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Qualities of Leadership

April 16, 2009
By: Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal Columnist

In February, I had the honor to attend the Association of Agricultural Production Executives (AAPEX) annual meeting. Danny Klinefelter, Texas A&M University Extension economist and founder of The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP) and AAPEX, asked me to facilitate a discussion regarding succession planning and allowed me to survey the attendees regarding their opinions about mentoring.

The attendees I met exhibit three important characteristics—qualities that all farmers desiring to guide the family farm in the months and years ahead should possess. They were:

1. Fearless. The people I visited with had a calm resolve in the face of challenge. They know that, regardless of current conditions, the pendulum always swings from adversity to opportunity and their job is to remain resilient and prepare for growth.

2. Visionary. They possess the natural ability to see and visualize what doesn't yet exist—which might be one of the most important characteristics of a true entrepreneur.

3. Industrious. No, it's not just a fancy word for hard work. These men and women are hard-wired to persistently pursue success no matter what challenges get in their way.

In order to guide a farm to thrive, you have to get everyone involved on board, which is easier said than done. During the past four years, the topic of how to engage dad in a meaningful succession planning discussion has grown from a casual mention to near fever pitch. When the conversation at the AAPEX meeting turned to this very dilemma, the room exploded in a host of murmurs, reminding me that the topic is still not being properly addressed.

Engaging dad is usually the biggest hurdle to starting the succession planning process, but the solution is as individual as the family.

At AAPEX the question centered on: "How do we initiate the conversation if dad won't?" and "What do we do if he's not willing to continue with the process?"

As with most questions, I try to define the objective and who's responsible for a favorable outcome. It is helpful to envision the succession planning process as a negotiation: Identify the parties involved and specify the benefit and the cost to each. Each party needs to define a specific objective for the interaction and formulate a list of questions to address.

Once the list is ready, the involved individuals need to set a date and time to meet. At the meeting, each individual should have ample opportunity to review and discuss all of his or her questions. Once the questions have been expressed, the next step the group needs to take is:

  • define roles and responsibilities for research and follow-up;
  • provide optional and alternative solutions; and
  • agree on and schedule the next step in the process

During the conference, I surveyed the members regarding their opinions about mentoring. It was evident from the informal survey that there's a need—and support—for a formal mentoring program. The survey finds that AAPEX participants are inclined to serve as mentors to aspiring leaders. A quick tally of the mentoring survey results finds the following:

  • 96% agree that leadership is the biggest challenge confronting farmers.
  • 87% say that leadership is best developed through guidance and reinforced with experience.
  • 75% say they will learn mentoring skills, 76% will devote time to working as a mentor and 76% will share information with protégés.
  • 91% say that leadership skills are best developed through experience, and 77% say mentors help to hone leadership skills.
  • 82% agree that communication is the most critical mentoring tool.

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