employee is achieving to their potential.

Leadership skills are also required for smooth, efficient succession, on the farm and in organizations. Rob Black is concerned that not enough young primary producers are taking on leadership roles in organizations when the older ones step back, which is sometimes an issue in an organization or business.

Says Black: “We need to continue to support our young people as they develop their skills and take on leadership roles… in numerous ways, on the farm and off so that they have the time and resources to move forward.”

5. Are you proactive?

“Leaders think ahead and out of the box,” says Milligan. “They see change as opportunity.”

In his experience, successful farms are led by people who are constantly looking for opportunities, even in difficult situations. Leadership must establish a farm business culture that views change as opportunity, says Milligan.

The CEO must always seek and capitalize on opportunities to enhance income or reduce risk by contracting product and inputs. To do this well, they need to understand the external environment, especially the industry and overall business environment.

It’s all part of positioning the farm to withstand or even flourish during transition or the inevitable ups and downs of the market. The consistently successful farmers are on top of two key parts of their farms, ensuring that world-class production and marketing procedures are in place.

They also establish that strong recruitment and selection procedures are in place and that they are used to attract the best possible candidates to open positions, says Milligan.

Being proactive, setting up processes for communicating, and building a team reduces risk and sets up the farm for success. Without someone putting time into this part of the business, it’s difficult to survive through turbulence, says Milligan. “The CEO is the key leadership role of the business, and its absence has been devastating to many dairies, agribusinesses and other small businesses.”

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Senior Business Editor

Maggie Van Camp

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