Personnel management discussions in agriculture tend to focus on topics like “motivating employees,” “how to train employees,” or “placing the right person in the right job.” But perhaps not often enough does the topic turn to the business owner’s role or about how to become a better supervisor.

Many workers set their sites on management or supervisory positions, but rarely do they think about the challenges and responsibilities that come with the job. Supervisors are in a sort of liaison position, balancing responsibilities to the business as well as to the employees.

“Other than a few family members and close friends, one’s supervisor is among the most influential person in most peoples’ lives,” says Bob Milligan, professor emeritus, Cornell University.

Understanding that role better starts with understanding some of the shifts in employee management during the last half century, as well as what changes might lie ahead.

“There has been a shift from controlling and directing employees, known as the control paradigm, to developing, empowering and coaching employees -- the quality paradigm,” Milligan says. (See sidebar.) “Virtually every business, from a small pork operation to a multi-national corporation, is in the throes of this transformation.” 

The three keys

To begin refining successful supervisory skills for today’s and tomorrow’s workforce, he points to three key focus areas.

1) Engaging the employee in business success.

2) “Chalking the field” —  everyone must know the rules of the game.

3) Providing large amounts of high-quality feedback.

Now, let’s look deeper.

“A well-defined, clearly communicated vision is critical to every business’ or organization’s success, and that includes a farm business,” Milligan says. “At the most basic level, the vision’s purpose is to create a commitment and passion, such that all of the personnel carry out their roles because they want to rather than they have to.”

It’s easy to look at developing a vision statement as simply an exercise requiring extra time that you don’t have; but much like physical exercise, the payoff is slow, subtle and surfaces over the long term.

So, what can you expect from outlining your business’ vision?

It contributes to the following:

  • Provides direction and an impetus for growth.
  • Gives everyone within the business a sense of involvement, purpose and significance.
  • Clarifies decision-making processes.
  • Keeps the focus on what’s important.
  • Motivates people over the long haul.
  • Challenges people to attempt more than they might think.
  • Evokes emotion and spreads enthusiasm.
  • Keeps leaders fueled, fired up and focused.

On to the purpose

Milligan challenges business owners and supervisors to think about and determine the business’ “significant purpose,” but do so from the customer’s viewpoint.

“The significant purpose is your business’ reason for existence,” he says. “It answers the question ‘why’ rather than just explaining ‘what’ you do.”

He points to a billboard that he saw advertising fuel oil, with the wording — “We provide comfort.”

“That was an excellent significant purpose,” Milligan says. It certainly focused on outcome for the customer.

Of course, it’s best to make it understandable and concise. The words aren’t as important as the meaning to the people within your business. That means looking at the values that you want to promote within your business.

“Values provide guidelines for each person in your business,” he adds. They answer the question, “What do I want to live by and how?”

For example: safety, integrity, efficiency and employee job satisfaction might be values that are important to your business. Other examples could be commitment to excellence, respect for the environment, passion for continuous improvement, embracing innovative technology and practices, and so forth.

The thing about values is you must constantly act upon them, or they are at best good intentions and at worst merely words. Also, to maximize potential, your “employees’ values need to be in line with the business’ values,” Milligan says. 

Next is identifying the vision or the picture for the future. The key here is to focus on something that you can actually see; this is not the place to be vague.  Focus on what you want to create —  the end result —  not on the process of getting there. Athletes do this all the time; they visualize the desired outcome and enhance the likelihood of attaining that outcome.

Visualizing the vision

Owners, supervisors and others within the pork operation likely have some sort of vision for the business. However, the challenge is in moving everyone toward a shared vision. “In my experience with farms, rarely have the owners articulated a vision that is comprehensible and motivating to employees,” Milligan says. 

Certainly the two greatest challenges to refining a business’ vision are to get started and to get finished. That’s largely because such efforts fall outside of your comfort zone. People tend to get hung up on where to start and what words to use. Then they become paralyzed with the idea that it all must be perfect.

Don’t fall into these traps. There are no “vision police” waiting to lock you up because you didn’t proceed correctly. Besides, you should revisit the vision and make adjustments periodically.

The following questions can help you get started.

  • Significant purpose:

    —  If someone asked a customer, a neighbor, a service provider or anyone close to the business —  “What does this business contribute to the community and the industry?” —  what do you hope they would say?

    — Why does your business exist?

  •  Values:

    — If someone asked a customer, a neighbor, a service provider or anyone close to the business —  “What do you respect about this business and its owner?” —  what do you hope they would say?
    -- What are you most proud of about your business?

  • A picture of the future:

    —  Close your eyes and visualize what you want your business to look like in 10 years. Describe what you see.

Everyone involved in developing a compelling vision should answer those questions. Then share and discuss the answers.

“All of this information (significant purpose, values and a picture of the future) can be used to develop a compelling vision for the business,” Milligan says. “Whether you use the exact responses for the final product is not necessary. It is a thought process.”

The important thing is that in the end, the final product:

  • Compels everyone in the business.
  • Is easily understood and remembered by everyone in the business.
  • Is relevant to everyone in the business, and they can each become passionate about pursuing the vision.
  • Answers the question —  “Why does this business exist?” —  in a context that everyone in the business can relate to and embrace.
  • Clearly articulates what is important to this business —  its values.

Finding the right words to capture the group consensus will take some discussion and some time. It may be helpful to enlist an expert to act as a mediator. “But you can’t expect that person to write the business’ compelling vision for you,” Milligan adds. “Once the owners have formulated a draft, present it to all employees for their suggestions; they may see items that you missed.” 

It also begins the process of gaining everyone’s commitment to the vision. After all, try as you might, you won’t get employees fully on board if they don’t see and embrace your business’ vision.

Editor’s note: Next month presents “Chalking the Field”everyone must clearly understand the rules of the business.