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Dairy owners: Leadership is a privilege

Richard E. Stup for Progressive Dairyman Published on 05 May 2017

The words and actions of leaders shape the culture of businesses, families and even societies. Leaders have powerful effects on individuals too, instilling thoughts and behavior patterns that may last for a lifetime. Leadership is a privilege, and it should be exercised with care and attention to how it affects others, both immediately and long term.

I attended a powerful leadership training a few years ago where the keynote speaker asked each person in our group to focus on an important leader from our youth. I recalled Ken Grace, my junior high football coach. Coach Grace was a portly, middle-aged, small-town social studies teacher.

I’m sure Coach Grace wasn’t a football mastermind, and he probably didn’t get paid much to coach junior high football. However, he was an inspirational leader who made a difference in my life.

I remember him coming into the huddle and joking about the big, dumb linemen (I was the right tackle). It just happened our line was made up of the smartest kids on the team with grades the “skill” players could not match; he knew this and used his knowledge to connect with us in his own way.

You see, he cared about us individually, he created a compelling vision for us to achieve as a team, he put us in positions where we could succeed, and he taught us just enough football to win. From his leadership, we learned to care about each other and how we could make ourselves and the team better. We were committed.

We only lost one game in my ninth-grade year, and every player on that team would have run through a brick wall for Coach Grace. I’ve modeled my leadership after Ken Grace for the last 30 years, but he probably has no idea how important he was as a leader for me.

Leadership is like that; you have an influence on people that will shape their lives. A dairy manager recently shared a story about an employee we’ll call Francisco. Francisco started out in the parlor. He was very diligent and thorough in his prep routine, but he simply could not move fast enough to get enough turns through the parlor.

The manager engaged and coached him to try to find a balance between thorough prep and speed, but he wasn’t making enough progress.

Then she had an idea to capitalize on Francisco’s strengths and try him out as a calf feeder. He loved feeding calves, and his conscientious and methodical behaviors were extreme assets in that role. Francisco was on a path toward failure – but his leader, using her caring, communication and engagement, put him in a position that matched his strengths to the job and allowed him to become successful.

Great leaders get to know their employees through observation and conversations about each individual’s strengths, interests and needs. Leaders who fail to engage may miss some of the best talents of their team members.

So how are you leading? How are you shaping your followers’ beliefs, which they will model and pass on to others in the future? I believe there are four essential leadership attributes every follower has a right to expect.

1. Caring. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is an insight attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s the right place for each of us to begin to evaluate our own leadership. Do you care about employees and genuinely want them to grow and be successful?

People quickly discover who cares and who doesn’t, and they won’t follow an uncaring leader if they have any choice. Are you creating an environment where employees know they are valued and support their teammates?

2. An overarching vision. Humans want to be part of something worthwhile. Consider sports fans: What difference does it really make to a typical fan if their team wins the championship?

They don’t get a trophy or a financial bonus; at most it’s a chance for them to celebrate with other fans and spend some of their own money to purchase a new bit of championship memorabilia. So why do they do it? Because sports competition is so compelling. It’s a human drama beginning with the vision of a championship and driven by the emotional drumbeat of victory and defeat on the field.

Great leaders engage employees’ drive to be part of a meaningful story by establishing a compelling vision and setting goals followers can understand and buy in to.

Just tracking somatic cell count over time and sharing the information with employees begins to engage their interest; connecting somatic cell count with their daily actions at work makes it more meaningful; setting a goal for improvement begins to make it compelling. Without a meaningful vision, work is just drudgery. Are you creating a vision and worthwhile goals people can invest their emotions, time and effort into achieving?

3. Communication. Communicating is essential to effective leadership. An employee can’t experience how much his leader cares if that leader has no ongoing communicative relationship with him. In fact, employees often perceive a lack of communication from their leader as evidence of a lack of interest or an uncaring attitude. Some conversations should be about personal matters and getting to know the employee and his or her life outside of work.

Most leadership communication should be about work; after all, that’s really what you have in common. Leaders should spend time engaging in two-way conversations with employees about the vision and goals established for work, reinforcing how an employee’s work is important to achieving goals, actively listening to employee questions or concerns, and encouraging productive performance.

Communicating about the work and results helps to involve employees emotionally and leads them to feel more committed to the business. Have you established open and consistent communications with employees to build relationships and keep them on track, involved and increasingly successful?

4. Ethics. We have witnessed many scandals and ethical breaches in business, politics, sports and other arenas of life. People long to find leaders who are worthy of trust. While unethical leaders surely can enjoy success in life, at least for a time, ethical behavior remains an essential attribute for good leadership.

Ethical leaders keep their word, stick to commitments, don’t claim credit they don’t deserve, protect confidential information, accept responsibility for mistakes, strive to be consistent with organizational values and so on. Leaders who violate ethical expectations will quickly destroy their credibility with employees. Have you modeled ethical behavior and established it as an expectation in your organizational culture?

The four leadership attributes described here – caring genuinely for employees, creating a compelling vision, communicating about results and behaving ethically – are fundamental to leadership. These four do not form a complete list of what it takes to succeed as a leader, but they do form a set of core values I believe all followers have a right to expect.

If you recognize any weaknesses in how you or one of your managers exhibits these four qualities, examine the issue carefully and form a plan to improve the situation. Perhaps it’s a simple lack of awareness that can be corrected with a meaningful series of coaching conversations.

Leadership is a learned set of skills; it is not unusual for a strong individual performer to rise up through an organization and get into a leadership position while lacking some of the skills. Even the four essential skills described here can be learned, valued and improved by a developing leader.

If the problem is deeper, such as a leader who just doesn’t care about employees or cannot form effective work relationships, then more structural change may be needed.

Your teams of employees are followers who have a right to be well led. If a leader in your farm simply cannot or will not practice some of these essential leadership attributes, even if that person is a family member or owner, then he or she should not have the privilege to lead others.

The consequences of poor leadership are just too great: high turnover, discouraged employees and a toxic culture. Bring in a new leader to work with the team, if necessary, or promote someone else who can learn to lead effectively. Chances are the one who lacked leadership qualities was unhappy in the role anyway and may thrive in a different role.

People and teams are at the core of successful businesses. Leadership is like yeast in the organizational bread dough; it determines whether the business falls flat or rises up to be great. Make sure your team has a leader who cares, shares the vision, communicates and demonstrates strong ethics.  end mark

Richard E. Stup
  • Richard E. Stup

  • Owner and Chief consultant
  • Ag Workforce Development
  • Email Richard E. Stup

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