Developing the leaders you need

When farm owners extend their view of employee development farther, much farther, they develop their business as they develop their employees.

person riding brown combine harvester during daytime

Is a job on your farm just a means to a paycheck? Is it just something individuals do until they find something better? If that is the case, you will not likely get anything more than a warm body for rent for a short period of time. That’s not enough. Your business needs much more than that. Your business needs leaders who will take ownership in the operation.

“Yeah, right” is what I hear some say. Maybe it seems so unlikely. Unlikely because of past experience. Maybe unlikely only because you are not working to develop those leaders.

At the 2019 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference held in Frankenmuth, Michigan, two business owners challenged my thoughts on employee development. They have taken it to levels that I didn’t consider. Something that I believe you should consider as well.

Donald DeJong, CEO of AgriVision Farm Management, shared about the training they provide. Training begins during the onboarding period, before employees show up for the first day of work. The goal of training is to create technical experts who do their job very well. But it doesn’t end there.

Training also incorporates soft skills. For example, all employees receive training in basic management and in communication. All employees take part in team building development and becoming better at active listening. Through training the company creates pathways for employees to achieve success in the operation. Successful employees lead to a successful business. DeJong believes that when you invest in new employees with proven instructions you are working to ensure predictable results. That is the goal he is going after.

When Ross Veltema, owner of Top Grade Aggregates examined his industry, he recognized that the top issue that businesses in his industry faced was labor availability. Therefore, he determined to become really good in the area of employee management, and he invested time and money into it.

Potential leaders come from within. Veltema knew that he could not run a multi-site business without leaders. Therefore, he began to develop the leaders he needed. He looks for employees who have shown key characteristics as well as skills. Those who are careful, considering the impact of their actions, and those who are respectful, considering other people, catch his eye. Because leadership means influencing and supporting others, Veltema says that the first step in developing leaders is to get people to stop thinking about themselves first, and instead to think about others. 

DeJong communicates to potential employees about careers, not jobs. He doesn’t just hire someone to work, he offers an opportunity to join a dynamic company. He provides opportunities for every team member to identify a career. The company culture as stated on the website tells prospective employees that: “. . . For our team members, that means an encouraging learning environment with tangible growth opportunities and co-workers that are invested in you and their own personal accountability. . .”

Potential leaders are invested in with even more training during a two-year period. Much of the additional training is in the soft skills, including managing workplace stress, time management and how to conduct an interview. Leaders are expected to learn. Training is offered to develop leaders and expectations are communicated to them. Development and expectations go hand-in-hand. For example, they are expected to read 5 books each year on business leadership from a reading list DeJong provides to managers and supervisors. Reading leads to discussions, which helps develop their thoughts and attitudes.

These two businesses offered leadership development “in house”. What about those who can’t do it in house either because they don’t have the resources or expertise to do so? What about someone like you? Even smaller farms can do things to develop leaders among their team members, such as:

  • Work with other like-minded farms to source trainers.
  • Take advantage of resources available locally.
  • Purchase multiple copies of one book and ask key managers to read it and schedule times to discuss a portion of it and ways it can be applied to the farm.
  • Plan career paths for employees that advance your business while employees advance.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to be “mini-managers”; managers over some function or part of the operation. Start small and increase responsibility after proven success.
  • Develop a peer group to continually challenge yourself to improve.

Be the leader your business needs, not just an employer. Develop others to be leaders in the business as well. Veltema said that because of the investment made in developing leaders, better decisions are made in every area. That is something we all want. Maybe it is time for you to invest the time and effort into people to get that type of results. Maybe it is time to invest in the future of your operation.


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