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0207 PD: Jim Henion talks about supervisory skills for dairy managers

Published on 06 February 2007

This month Cooperative Resources International’s (CRI) director of consulting services Jim Henion will release the final installment of a recent DVD series called “Supervisory Skills for Managers.” Henion has spent the last three years crisscrossing the country to interview dairy producers about management.

He videotaped his interviews with nearly 50 dairy producers in 19 states during production of the series. Producers discussed management issues such as recruiting, hiring, motivation and teamwork.

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Henion agreed to talk with Progressive Dairyman about his experiences while working on the project. He has also submitted written summarizes of the series’ topics for republication. The first of these summaries appears on page 17 of this issue.

What is the impetus behind creating the “Supervisory Skills for Managers” DVD series?

In the last 35 years that I’ve worked with dairy producers, I’ve increasingly heard them make the point that anymore the industry is not so much about milk and cows as it is about managing people, particularly as farm sizes have gotten larger.

I know that supervising is an area that a lot of people, in particular new supervisors, struggle with. Generally, someone who is an outstanding individual performer becomes a supervisor without a lot of training about management. In my workshops and training with dairy groups, the issues of supervision and managing people have been coming up more and more. That prompted me to do the series.

Interestingly, producers were very gracious, and they generally said, “I don’t know why you want to talk to me. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing either.” But when I sat down with them there was a tremendous amount of wisdom that came from these people who have actually been there, done that and tried to describe some things that are working for them.

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This is a huge need. We’re talking about dairies now that start at 300 to 400 cows. I’ve talked to people with 10, 20, 50, 100 employees. It’s a whole different career compared to going out and doing the work yourself.

I know in my own case the first supervisory workshop I went to was at a local college. There were 20 to 30 people there, and somebody asked the guy teaching the course, “How many people do you supervise?” And he said, “None.” It hit me then that there are some people out there teaching about supervision who have never done it. So the idea of going out to farms and actually asking people what they’ve learned and what works, what doesn’t work or what they would do differently, seemed like a whole lot better approach than any other.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for great individual performers who are making the switch to management?

I think so much of the supervisory challenge is a mindset or mentality change. It’s realizing that you can no longer do the work yourself. I interviewed one guy who said, “You make the change from doing the work yourself to getting other people to do the work.”

I think a lot of supervisors struggle by thinking, “Well, they’re not doing it my way,” or “That’s not the way I would have done it.” It becomes more of a challenge to set goals, tell people what the farm is trying to achieve and make sure they have the tools and the training. Then you just have to recognize that people do things in their own way. Many times they are just as effective, if not more effective, doing it their way as the way you would have done it.

To me, the most important thing I’ve ever learned personally as a supervisor is: You cannot be successful as a supervisor unless you have successful people working for you. In other words, it’s not about you it’s about the people. That means, therefore, that the most important responsibility that I have as a supervisor is to help my people be successful.

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In doing workshops around the country, that always comes as a blinding flash of the obvious, so to speak, when producers realize that the only way they can be successful is if their employees are successful. A lot of supervisors haven’t grasped that point. They think it’s still about themselves. And it’s not. It’s about the employees they have working for them. If your focus is on helping them to be successful, then that means training them and coaching them and even correcting them when necessary.

It’s all about helping people be successful. I think a lot of people view that as a threat to their own security. I had one guy make the point that you have to be very secure in your position. He said, “If they get so good that they don’t need you, then you’re probably on to something else. You shouldn’t see that as a threat.”

How many interviews have you done and how many miles did you travel to complete this project?

I actually conducted my first interview in New York on Nov. 16, 2001, and my last one I completed on Dec. 1, 2007. I’ve interviewed almost 50 people in 19 different states in a three-year period. I don’t know how many miles I’ve traveled.

For each of these interviews, of course, I set up my video camera across the desk or out in the paddock or wherever. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover in an hour’s worth of tape. So I’d say I’ve got 50-plus hours of tape that I’ve tried to squeeze down into eight DVDs, each which are about 45 minutes in length.

Why do you feel it was important to sit down with dairy producers face to face?

I have a tremendous amount of respect for individuals that are running their own businesses and trying things that are sometimes two steps forward and one step backward. There are a lot of hardworking people in the United States that are running farms. They are trying things, and if it doesn’t work, they try something else. There is collectively a tremendous amount of wisdom out there.

One thing I remember about one of the first farm cooperative board meetings I ever attended 35 years ago was the president made a comment that stuck with me. He said the one thing he could do that would make him the most money would be to leave his own farm, go down the road and see how people do things. I think whether it’s talking about reproductive problems or nutrition or personnel management the best thing that producers could do is get off their own farms and go talk to other people who face the same challenges as they do.

Needless to say, that’s not very practical for most people. So that’s why I took it upon myself. I said, “I’m going to spent three years crisscrossing back and forth across the country. I’m going to sit down with these folks and find out what’s working and what’s not. And I’m going to assemble that into a training resource that everyone could benefit from.” It would not be practical for people to go visit these 50 farms themselves, so this project brings those 50 farms to them.

I just sat there for all of these interviews and marveled at the wisdom, knowledge and commonsense of these producers. And I thought to myself, “Boy, if I had had the benefit of this resource when I was a new supervisor, I could have saved myself and my employees a lot of headaches.”

Tell me a little about your background in coaching managers.

I started working in the A.I. industry in 1974, working in the area of communications, what was then member relations or public relations. I gradually evolved into the sales and marketing side of agribusiness. The vast majority of my tenure has been in managing and supervising sales employees all over the country. These employees provide A.I. products and services to thousands of farms across the United States.

At the time of the merger that formed Genex/CRI, I saw an opportunity to do what I always wished we had available – a person dedicated to developing training resources for the organization. CRI now has about 1,400 employees worldwide.

So I proposed that I spend pretty much all of my time developing resources for use within our organization, for other agribusinesses and for producers. I have been involved in developing training in sales, marketing, supervisory skills, performance management and personality styles. I also went back to school and got a master’s degree in adult education.

Basically, I evolved into the role of developing these training resources because I think if you look at farms or agribusinesses those organizations that are in the learning mode have a competitive advantage. When I look at farms, the most successful are those that are investing in themselves and their employees. They are constantly in the learning mode.

I have had a unique opportunity to go out with my camera. I’ve actually done over 200 interviews. I do the same thing in the marketing and sales areas. I have a whole series of over 60 different courses that are being posting on the Internet for sales people to view and learn from.

Did a microphone scare dairy producers away from talking about management? If you think it didn’t, why?

I think my answer would be, “No, talking on-camera doesn’t scare them.” That’s for a variety of reasons.

I chose to interview managers of larger farms. The reason for that is larger farms have more employees and more experience managing teams of people. I think those large-farm operators are accustomed to expressing themselves. A lot of the leadership conferences I attend and present at have sessions on working with the media. So I think these managers are comfortable, for the most part.

I’ve just been amazed at how busy people are willing to sit down and contribute their two cents to this approach. People tell me after the fact that they didn’t know how they thought the interview would go, but that it was actually fun. They say they learned some things about themselves based on expressing their views.

In what aspects have you gained greater appreciation for dairy producers having completed these interviews?

Having worked in this industry my whole life, I’ll start with my appreciation for people who are working with the land, animals, their families and now other people. I already had a tremendous respect for agricultural producers. This whole process has taken it to another level.

Primarily, I think it’s because in the old days if you worked hard and did some things right you could certainly prosper. Now it’s more than that. Being on these farms and seeing how they are utilizing technology, information systems, computers, consultants, and diverse teams of people, I’ve realized these people are like corporate managers.

When I graduated from college, you generally went to work for an agribusiness if you were interested in agriculture. Now, dairy farms are large enough so they can provide challenging and interesting careers with benefits, time off and a great lifestyle. I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to work on farms.

If you have an interest in computers, there’s usually a position. If you’re interested in nutrition or reproduction, there’s usually a position. Agriculture is getting more and more interesting all the time. I already knew that, but doing this project has brought that home even more.

What trends in dairy management do you see in the future?

When you look at the title of the first module in the series, “The new order of agriculture,” it’s a pretty strong statement. From reading that, some people would say I’m championing larger farms. That is not my intention. There are a lot of smaller farms that are very profitable.

But there is just no question that economics and a desire for a better lifestyle will drive farms to get larger, and that means employing more people. I think one of the trends we’re going to see more of and which relates directly to the topic of supervision is more of what I would call satellite farms.

Someone in the series said, “Once you milk 1,000 cows, you’re probably big enough.” A successful manager is going to look for ways his or her employees can grow by giving them more responsibility. This might include managing a satellite farm. He might even have two or three farms in the same state, or maybe farms in another country. That type of thing I’m seeing more of.

Obviously, with that comes a whole different management structure where a farm manager is dealing with his division heads or foremen. It all points back to managing and supervising people.

Why do you want dairy producers to view this DVD series?

I don’t think this series I’ve put together addresses everything there is to address nor does it answer all questions. It is not intended to be an Alpha and Omega type of thing. The reason I have really done this is for it to be used as a discussion starter.

This isn’t intended to be everything there is to know about this subject. It’s real purpose is to get people talking about the subject of helping employees to be successful on farms.

How has this process changed you, and how will you personally be different for having done these interviews?

The thing I’ve learned is that you cannot use your own style as an excuse to bullet through management issues. If you happen to be an in-your-face person and if you’re going to be a manager, you need to modify that approach. You’re not supervising people like yourself, you’re supervising people with different personalities, and you have to file off the rough edges of your own style and adapt more to others.

As I talked to a lot of these producers, that really came through. They knew their strength, and they understood their own style. But, they had developed within their management style the ability to work with different people. I’ve just really been impressed that the best people don’t try to be something they’re not, instead they have learned how to adjust and adapt.

If you had to do this project again, what would you change?

I don’t think I’d change anything. This is a constant project of mine. I’m using the same approach to help sales people serving their producer clients. So I’m constantly developing a new segment about every three weeks. I’m very familiar with this process.

Are there other topics not covered in this series that you’d like to explore more?

Yes. I may add some additional segments to this program. As I actually use it, little things are coming up, and I think I could and should develop some of the topics a little more. I may do that as time becomes available.

Who could most benefit from this series?

Let’s say you’re going to go to a class on supervision for a day or two, you’ll probably have one instructor with his or her own experiences who is going to teach you about management. What I think we have in this series is 50 teachers.

When you understand how adults learn and that adults are always evaluating the credibility of the instructor, this series cuts through that evaluation of the presenter quickly. When you’re listening to a guy that is supervising 50 employees on a large farm, even if you don’t agree with him, you’re usually going to pay attention to what he says.

There is no one person that can possess all the knowledge and be an expert in all things these days. This series is simply an effort to gather the opinions of others and then use those thoughts to stimulate discussion and develop workable solutions for your situation.

One of the best uses of this program will be from agribusinesses. This resource is best used in a facilitator environment where you have a facilitator who shows some of the content and then gets people talking about it. I think the best use of this material may be for someone in agribusiness who is visiting or consulting farms. PD

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