“Sooo, is that like when you get the chickens to talk to the cows?” queried the irksome urbanite sitting next to me in University of Illinois’ freshman Communications 100 class, a massive mix of 18-year-old humanity that were all planning to major in the communications field. I demurred and tried to ignore him. Apparently, just stating my major (agricultural communications) when asked had unwittingly led me into this conversation.
“I mean, like maybe you try to help the Old Bull talk to the Young Cow to solve their problems in the pig pen, huh?” he chuckled, clearly amused with his limited barnyard references.
Among the 300-head class in Foellinger Auditorium, I was wondering how had I managed to sit next to this kid. I gave him a curt nod and considered stomping on his foot.
Irksome Urbanite continued on: “Yeah, I bet out in the country it’s pretty hard to get all them animals to get along, huh?”
I edged over, seemingly interested in engaging further, but instead I ground the heel of my Roper boot into his gleaming white Fila sneaker (I’d even just come from livestock judging practice at the Beef Unit!)
“Ouch!” he winced, surprised.
“Yes, you are correct, it is tough to teach animals how to communicate,” I said with a smile. Never had to sit next to him again…
For the record, today I am a much kinder ag-advocate when confronted with the rude ignorance of people disengaged from food production. Twenty years into my career, I realize that the Irksome Urbanite has a point; it really is difficult to get all kinds of ‘animals’ around the farm communicating clearly. Yes, the animals are us in my Orwellian Fable above.
Tips for Communicating Across Generations
Recently, I spoke to young producers about tips to communicating their value. VALUE- that’s the secret with any successful multi-generation communications, however. Yes, younger producers must demonstrate value to garner attention for their ideas and innovations. However, more senior members in the operation should not overlook the need to demonstrate their value, as well.
#1: Understand Value Differences
The adage ‘because its always been done that way’ is not a substitute for why something matters nor does it define why something must remain in place. “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing.” Orwell writes in Animal Farm. His point is that existing without providing value is purposeless. Different generations naturally value different things yet an open exploration about why things are done and when they can be changed for better utility is part of solid communications. If someone younger questions you about ‘the why’ of something and you can’t explain it, frankly, it was probably worth questioning.
#2: Be Willing to Learn
There is so much real-life value in experience. One of my near-term my worries in agriculture today is that we’ll loose that expertise before we’ve gotten over our differences enough to transfer it. Younger generations must be willing to be patient and to learn from experience. Turns out we actually don’t have all the answers just because we turned 21 or graduated from college. Mature generations must have the willingness to teach instead of tell. Do you have a system for knowledge transfer in your operation? These things are as simple as the SOP’s that you have been putting off writing.
#3: Acknowledge Differences with Respect, Expect Respect
Again quoting Orwell, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
It may feel like this around the farm as it relates to years of service but that attitude really doesn’t help anyone. Respect is the bottom line and managers must set up systems for this process. One of the biggest challenges younger members have isn’t in working with Dad, Grandpa, or even Mom; it’s with long-term non-family employees.
Giving millennials a leadership role is a great way to improve those relations and develop critical management skills, but not at the expense of an older family member undermining them! Just don’t do it, even when its not on purpose-a lack of clearly reporting structure creates a host of avoidable problems for employees and young managers. Also important: if you see your older employees dissing on your young manager, say something; it may be that need to step in and discourage that behavior. Respect goes both ways and it is earned both ways, too.
Here is my top 10 list for communicating across generations:
When we are faced with external criticism and misinformation that impacts everything we do, getting a unified message at the farm is essential. It’s not simple to understand where someone else is coming from when we haven’t been through that person’s experience. But that fact is a constant for us all – we can only be a product of our own generation. The better communicators and more successful operators learn to move beyond that to a place of understanding and productivity.
Sarah Beth Aubrey’s mission is to enhance success and profitability in agriculture by building capacity in people. She strives to foster that potential through one-on-one executive coaching, facilitating peer groups and leading boards through change-based planning initiatives. Visit her at SarahBethAubrey.com, and read her AgWeb blog, The Farm CEO Coach.