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Coaching employees is personal

Jon Wilcox Published on 11 June 2014

coaching graphic

We default to sports when we think of coaching, and we have many examples of successful coaches with vastly different styles.



Bobby Knight, a college basketball coach with more than 900 victories and nicknamed “The General,” was perhaps most famously remembered for his fierce, combative, expletive-laden, chair-throwing style. Yet he’s loyally defended and fanatically revered by most of his former players.

Contrast that with the quiet and calm Tony Dungy. His accomplishments include two Super Bowl victories – one as a player and one as coach of the Indianapolis Colts. After retiring, he’s become even more recognized for his deep faith and work with inner-city ministries.

Regardless of which coaches you pick, it’s safe to bet they have their own incomparable styles. Coaching is much more art than science. And it’s always very personal.

Now think of your farm. You may ask, “With so many different approaches, how should I coach my employees on the dairy?” We can’t answer with any cookie-cutter pattern for you to follow. Rather, it’s the “snowflake enigma.” No style or situation is identical to your own.

Working with people will always be challenging, and becoming an effective coach takes patience. Agricultural businesses often have an additional wrinkle – a family component – that brings additional layers of complexity.


However, anyone can become a more effective coach if they are willing to commit to it. In my experience, coaching employees can truly be simplified to three basic factors – the three R’s:

R - Respect

R - Recognition

R - Rewards

Before we get into these factors, let’s first look back on the evolution of coaching and leadership.

In earlier generations, when the majority of young men served in the military, leadership patterns were strongly influenced by their experiences. Authority was rarely questioned. Young men learned to follow orders and accept direction from a rigid leadership structure.


That style became the paradigm of most business models through the middle part of the 20th century. This traditional leadership model had clear lines of authority with little coaching and a lot of directing. Employees were told what to do and earned the right (often by their blind obedience) to advance “up the ladder.”

That model has slowly evolved toward a more participative style where employees are more involved in their development. Working in functional teams is often more important than individual accomplishments because of the synergy that results. A healthy culture is now a cornerstone of a successful business.

In his memoir, You Can Observe A Lot By Watching , the great Yankee Yogi Berra shared a personal anecdote about one of the greatest coaches ever: Casey Stengel.

Catching in the major leagues is a brutal occupation. Sports Illustrated once estimated that Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench did more than 330,000 deep knee bends, broke four bones in his feet, had shoulder surgery, endured almost constant back pain and had circulation problems in both hands. Bench played 16 seasons. Berra played professionally for 19 seasons.

One day before a double-header (Stengel had slotted Berra to catch both games), the coach asked, “How ya feeling, young fella?”

Berra replied that his back ached, his shoulder was stiff, his hands were bruised, and he was bone-tired.

“Good, you’re batting fourth!”

The New York Yankees had a unique culture. Berra came up playing with the great Joe DiMaggio and was teammates with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. The job expectations and his performance were shaped by that culture.

Your dairy also has a unique culture. You might struggle to recognize it, and it often helps to ask others to help you identify it. In its simplest terms, your culture includes:

  • History: How did the business come to be?
  • Values: What is important here? How do people treat each other?
  • Beliefs: How does your team think things should be done? Why?
  • Heroes: Who is currently a role model? Who is legendary from the past?
  • Processes: What are your written and unwritten policies, patterns and procedures?

Every organization is different, and new employees will “feel” that difference as they interact in your teams. As a coach, you have the opportunity and obligation to help manage their perceptions. Organizations reflect their leaders; management casts a long shadow.

Self-awareness becomes one of the biggest components of coaching. What’s your coaching style? Do you have a storied history, or are you just starting? Are you high-tech or traditional? Do you see dysfunction between teams or structure levels? What role do you play in that dysfunction?

Business consultant E. William Deming said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

You can have a well-thought, powerful business strategy, but if it doesn’t match with the employee culture, it will fail. After years of consulting various businesses, Deming said, “The worker is not the problem. The problem is at the top. Management.”

Deming consulted with Ford Motor Company when the company struggled in the early 1980s. He observed that management and the entrenched culture (the long shadow of upper management) were responsible for 85 percent of the problems in developing better cars.

Until management changed, no strategy would significantly improve results. After several intense years of changing how leaders interacted and coached employees, Ford returned to profitability and dominance among domestic automakers.

Culture is huge and will determine the type of employees who flourish and the strategies that have the highest probability of success. Leaders need to be realistic, self-aware and take ownership of the impact they have on the culture. Everyone responsible for coaching others needs to lead by modeling desired behaviors – “do as I do,” not “do as I say.” That brings us back to the three R’s.

1. Respect – High turnover, constant bickering, dysfunctional communication and behavior, marginal engagement, and disrespect for animals and assets on the farm can all be indications that employees don’t really feel respected or valued. Model respect, and require it among all employees.

2. Recognition – Train employees to understand why they do what they do. Then “catch them” doing things right. Everyone needs to feel appreciated, and this includes public recognition in front of their peers. Send notes or small tokens in the mail that they’ll open in front of their families.

3. Rewards – Compensation is just one type of reward. Know what’s meaningful to individual employees and find ways to give them more of that. Financial bonuses aren’t the only way to celebrate a job well done.

Let me emphasize that coaching doesn’t have to be complicated.

Invest in your people skills, develop a mentoring program, reward leadership and have genuine concern for each employee. Give feedback spontaneously, and don’t wait for a performance review for constructive criticism. Model the behavior you want to encourage.

Simple team-building activities – around food and during outdoor recreational activities – go a long way in building trust between employees and management. Those you coach will recognize and appreciate good intentions.

You don’t have to be perfect to be an effective coach, but you do have to care.

And this matchless advice on baseball applies equally to dairy coaching. One of the most profound philosophers of our times, Yogi Berra, said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” PD

Graphic courtesy of Thinkstock.

jon wilcox

Jon Wilcox
Western Region Dairy Sales Manager
Vita Plus Corp.