Unique strategy fits employees to their passions and strengths
Nearly every dairy faces the dilemma of how to retain good employees. At most operations, it is as simple as promoting workers to the next position that needs filling based on years of service: a "next man up" kind of policy.
But Dan Rice, general manager at Prairieland Dairy near Firth, Neb., takes a totally different approach.
Instead of promoting an employee based on longevity, Prairieland uses a strength-based management program to identify future managers. The approach has changed the way he structures his employee team.
"I have certain strengths that I possess," Rice explains. "The last thing I want is people around me with the same strengths. I want people around me who are very different from me."
He credits the idea from a strength-based entrepreneurial management seminar he attended three years ago. The seminar was hosted by Gallup, a research-oriented company that helps businesses with performance management consulting.
"All of our managers have gone through that program to find out what their strengths are, and then we’ve developed a team around that," Rice says.
A certificate shows each management team member’s results and hangs in his/her office. This often creates healthy discussion between the employees and managers. Because all of the managers have been tested, it allows the managers to know what they should look for when hiring an entry-level position.
"We categorize those strengths, and we try to be well balanced," Rice says. "We look for strengths that our team doesn’t have that [new employees] can bring to the table."
Rice, for example, identifies his strengths as problem solving and future vision. Managing details is where he sometimes falls short. Therefore, he needs more detail-oriented people around him to be more successful.
"It is all about building a team that has different strengths, not the same strengths," Rice says. "We have to remind ourselves when we’re in our managers meeting that without the detailed person, I can’t do my job, and without me, they can’t do their job."
Strength-based management is also about finding a place where employees fit into the makeup of the organization.
Managers at Prairieland meet on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis to discuss the team’s strengths. The discussions help bring home the point that different types of personalities are needed within the organization.
Finding each person’s strengths isn’t the only purpose of the program. It is also about finding a place where employees fit into the overall makeup of the organization.
During the initial testing period at Prairieland, some middle managers ended up leaving the company. It wasn’t because they were dissatisfied with the workplace. They just came to the realization that the position they were promoted to didn’t match their passion or strengths.
"You can always do something that is not one of your gifts or strengths for a while, but research has shown that you will always revert back to what your gifts are and your passion is," Rice says. "That’s just human nature."
The goal of the strength-based program is for employees to work 75% of the time in their area of passion. Prairieland has several different segments to the operation besides the dairy, such as the foods and compost divisions.
"By having [a] very diversified [operation] like we are, no matter what your gift or passion is, we can put you into a spot where you can thrive," Rice says.
Those who shine in a particular position might also be a best fit to stay where they are rather than move into a different role that requires a new skill set.
For example, some milkers are really good at milking cows and they enjoy it, Rice says. That person might be promoted to a herdsman. If they do great at that job, the next logical move is to make them a supervisor.
"Usually, a really good cow guy is not a good supervisor. We’ve taken a guy who really loved his job, who did a great job at what he did, and we’ve promoted him," Rice says. "Now he’s doing something that he’s not good at, not gifted at, not talented at and not passionate about."
Under strength-based management, a milker employed for a long time at the dairy might earn as much as a supervisor.
Such a situation often doesn’t end well, and both the employee and employer become frustrated. Rice believes the best thing often is for that person to just stay where they had the most satisfaction.
"We really focus here on if you’re milking cows, you enjoy milking cows and you’re really good at it, then it is OK to stay right there," he says.
However, it can lead to unique circumstances where an employee such as a milker might earn more than a supervisor because they have been with the dairy for a long time.
"That’s a hard pill to swallow, but at the same time, there is really no job that is really more important than any other job on our farm," Rice says.
"We really have to focus on the person: their gifts, talents, passion and what they want to do," he says. "We grow them in that position instead of doing the normal thing of ‘you’ve been here longer than the next guy so you are promoted.’ "
This focus on people’s strengths can help maintain positive employees and workplace environments.