A partner of mine once explained to me – “As farmers, we are really good at finding more work, but we are really poor at finding people.”
The context of our discussion was around maintaining a growth mentality and how most primary producers measure growth in acres, rather than in “freedom of time”, which I found out a few years later is what growth should really mean.
In agriculture, we have this concept of “rugged individualism,” or the idea that as entrepreneurs, we need to succeed or fail on our own. In a good year, we take all the accolades. In a bad year, we carry all the burden. Therefore, most farms are below average when it comes to human resources and people management. The truth is, the adoption of working in teams, delegation, and leverage have moved forward at a much higher pace in other industries. The number one ceiling farms run into when it comes to growth is that they are unable to build the teams necessary to sustain the increase in scale.
For me, the concepts of delegation and leverage were not easy lessons to learn. I believed that the way I did things was always the best, and I did not have the trust factor to allow others to improve upon my thoughts. It wasn’t until my own businesses started hitting their ceilings of growth that I had to shift my mindset. This is when I discovered that growth could also add up to more available time. To quote Steve Jobs, “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
For most, the concept of growth is seen as adding additional work. However, by growing we can expand our investment in humans and reduce the amount of work we endure as individuals. Primary producers of today must be the CEO, the CFO, the lead operator, the janitor, and sometimes all of them in the same day. Through growth, we can expand our teams to cover the roles that fit their unique abilities, leaving us with the freedom of time to identify new opportunities and ultimately, spend more time with our families and doing the things we love.
This shift in mindset is one thing I did not count on as an agriculture consultant. I naively believed that most of my services would be related to financial matters. However, the industry has seen a shift as farms have consolidated, and the need for people has increased. Now, a large portion of my time spent on consulting revolves around human resources, core missions and values, accountability, and performance management. Farms have grown at a faster rate than the labour force, and now they are either short on labour, or have a team that was built out of necessity, rather than focusing on quality.
So, as a farm, what are the main concepts or tools necessary to improve on people management?
- Farming as a Career – In business, a clear career progression path for employees is necessary if we want to retain them. This is no different than on a farm. If you hire a rock picker, and they believe that they will always be a rock picker within your organization, then you will not retain that employee for very long. When I started in public accounting, I knew what my career path looked like. Essentially, it was a straight line from student to manager to partner. This not only created motivation and a clear goal to work towards, but it also showed me what my career could look like. On farms, we should be encompassing these same principles. There should be a clear trajectory from a rock picker to a lead operator, to a manager of people, to an owner or equity shareholder of an enterprise. This is how you create a retention strategy. For those farms that don’t have a succession to the next generation, this is also how you create a retirement plan for your workforce.
- Industry Comparability – Too often, we value employees on the farm as a cost, not as an investment. Then, we attach a wage based on cost minimization. What other business hires based on finding the lowest wage earner possible, then puts them on a piece of machinery that is worth more than most home mortgages? As entrepreneurs, we need to hire the right people, pay a competitive wage, and identify the return on investment. Better operator, lower repairs, less losses, stronger technology understanding. There are numerous returns that good people can bring to an organization, farms just need to quantify these and treat their people as an investment, rather than a cost.
- Performance Management – When I started in public practice accounting, my first week was spent reading policy manuals, learning the technology and software, and setting goals for myself. For most primary producers, the idea of goal setting and forward planning is foreign. However, when it comes to people management, it is imperative. Not only does it provide your employees with a roadmap to success and motivation, but it also provides you with a gauge of which employees are worth retaining. In agriculture, I have often heard it said that we like to “hire fast, fire slow.” When the road to success with people is “hire slow, fire fast,” quality will always trump quantity
- Education – The historical management technique of “do what I say” no longer works with today’s workforce. As primary producer operations become more complex, the education component for both management and employees is imperative. Tying this back to farming as a career, the more education we provide employees, the higher the return on investment the operation will receive. This can be as simple as machinery clinics or as complex as university courses, depending on the needs of the farm. As a bonus, there are several government grants to assist with the costs associated with education and training.
When it comes to growth, I now believe in the freedom of time. In fact, there are days that I arrive at work, and I am probably the least important person on site. My team has provided me with this luxury, and now my goals have changed from production to visualization. In other words, I am working on the business now that I am not in the business. If more primary producers adopt this concept, I believe that the industry will grow at a rate that will allow us to achieve our collective goal as farmers of feeding 9 billion people.