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Find right people to drive farm decisions

Business Basics: Fill your management team with those whose expertise fits the farm’s vision.

October 24, 2022

4 Min Read
female farmer drives the tractor over the field
STEERING DIRECTION: Farms require many different skill sets. It is up to you to find the right person for not only the right job, but also one who can make the tough decisions to keep the operation moving forward.fotografixx/Getty Images

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. There are so many great things to enjoy: fall colors, Thanksgiving, trick-or-treating and Friday night football!

My hometown is small like many of yours. Therefore, many football players are on both offense and defense. Because injuries are always possible, it makes me nervous every time our star quarterback runs headlong into others making a tackle on defense. But that’s just what you do when you live in a small town.

The same can be said for farms and small businesses. A company with 500 employees can let its people specialize and focus in only one area. However, as farmers we get to be procurement manager, agronomist, nutritionist, geneticist, accountant, diesel mechanic, marketing broker, human resources director, tractor driver and countless other responsibilities.

This puts us at a disadvantage as we’re forced to take on roles we aren’t equipped for. We may not have the talents to do a good job in every area, but what’s worse is we don’t enjoy doing them. It’s not our passion.

In his book “Good to Great,” leadership expert Jim Collins writes that people who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus, and they are sitting in the right seats, before deciding where to drive the bus.

In most small family businesses, we assume the players we have to work with are fixed, and we assume we are supposed to drive where we’ve always driven. So we force our people to sit in multiple seats on the bus and hope for the best. We make it work, but it causes a lot of frustration and often we don’t reach our full potential.

Here are a few ways to help you find the right people to fill the right seats:

Assess individual strengths. First, we need to be honest with ourselves about what each of our family members are good at. What do they really enjoy doing, and where do they truly excel? The more you can let them specialize in these areas and find their optimal seat, the more productive they will be. This may leave some seats unoccupied. In reality, outsourcing those roles to professionals can actually make us more efficient.

Consider hidden talent. Do you include your extended family as part of your talent pool? A common mistake in many families is to underestimate the value of hidden talents from off-farm heirs or those dreaded in-laws. Have you ever considered your son or daughter who lives 500 miles away might be a better grain marketer than you are? Emotional attachments to what we produce often cloud our judgment. Could your daughter-in-law who enjoys social media expand your business in new directions you had never considered?

Create free agents. Part of getting everyone in the right seat sometimes requires admitting when someone is in the wrong seat, or shouldn’t be on the bus at all. Just because someone is family should not automatically earn them a seat on the bus. It may seem reasonable putting your son-in-law in charge of your crop production enterprise because he is a knowledgeable agronomist for a seed company, but if he struggles managing people, it’s probably not a good fit. Maybe his seat should be as an agronomy consultant, but not managing the enterprise.  

Evaluate your destination. Every now and then, we need to take a step back and ask if we are really headed toward the right destination. It’s easy to get so busy trying to keep up with daily tasks that we don’t recognize opportunities happening around us. Is commodity production still your best destination? Are there other value-added alternatives better suited to your resources, especially as new family members return to the farm? Have you ever considered other alternatives, or do you just keep doing what you’ve always done?

For small family businesses, there is so much to be done that we are forced to ask our people to take responsibility for lots of areas. This often prevents them from reaching their full potential in their most talented roles. The more effort we put into aligning our team and empowering them to excel in their individual strengths can take our business further than we ever thought possible. 

Tucker is a University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist and succession planner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 417-326-4916.

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