Take Your Team From 'I' To 'We'

January 6, 2016 02:03 AM

Empower employees through delegation and accountability 

Craig Yunker loved his late father dearly. Yet his dad’s insistence on perfection at the family’s 30-cow dairy nearly drove Yunker to abandon farming until he discovered delegation.

“He could not stand an employee to do something that wasn’t as perfect as him, so he could never keep employees,” recalls Yunker, an Elba, N.Y., producer. “He’d tell somebody to fix a barn door, and if it wasn’t good enough for the Taj Mahal, it wasn’t good enough.”

Yunker has come a long way from those days. Now, Yunker’s team includes roughly 50 employees managing 6,000 acres of row crops and vegetables, a commercial sod company and a 4,000-head feedlot that raises dairy heifer replacements. 

The need to manage a business of that scale has forced Yunker, a former Top Producer of the Year, to take communication seriously. 

Producer Craig Yunker of Elba, N.Y., has begun meeting quarterly with each manager. 

Experts say leading through delegation, taking time to celebrate accomplishments and listen closely, and keeping managers and team members accountable can help farms foster a healthier working environment. “You have to empower people,” Yunker says. “You have to give them responsibility.” 

To begin the process, think about steps you can take to tie team members’ performance back to the goals of your farm operation, advises Peggy Andrews, a management consultant and professor of management at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

“The new task of managers,” she says, “is to demonstrate the meaningful ways in which employees are connected to your organization.”

Discretionary Effort. Business magazines are packed with stories about the abysmal level of employee engagement at U.S. companies. By the same token, farm operations run the risk of fostering poor performance by failing to emphasize the team versus a few managers.

“The simple definition is discretionary effort,” says Bob Grace, a partner at The Leadership Effect, a St. Louis-based leadership development firm whose largest agricultural client is Monsanto. “How much do they put in?”

That level of effort quickly sets apart high performers. 

“When somebody is not assigned to something but they do something to enhance the productivity of the business, that discretionary effort is what we look for,” Yunker explains. “That is how people move up the ladder.”

To promote that kind of extra effort, producers should consider the example of Maria Montessori, for whom the Montessori education method is named, Andrews says. 

“She believed if you create the right environment, people are more likely to make good choices,” Andrews says. “In an organizational environment, there are many pieces that go into that. There’s the organizational structure, there are the policies you create, there are the methods you use to communicate.”

Hold Frequent Meetings. Regular facetime with team members gives producers ample time to share their vision for the future and connect workers to objectives. 

On Yunker’s operation, managers meet daily at 6:30 a.m. to identify the day’s top work priorities. It begins with a weather report, after which the six managers share what their teams are working on and then begin horse-trading.

“We have trucks dedicated to the sod business, but if we have a huge job, we may steal trucks from the farm and we may shift people back and forth,” Yunker explains. 

At 7 a.m., all employees are required for a time-clock meeting where managers share farm updates. Team members then are given time to report problems and may volunteer to lend a hand if it’s needed.

Additionally, experts agree one-on-one meetings between managers and team members are important, but philosophies differ as to the most effective approach. For years, Yunker has provided annual written reviews at in-person meetings for all managers and hourly employees. Beginning in 2015 and continuing this year, he plans to maintain that process for hourly workers while switching to quarterly discussions for mid-level employees and managers. 

“We sit and visit about how things are going so the feedback is more informal, it’s more timely and it’s not this buildup of stress about what’s going to happen,” Yunker says.  

Too often, performance reviews become the single time each year when managers offload a ton of information on employees, Grace says. He recommends managers conduct a 30-minute monthly performance check-in with each team member. Focus on the employee’s current projects, what is going well and what can be improved. 

“That can be followed up with half a page of notes,” Grace says. “Here’s what we talked about and shared, here’s where your challenges are and that’s what we’ll be talking about next time. That’s enough.” 

Individual Attention. Managers can also gauge engagement in the operation based on employees’ comments, adds Carolyn Rodenberg, owner of Lynchburg, Va.-based Alternatives to Conflict, a conflict-management firm.

“When we hear them talk to us about the future—‘I want to help do this,’ and ‘I want to help do that’—we know they are becoming a part of the organization,” Rodenberg says.

Whatever strategy producers adopt to foster a culture of teamwork, she points out it’s essential to recognize the value of each employee. 

How To Measure Employee Engagement 

Several factors determine the engagement level of team members, says Bob Grace, a partner at The Leadership Effect. They include:

  • Attachment to the business, including a personal belief in company goals
  • Empowerment to make the decisions necessary to reach the objectives of the organization 
  • Access to the tools, resources, training and skills needed to reach the finish line
  • Regular facetime with managers, who take time to hear how things are going and facilitate improvements that allow them to do their jobs better
  • Rewards in the form of compensation that mirrors the value employees derive from being a part of the company

Five Steps To Improve Farm Culture

Leaders who want to improve their company’s culture can start by following five basic steps, says John Felkins, director of EntreLeadership All Access at Nashville-based Ramsey Solutions. The same rules apply to producers seeking to engage their farm team in the mission and objectives of the operation. 

1. Fix Your Foundation. Examine and articulate core values, beliefs and mission to your team, then make those focus areas a reality with solid operating principles. “Go and look at those roots and see what you can do to make them healthier,” Felkins says. 

2. Fix Your Hiring. Ensure that the majority of your turnover happens during the hiring process as you sort job candidates, not after they’re already onboard. “If you hire hard, you can lead easy,” he says. “If you hire easy and lead hard, you’re going to be leading an adult day care.”

3. Fix Your Communication. Pick a spot on your weekly calendar, block out all business commitments and speak candidly to your team about the business at a dedicated time and place. 

4. Fix Your Attitude. Give team members grace, write thank-you notes to employees on a regular basis and be enthusiastic and public about successes. “People want acceptance, approval, appreciation, attention and affection,” he says. 

5. Fix Your Leadership. Particularly for rapidly growing organizations, executives must learn to get out of the way and expand through delegation.

Look for more Business Drivers insights on “Market Rally,” “Top Producer Podcast” and “U.S. Farm Report.” For all related coverage, visit agweb.com/business-drivers.


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