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Is your work ethic working against you?

Getty/iStockphoto work life balance road sign
SET UP FOR SUCCESS: Hard work is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to create for yourself a sustainable competitive advantage.
New Year’s resolution: Make time to work on business, risk management skills.

Of all the New Year’s Resolutions on your list, I’ll bet “work harder” is not one of them. Farm families work awfully hard already. So what I’m going to suggest may sound a little goofy.

Is hard work holding you back?

Before you light up my cell phone, let me explain.

Growing up on the farm, having a work ethic was central to our farm’s mindset. My sisters and I got that from our father and mother; your story is likely similar. You did chores, baled hay, moved cattle, disked fields, and hauled grain in from fields, sometimes night and day, without question. We took three family vacations when I was growing up, which sounded luxurious to my friends who milked cows. Vacation? What’s that?

Hard work is how you get ahead, right? Well, it might be how you get things done, but it’s not how you get better at business. Farming is competitive, complex, and constantly changing. If you spend all your time working and little time networking, listening, thinking through a strategic plan, or learning how to improve yourself, the innovators will run you over.

Is it possible we spend so much time working in the business, that we neglect working on the business?

“The biggest impediment to the future of the farm is a good work ethic,” says Dean Heffta, a consultant and business coach with Clarus Results in Peoria. “Hard work is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to create for yourself a sustainable competitive advantage.”

Heffta says he knows plenty of people who wouldn’t put in the hours, who were too lazy, who weren’t disciplined – and they all failed at farming. As expected. He also knows people who consistently worked fingers to the bone 80 hours a week, milking cows, raising beef cattle, minding crops -- who also lost their farm.

Hard work does matter. It’s a necessary element. But hard work in itself isn’t enough.

“What you have to do is figure out is, how do I leverage my amazing work ethic, which is necessary to be successful, with the leadership needed to pursue opportunities that can increase the strength of my business? You’ll need to work a little less so that you can make time to do this.”

I can practically see your eyes rolling at this point. I get it. As farm kids it was ground into us that the number one thing that mattered was putting in the hours. The assumption was, if I work hard enough, good things will happen. You felt a sense of pride that, hey, I’m not one of those farmers who galivants around the countryside to hobnob with other farmers at these self-improvement management workshops.

Well, maybe you should. At least explore what’s out there. Maybe it’s TEPAP (The Executive Program for Ag Producers), or the Farm Futures Business Summit, or a peer group, or a night class in marketing at the local community college. Maybe it’s an online extension course.

Sure, maybe you’ll learn just enough to be dangerous. But isn’t it better to start realizing what you don’t know and start whittling away – especially young farmers?

By staying home you’ll never determine how good you are compared to others. Or how good you need to be to truly be a master risk manager. Heffta tells the story of the local hotshot pool shark who could beat all his buddies, so he decided to try out for the state tournament – and promptly got his clock cleaned.

Now that’s benchmarking.

“To understand where you are as a manager you have to go have conversations, hang out with people who may be better than you,” says Heffta. “That might be a peer group. It might be attending workshops. The world is full of people who are eager to teach you what they’ve learned.”

New year, new challenges

It’s a new year and no doubt we’ll face new challenges. Black Swans seem to lurk around every corner of the farm gate. Instead of just working harder in 2022, get down off the tractor and carve out some real time to assess you and your farm team’s strengths and weaknesses. Get around people who challenge your assumptions. Let your farm board or other business associates provide candid feedback on everything from financial management to communications. Once you determine weak areas, commit the entire farm team to building up those skills in the next 12 months. Write down and agree on a path to achieve those goals.

Those who win at farming don’t just do it with muscle. They also win with their minds.

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