Be the Leader Your Business Desperately Needs

Published on: 13:01PM Mar 05, 2010

By Bob Milligan, Dairy Strategies


I have often referred to the last year as TURBULENCE X TURBULENCE -- turbulence and chaos in both livestock agriculture and in the general economy. As both begin to make a slow – and likely painful – recovery, what lessons do we learn from the trauma of the last year plus?


The key answer to this question is that every business, especially farms, must place a higher priority on leadership. I often refer to this as the chief executive roles. The biggest challenge dairy farmers and owner/managers of other small businesses faced in the past several decades was the transition to becoming a manager as well as a worker. The greatest challenge TODAY is to add the role of chief executive to the manager and worker roles. 


The following are three critical needs for every business. The importance of each is continually increasing. Each requires leadership: the chief executive.

1.             Capitalize on opportunities and minimize threats.

2.             Lead and develop a leadership team.

3.             Hire, retain and develop an exceptional workforce.


Let’s look at each.


Capitalize on opportunities and minimize threats


Many of us were captivated by hockey at the Olympics, including the dramatic victory of Canada over the United States. Wayne Gretzky, who was one of the Canadians lighting the Olympic torch, is widely regarded as the greatest hockey player ever – thus the reference as “The Great One.” 


When asked how he was so successful, Gretzky would always reply that he passed the puck to where the player would be, not to where he was when the puck was passed. 


This hockey analogy provides the essence of what farm business strategy must be going forward. Business leadership must gain the knowledge and insight to make strategic decisions based on their predictions and instincts about industry, general economy, and global conditions in the future. Only then can they successful capitalize on opportunities and minimize threats.


This focus outside of the farm – customers, industry trends, business trends, global changes – is why I believe the transition from manager to chief executive will be even more difficult than the transition from worker to manager.


Lead and develop a leadership team


The increased scope of required expertise along with the increasing size and complexity of farm and other small businesses means that farm and small business leadership will increasing require a team effort – a leadership team. By “leadership team,” I am referring to the owners, partners and managers of the business. I have found the transition from a single leader (sole proprietorship) to a leadership team to be incredibly valuable but also very, very difficult.


Successful teams, including leadership teams, require synergy. Synergy means that the combined effort is greater than the sum of the individual efforts or 1 + 1 > 2.  For this to occur, the leadership team must have a clear direction and have structures to enable the synergy to occur. Just as farm and other business processes require specification, implementation and improvement; so do leadership team processes.


I have developed several leadership team tools that I can share with you.  (651 647-0495, [email protected])


Hire, retain and develop an exceptional workforce


This is one of the opportunities mentioned above. Almost every manager acknowledges that everything in every farm, agribusiness, small business, golf course -- and even Fortune 500 companies -- occurs because of people. Despite this acknowledgement, managers spend virtually all of their time developing and improving production systems and processes, and virtually no time proactively developing systems and processes to hire, retain and develop an exceptional workforce.


Two current factors create an incredible opportunity right now!!


  • First, with the recession, incredibly capable workers are currently unemployed, underemployed and employed in jobs they do not enjoy.  


  • Second, young workers, who have been the staple of the agricultural workforce, now belong to the Generation X and Millennial generations. Although many managers perceive that these young people are unwilling to work, the reality is that most are actually willing to work very hard but only in jobs that they find rewarding. 

THE OPPORTUNITY: Develop excellent hiring, performance management, and continuing development systems and processes to attract and retain these workers.




You have at least two very difficult hurdles to overcome to become the leader that your business disparately needs and to meet the three needs described above:


1.             Leadership.  The chief executive functions must become a priority. Learning about the external environment, developing strategy and develop human resources processes is important but not urgent. You must develop the discipline and structures to give the priority leadership requires. Developing the discipline to do this may require establishing times each day or week when, no matter what, you will work on the chief executive roles.

2.             Expertise. These roles are new to most of you. You may need to enlist the expertise of others. Remember that Fortune 500 executives have leadership coaches and economic advisors.


We are available to discuss whether there are opportunities for us to synergistically and collaboratively work with you in these areas.


Dr. Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies, LLC and Professor Emeritus, Cornell University. His insights come from 35 years of working with farm businesses. He also was an award-winning teacher in the fifth-ranked undergraduate business program in the country. Bob lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Contact him at [email protected]. Visit his Web site at or