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The next big step: mid-career mentorship

You’re already smart and dedicated, but is that really enough for today’s challenges?

Adam and Meghan Gregory were succeeding on the farm and continuously improving its performance. Then they asked, is that good enough?

When Adam Gregory signed up for LeaderShift’s year-long national farm leadership program, he didn’t anticipate waking up at the crack of dawn to do group yoga. “Some people were way out of their comfort zone,” Gregory laughs. “I’m open to trying anything, so it wasn’t a hurdle for me.”

There’s more to LeaderShift’s program than the lotus pose. It’s designed to help participants determine their leadership capacity, and then build on that capacity. The program’s website provides quite a list: “We teach practical tools and techniques that help improve critical performance areas such as strategic thinking, navigating complex issues, handling emotional or difficult people (including yourself), developing others and developing your resiliency.”

To do that, crucially, the program links participants with coaches who work with them one-on-one for a year. 

Gregory, who is the second-generation owner and president of Interlake Agri Ltd., a forage seed and processing company in Fisher Branch, Man., knew his business was doing well. He didn’t sign up for the program because his company had reached a crisis moment or because there was a lot of internal conflict or employee turnover — although such reasons are why some farmers have enrolled.

By 2020, Gregory and his wife Meghan had bought the farm from his parents and were in a good place succession-wise. But his ultimate goal is for the business to be employee-run. For that to happen, he knew his leadership skills had to improve. 

And for his leadership skills to improve, he had to look outside his farm business for help understanding his own strengths and limitations, and for support in making changes.

“It was this point in my career where I’d gotten so far and it was going well, but my dad had raised me with this philosophy of continual improvement, and also (the idea) that it was all up to me,” he says. “That was the real initiative to continue to develop myself.”

One of his biggest takeaways from the course was that he needed to work on his awareness of how he acted with employees, family and friends, says Gregory. With help from his coach, Kelly Dobson, he was able to take a step back and identify which traits were positive and which were negative — or “unbalanced.” 

Dobson, says Gregory, “knows who I am, and my challenges. He’s been a good mentor in that sense, helping me learn who I am as a person.” 

Gregory points to two examples of how seeking that outside influence changed the way he runs his business. He learned, for instance, that we don’t all take in information the same way. In other words, we can all hear the same message, but some of us might walk away with a completely different idea. It isn’t that we tried to get it wrong, it’s just the way we process things.

So, at employee staff meetings, Gregory says, he’s newly aware that of the 13 or 14 employees he’s addressing, three or four might understand his message in a completely different way than the others. This means his focus in group meetings is always on being observant and also thoughtful in communicating what he thinks, wants and feels about a situation — following the “experience cube” concept in a leadership development book by Gervase Bushe.

“You’re going to get 80 per cent of the way there by communicating clearly. And then the remaining 20 per cent involves thinking about who you’re addressing,” Gregory says.

Another example of how the program has improved his communication: Gregory has noticed there’s often a gap between management and the general labour force. Most issues stem from poor communication and the way, over time, small issues turn into larger ones, he says — the way a small cut only attracts attention once it’s started to “fester.” 

Now, when this happens his goal is to facilitate discussion between the two groups, remove the emotional baggage and help them understand each others’ experiences. It usually results in clear talking points that correct the problem.

He sought leadership training with self-improvement in mind, but has found it’s been key to initiate a cultural shift in the business.

“Agriculture has some catch-up to do when it comes down to the personal side of things or the communication side of things,” Gregory says.

The real frontier challenge

Dobson says he believes the biggest hurdles facing farmers are not in agronomy or production. The real “frontier challenge,” he says, is in interpersonal relationships, and whether or not farmers will decide to accept a status quo set in place by previous generations or, instead, work on their emotional and mental development to become better farm leaders.

This isn’t to say previous generations had it wrong — but as farming gets bigger, old models need to be updated to reflect that complexity.

“The message for the next generation is that they’re going to have to have the digital acumen and leadership skills,” Dobson says. “That really means this idea of more control over themselves and their nervous systems under stress in a way that their parents didn’t necessarily have to have. They’re going to have to be far more leader-effective.”

Dobson says he’s occasionally openly dismissed by farm advisors who believe the job is about selling solutions to problems such as farm transitions. 

These advisors — and it’s a “big group” — don’t believe people can develop or change, says Dobson. “But if that’s true, then we’re doomed.”

He believes that more and more established farmers are looking for mentorship. “They have a growth mindset and are looking to build networks, and they’re probably already doing it. 

“But I think there’s a much larger group that would like to but can’t bring themselves to do it.”

For a lot of farmers, it’s a full-time job simply managing anxiety about the many layers of farm life they can’t control.

“That anxiety management is what’s driving the bus. Those that figure out how to get past those strong negative emotions, dealing with the fact that they don’t know, or there’s something here they have to learn and they have to be vulnerable about the fact that they don’t know it, and they ask for help. There’s a huge population that’s not up for that.”

The extremely high levels of stress these farmers deal with has less to do with farm management and more to do with leader development, says Dobson.

That’s why he believes one of the reasons why farmers can benefit from mentorship or leadership training is that mentors can offer a line of sight, an external perspective, on larger problems that are so close to home they’re hard to see.

But Dobson says few farmers are going to want to work with a mentor who doesn’t have the “roadwear” or experience in agriculture.

Leader effectiveness

The idea of leader effectiveness being as important as financial literacy to successful businesses still isn’t mainstream in Canadian agriculture. But it’s a hallmark of Canada’s top farms.

According to Farm Management Canada’s 2015 “Dollars and Sense” survey of Canadian farms, the country’s most successful farmers used seven key farm management practices, including using farm business advisors and actively seeking learning and skills development opportunities to meet the business’s changing needs.

Dobson says that in large data sets measuring leader effectiveness, women show up more often with leader qualities like connection, fostering team play and developing others.

Heather Broughton is president of Agri-Food Management Excellence, which runs CTEAM (an acronym for “Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management”), which provides management programs for men and women in Canada. A few years ago, Broughton ran a program in Alberta for the Agriculture and Food Council, funded by Status of Women Canada, called “Success for Women in Agri-Food.” Its goal was to identify barriers female agriculture entrepreneurs face in rural Alberta and to design a program to address those barriers.

Broughton says the women involved in the project identified the need for mentorship very clearly as a key barrier to development. “The women in Alberta said there were a lack of known female mentors. Men were not discluded as potential mentors, but the women felt they didn’t always provide the same link to experiences women shared. The participants said they wanted to hear from women role models.”

In the program designed to address the barriers, Broughton included a mentorship component, but the “pool” of mentors and mentees was not large enough to offer enough potential matches needed to find the right connection between mentor and mentee. 

Broughton is currently designing a new national management/leadership program for women agriculture entrepreneurs that will loosen the idea of mentorship and allow for more peer mentorship, both face-to-face and virtual. She hopes the common goals and shared experiences of participants will help them build trust.

The new program, she says, will take into consideration the fact that many female farm entrepreneurs work on the finance side, often initiate succession discussions, and play other significant roles on the farm that are as key to the business as the production side — but sometimes lack the resources and opportunities to further develop in those roles or take on new ones. The program will offer management and leadership training, and broaden networks and opportunities for both mentees and mentors to connect.

Given that formal mentorship is still an underutilized concept in corporate agriculture, the mechanics of setting up mentorship relationships can be an obstacle. If farmers already feel there aren’t enough hours in the day, will they want to devote even one hour to cultivating a relationship that’s focused just on their personal development? 

Broughton says a formal approach to mentorship might not be the best solution for everyone; for some, peer mentorship will work better. The bottom line is that being open to outside perspectives is crucial if farmers want to take their business to the next level.

“It’s not enough to be smart and work hard, to have a special ability — those are important but they’re entry level and required for the job,” says Dobson. “If you want to farm at scale you’re going to have to partner with other people, which means you’re dispensing control internally and externally. You’re going to have more advisors, mentors. 

“When you’re open, that means other people can tell you, ‘I think there are things you’re not seeing.’”

(Note: Farm Management Canada lists agricultural mentorship programs available across the country.) 

About the author

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Julienne Isaacs

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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