Putting People First

September 9, 2013 09:23 PM
Putting People First

An employee management training program is a game-changer for this California dairy

When Cesar Rodriguez’s employer asked him to participate in a management training program, the long-time dairy employee balked.

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Learn more about PeopleFirst and Jorge Estrada

"I thought it would be a waste of time to be stuck in a room for so many days when I have so many things to take care of and so many employees who depend on my supervision," Rodriguez remembers.

But when employer E.J. de Jong insisted, Rodriguez enrolled. It didn’t take long for Rodriguez to change his attitude as he learned what it takes to be an effective leader and how to engage employees.

Since his participation in the program nearly three years ago, major improvements have been seen on Wreden Ranch Dairy, located near Hanford, Calif. Somatic cell counts and mastitis levels have dropped by 50%, taking the additional costs of treatment with them. Culling rates have fallen. Milk quality and production have climbed. Employees now receive milk-quality bonus checks, something they never did before. Morale has soared.

The game-changer was Zoetis’ PeopleFirst program. Created in 2010 to address labor challenges on dairies, PeopleFirst helps train and develop managers and improve internal employee communication. Rodriguez participated in PeopleFirst’s Supervisory Certificate Program, designed for front-line managers. Every two weeks for six months, he joined 16 other managers and employees from Central Valley dairies for classes in Tulare, Calif.

From his first meeting, Rodriguez experienced a change of heart. "The teacher made a big impact on me," he says. "I wanted to come back for the next class."

That teacher was Jorge Estrada, a long-time dairy consultant and executive coach. He’s one of 12 PeopleFirst consultants specializing in leadership development, coaching and personnel management.

Estrada instructed the class on the qualities of engaged employees and how managers can boost worker engagement. He led participants in assessing themselves on a personal level and in exploring their reactions in various situations. He also required them to bring their dairy problems and weaknesses to the table—all in strict confidence.

Rodriguez was acutely aware of the problems at Wreden Ranch, which he’s managed since the dairy was built in 2005. "For years, we’d had a nightmare problem with quality," Rodriguez says.

Wreden Ranch is a freestall dairy operation that milks 5,450 cows three times a day. It has 48 employees, including Rodriguez and de Jong. Not only did the dairy have soaring somatic cell counts and high mastitis levels, but employees didn’t always come to work with a smile.

"Cesar had a deep desire to develop as a manager," Estrada says. "He was prepared to learn. He had humility and vulnerability. He asked questions and paid attention."

Rodriguez began implementing what he was absorbing from the program. It wasn’t enough that he spoke Spanish, the language of most of the dairy’s employees. "I learned that motivating people is key to making a team work like a clock, to let my guys know they’re important to the dairy," says Rodriguez, an immigrant from Mexico who is a U.S. citizen.

He also came to realize that he needed to improve employees’ understanding of their jobs. "It’s one thing to have protocols on paper, but I had never showed them how and why to do it," he says.

Rodriguez learned that he could reduce the dairy’s mastitis incidence by retraining workers in the milking pit. He discovered more professional ways to interact with the dairy’s employees, including nonconfron­ta­tional body language and words like "please" and "thank you." The classes reinforced Rodriguez’s conviction that dairy workers deserve respect and calm, firm interaction, not finger-pointing. "Some managers try to get respect by being mean, but people love to be treated with respect," Rodriguez says.

He also learned how to delegate many of his job duties. "That has been a gift to me to help the guys learn," Rodriguez says. "They love to be responsible, and I have more time now to check on other things. And all that helps make more money for the dairy."

On a personal level, Rodriguez also benefitted from the program. "I feel more confident in myself, in my position and in my decisions," he says. "If I could choose [the person I was] from before the program or the one after, I would choose the one after." 

Management Training Boosts Productivity

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Since Rodriguez (left) participated in the PeopleFirst program, the dairy’s milk quality problems have plummeted and employee morale has soared.

The PeopleFirst program provides a strategic approach for livestock and veterinarian operations to learn leadership development, employee training and business objectives and strategies.

Rodrigo Carranza, senior business manager for PeopleFirst, says:

  • Fifty percent of a worker’s engagement is determined by the relationship with his or her direct manager.
  • It’s the middle-level manager who affects the highest number of employees. On a dairy, that can be 15 to 20 people.
  • The cost of employee turnover is 1.5 to 2 times the employee’s annual pay.
  • Companies with high employee engagement have 19% higher operating income, 26% more productivity, six times greater operating margins and three times better return on equity and assets.

Those numbers—and the belief that quality food supply starts with the employees who work on farm and livestock operations—helped Zoetis launch PeopleFirst three years ago.

All too often, the company’s field force had seen managers who couldn’t communicate effectively with employees. Mid-level managers often received little support or labor management training. Too many workers lacked a good understanding of their role on the dairy.

"Milkers, for example, don’t often think of themselves as part of the food production chain," Carranza says. "There’s a big disconnect."

In the past two years, PeopleFirst has worked with 300 supervisors from 175 U.S. dairies and feedlots. "We work with front-line managers to sharpen their skill set so they can better
engage their workforce," Carranza says. "We’ve seen the most results when a mid-manager gets the utmost support from the owner to allow him to put the skills he’s learned into practice for the improvement of the operation."


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