Employees will tell you if you are a leader or a boss

This past year wasn’t an easy one for a lot of reasons. That’s the common theme in talking to farmers.

Sure, some areas fared better than others, but many dealt with a long and drawn out harvest. The fact that there is still crop that hasn’t been harvested sums it up.

A farm I had the opportunity to visit one day really late in November still had about 600 acres left to combine. They use one combine. It was a cool morning, but the forecast was pretty good.

In fact, there appeared to be a string of good harvest days ahead. However, late November is not prime for combining. Shorter daylight and sudden changes to the forecast are realities.

It was later in the morning when I arrived. I know the farm and family really well. The farmer and his spouse farm with their mid-20s daughter. They use casual labour as required and as people are available after working their day jobs. They make it work.

The farmer and spouse were working on adapting a different drive to their header when I arrived. I didn’t expect that any of the casual people would be there helping but wondered where the daughter was, so I asked. The answer was that she was getting her hair cut.

Six hundred acres left to combine, late in November with some fairly significant repairs needed before any combining was going to happen that afternoon and the main employee was getting a hair cut.

I’m thinking that things have changed just a bit on the farm.

It didn’t appear to be a big deal to the farmer: no complaining, no judging. It was just what was happening that morning.

I think that, for many farms and farm families, understanding how leadership applies to and affects farm business performance and the relationships that exist within the family and/or employees is becoming increasingly important.

Many farm families have goals of transitioning the ownership and management of their farm to the next generation. This usually includes the need to expand the business so that it is able to provide a standard of living for another family unit.

Growth is also required for the next generation to be able to actively participate in a management function, typically with some responsibility and related accountability.

Business activity on farms needs to increase to meet both requirements. For this and other reasons, farms are getting bigger.

What is becoming more and more important as farm families work toward their future is understanding how their leadership capacity, or the lack of it, will affect their desired outcomes.

Not all farms are the same. Not all farms are at the same stage in their development. As a result, not all farms have the same need when it comes to leadership. The need is specific to where the farm and farm family are at in their business and personal life cycles.

The farm family I introduced at the beginning of this column is a modest-sized, average operation. Their need for leadership is quite different from a 10,000 acre plus operation. They intend to pass on the farm to the next generation.

Leadership will affect how successful they are at working toward that strategy.

My take-away from the haircut story is clear evidence of an application of leadership. In this case, the farmer and spouse were demonstrating to their daughter that other things are important besides crop in the field.

Getting employees on a 10,000 acre farm to work through a long and difficult harvest — to put in extra time or work in extraordinary conditions — is a different function of leadership.

Someone once told me that the difference between being a leader and a boss can be thought of in terms of how employees perform. Employees who work for a “boss” do their jobs because they are told to do them.

Employees who work for a “leader” do their jobs because they have “bought into” what it is they believe the farm and farm family are working toward. It is a subtle but potentially powerful difference.

Terry Betker is a farm management consultant based in Winnipeg. He can be reached at 204-782-8200 or terry.betker@backswath.com.

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