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Coaching dairy leaders – What is it and why does it work?

Mark Uhlenberg Published on 31 March 2014

I think my coaching adventures started when I was a young child on a Midwest row crop, pig, chicken and dairy farm. I followed my dad around the farm from a very early age, asked a lot of questions, observed how the work got done and received the responsibility of doing chores.

Not that it wasn’t important to do things right – Dad was always focused more on outcomes and less on how things got done. After getting a degree in dairy science, I returned home to farm in a family partnership. It’s a treasured part of my history and a big part of who I am as a coach today.



What is coaching?

• It is an experience.

• It is a process.

• It is a skill set.

• It is a mindset.


• It is a relationship.

Much of the coaching I do involves modeling coaching skills and teaching concepts of coaching to key leaders. Dairy farm managers and their consultants experience breakdowns in driving change because of the people side.

They know the cow side, have adapted technology – and now it’s time to focus on people. Unlike my father, dairy owners today manage more complex systems that involve many technical, organizational and people issues.

I find dairy owners and managers interested in coaching because they want to increase their influence on the people side of their business. Managers can gain a lot of traction in driving change by adding coaching skills to their leadership toolbox.

Dairy managers are experienced in engaging expert consultants to help improve the performance of their business. However, hiring a professional coach is uniquely different. Coaches are more process experts and not necessarily content experts (e.g., nutrition, records analysis).

Coaches can (and often do) have significant expertise but don’t use it in the same way that a consultant engages a client. Coaching improves performance but not in the same way as consulting.


Human resource departments of major corporations have been enlisting executive leadership coaches for key leaders at increasing rates for the last three decades. It initially started as a “last resort” to fix a broken or toxic leader at risk of derailing themselves and the company.

Over the last 10 to 20 years, leadership coaching has evolved as a proactive resource to prepare leaders for the future rather than “fix” them when they fail. Most people seek a coach when they are in a life or work transition.

Ideally, the best way to be involved with a coach is before breakdowns carry your life, career or business. Effective coaching produces results, greater performance and increases satisfaction. Business owners enlist coaches to increase their capacity to take action.

Coaching brings accountability to grow as a leader. It is a process to help you realize your own potential and remove the barriers stopping you from reaching it.

Coaching is an experience as much as it is a skill
Have you ever had a powerful conversation with someone that resulted in breakthrough thinking? Coaching isn’t just about breakthrough thinking, but it is a big part of the experience.

If you have had the experience of being coached through a breakthrough, it is immensely easier to do the same with others. When a coaching conversation is working well, it’s almost like having a conversation with yourself and the coach is just there to facilitate.

Another thing that a coach can bring to your experience is building a leadership toolbox. These often come in the form of road maps and mental models to guide you in the process.

Coaches often use a framework and conversations to think together about your leadership and personal awareness. There are several effective models for leadership and coaching. It is more important to have a model (or map) and less important exactly which one you use.

Coaching is an interactive process
It is a process because coaching helps individuals and organizations reach desired outcomes or goals. Just like your “feeding system” is a set of processes that meet an end goal of delivering the best ration at the best time, coaching is about taking action and reaching an outcome.

As individuals, we don’t see ourselves as a system, but we are. Professional coaches work with clients in many areas including business, career, finances, health and relationships.

Coaching is interacting with your coach around the performance and change you want. Coaching creates value when clients develop more rapidly and produce more satisfying results. As a result of coaching, clients set better goals, take more action, make better decisions and more fully use their natural strengths.

Coaching is a skill set
What are the skills of good coaches? I ask this question of my clients who may be new to leadership coaching. The easiest way to come up with a list is to think of some successful coaches in sports they follow or some key mentors in their life.

We always get some kind of list of people that have had some impact on others and directly on them as a key mentor. This high-level list represents the core skills and the things great coaches and leaders do:

• Respectfully challenge good players to greatness.

• Make difficult decisions on high-skilled or talented players that lack teamwork or the right attitude.

• Communicate effectively what they want whether the chips are up or down.

Coaching skills can be refined and learned, and this is where engaging a coach starts making sense to many of my clients. As leaders who manage their own businesses, they often lack a trusted adviser to provide “unbiased” coaching and supervision to them as a leader.

And that’s where having a coach can help you accelerate your own skill set in coaching others. You may need to challenge others more as a leader, focus more on decision-making or improve your ability to communicate; the coach brings the process and accountability for you to facilitate your development.

Coaching is a mindsetband a philosophy
There can be many “sticky” issues around leading people and getting the performance needed every day on a dairy. As a coach, I spend time gaining perspective and reflecting it back to the client to take a deeper look into where the opportunity or breakdown “really” exists.

Not offering solutions. It’s not my job as a coach to “solve” the problem but rather to help the leader define it more clearly … and sometimes more carefully. Their own mindset and approach can be what is getting in the way.

Dairies are tactical places, and they need to be. However, leaders and managers need to be strategic – and coaching helps a leader focus more strategically and form their mindset. Many clients are less aware of their own points of view or mindset than they realize.

This is not a criticism but rather a basic observation for most leaders. It just is not something many leaders think about often because they are busy getting the work done. It is important to have clarity about your mindset, beliefs and philosophy about leading and managing.

As a professional coach, I don’t bias a client with my mindset. Rather, I need to hold or suspend my beliefs so I can help the client see their own points of view more clearly. This is essential to professional coaching and where it differs greatly from consulting.

A coach believes the answers reside within the leader. Much of the value of coaching comes not from giving answers but in the processing and reflection done by the client.

Understanding your own points of view about a problem or opportunity precedes any change in the organization and its people, and it’s not so easy. We can often define the problem, but getting in action and changing behavior is a whole other thing. Any change you lead implies that you should have clarity for your values or goals … and can define it for yourself and your organization.

Coaching is a relationship
This particular point is why coaching works or doesn’t work. Being in a relationship with your coach is important and a major lever in you getting results. It’s not just important to you as the client but equally important to the coach.

The coach and leader need to evaluate the effectiveness of the coaching relationship based on your goals and what you have both contracted on to achieve. A good coach will discuss with you what the relationship needs to be up front and check in regularly along the way.

Why does it work?
Coaches provide process and unbiased feedback to reach goals. Coaching works because of some of the following inherent core values and tenets:

• Coaches believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful and that the coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources and creativity the client already has.

• Professional coaches are trained to listen and observe, to customize their approach to the individual client’s needs and to elicit solutions and strategies from the client.

• While the coach provides feedback and an objective perspective, the client is responsible for taking the steps to produce the results he or she desires.

• Coaching does not focus directly on relieving psychological pain or treating cognitive or emotional disorders.

Perspective and mindset are important when making good decisions that impact your future and the performance of your people. Coaching can be a tremendous source of clarity for making decisions and helps leaders build consistency with planning and execution. Managers can gain a lot of traction in driving change by adding coaching skills to their leadership toolbox.

Leaders often seek coaching or counsel when they are in a transition in life or business. Something just isn’t working like it used to or it needs to be better. My clients mostly come from referrals because they shared a challenge with someone I’m working with as a coach.

Everyone comes with a keen interest about what “professional coaching” really is and how it can help them with achieving their goals. Once we define coaching and they experience the process, they begin to see how it can be of great help in better navigating their personal lives, business decisions and leading others.

I find dairy owners and managers interested in coaching because they are hungry to improve their ability to lead and want to increase their influence on the people side of their business. It’s all upside for them, and there is commitment because they have “skin in the game.”

They know the cow side, have adapted technology –and now it’s time to focus on people. It’s a rewarding way to give back to an industry that has given me so much, and the industry needs all the coaches we can get. PD

Mark Uhlenberg is the owner of The Heartwood Group, LLC, dedicated to helping leaders and businesses strengthen their core purpose. Mark has been coaching leaders and teams on increasing performance for more than 20 years. His business focuses on coaching and consulting leaders in a wide variety of industries.