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Time to talk: Building teamwork

In this pair of articles, we find all this talk about communication is more than a trend gone wild. It really does pay

When bad farm managers have bad farm teams, they blame bad employees. And sometimes it seems they have a point. I mean, who hasn’t had an employee who never gets down to work, who makes endless mistakes and who constantly gripes with other staff?

But the trouble is, ineffective or inexperienced farm managers can’t see beyond that. They always think they got stuck with the “wrong” people. If only they could hire the “right” people, they believe, then of course their team would be effective, hardworking, and committed. Of course that’s how it would be.

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Too bad it’s not so simple.

The reality is actually this. When you see a farm that seems to have a great team, it was created by a great farm leader

Here’s a key difference. Managers who aren’t team builders externalize blame for problems; managers who are team builders internalize responsibility.

While finding people who align with your needs is a priority, great farm managers recognize the ultimate success or failure of a team rests heavily on their own shoulders. It also rests on their communications skills, their ability to train and manage, and on their desire and their willingness to meet their employees’ needs.

“Being an HR manager isn’t necessarily top of mind for many producers, but it’s one of the most critical components of farming,” says Casey Langbroek, a certified business coach who — because he’s also a founder and partner at a large accounting firm — understands the dollars and cents of good farm management.

Langbroek is both a chartered professional accountant with LLT LLP in Chilliwack, B. C., and a certified business coach with Catapult Business Coaching, devoting most of his time to farmers and farm businesses.

“Successful people management can make or break a business,” Langbroek says.

Effective leadership starts with knowing exactly what it is you’re leading.

“A lot of people say they have a team. But then if you ask them to define what a team is, they kind of fumble,” says Langbroek.

That’s a major problem, he says, because if you can’t articulate how your team works or what it stands for, you’re going to have an awfully hard time building and maintaining the high performance that you need.

So here’s the first lesson. A business team isn’t just a group of people who happen to work alongside one another.

Instead, a real team is a group of people with differing but complementary skills and job descriptions who appreciate that they depend on each other, who share responsibility, and who work together to achieve successes that they celebrate together.

Since that definition is a mouthful, let’s break it down:

A real team isn’t made up of clones. Instead, it’s made up of different parts, different abilities and different perspectives that together make a cohesive whole. Smart leaders hire team members. Yes, you need the core skill set, but you also need high-funcioning teams.

Actually, people management starts with finding the right people to manage. Attracting people who fit well in your farm business, especially given the declining labour pool, can be really challenging. When it comes to deciding who to hire or fire, remember that skill is ultimately much less important than attitude. Skill/knowledge shortages are fixable; a bad attitude is usually less so.

“If you have an ‘A’ player, do all you need to to keep them,” says Langbroek. “If you have a ‘B’ player, train, train, train to make them into or at least marginally close to an ‘A’ player. But, if you have a person with an attitude of entitlement, those people are poison to an organization. It doesn’t matter how desperate you are, get them the heck out of your organization.”

Once you have defined who the right people are, you need to connect them to the right tasks and then — and most importantly — get them all pulling in the same direction. How? The answer is hiding in our definition of teamwork, so let’s repeat it:

A real team is a group of people with differing but complementary skills and job descriptions who depend on each other, share responsibility, work together to reach an end success, and then celebrate that success together.

The first part of the definition describes roles; the second part describes attitude. “Depend,” “share,” “work together,” “celebrate” are outcomes of a united vision and a commitment to togetherness.

For a team to develop commitment to each other and to their goals, each individual must understand and become personally invested in the business’s success, says Langbroek.

“It’s easy for an NHL team to define success because it happens in May or June,” says Langbroek. “One team might say success is winning half their season’s games. Another team might say success is making the playoffs. I’m sure for the Pittsburgh Penguins, their success would have been defined as winning a third Stanley Cup in a row. Exactly the same thing holds true for a farmer too. You have to clearly define what success is, and everyone on the team needs to know it.”

If you’re saying, “But I do tell my employees what I expect done by the end of the day or the end of the week,” you’re missing the key: buy-in only happens when every team member understands and internalizes the 10,000-foot business vision.

“The thing in most ag businesses is that the day’s to-do list — the amount of fertilizer you’re going to spread or how many rows you’re going to plant — all get in the way of the big picture,” says Langbroek.

Sure, all the little details and daily to-dos are key: without them, nothing will get done. But they aren’t vision and they don’t build passionate, committed team members.

“You need everyone on the team aligned to the big goals, whether those goals happen a month from now or 20 years from now. What we’re aiming for is a plan that is one per cent vision, 99 per cent alignment, but to get there you need to be fully transparent,” says Langbroek.

One of the biggest failings in most businesses is that people managers forget to communicate everyone’s roles to all staff. While team members may understand what their boss expects of them individually, they don’t know what others are doing or are responsible for. Not understanding the whole picture is a major hurdle to each employee understanding and committing to the team and the end goal.

Why does good team leadership matter? When they work together, each member of a strong and cohesive team will do more and be more than they could if they worked alone, says Langbroek. Building an effective team has an impact on everything from the culture of the business to employee retention. It affects your business reputation as well as your personal productivity. And at the end of the day, it brings in dollars.

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