While visiting farms across the midwest recently with the Michigan State University Extension Dairy Team, I was impressed by the improvements that we continue to make in the dairy industry. However, I also noted an often dramatic difference between the leadership styles on various farms and the attitudes that owners and managers were displaying as leaders of their operations. These attitudes and leadership styles set the tone for their farms.
Some owners expressed an extremely positive attitude about the dairy industry and their farm. They openly shared their optimism for the future and how their farm was making changes to be a part of that bright future. Employees on these farms were viewed as part of the team that was going to take the farm to that bright future. Employees were given responsibilities, the ability to make decisions, and the best was expected of them.
Other farms owners appeared very negative. Employees on these farms were viewed in an unfavorable way. These farms expressed to us the problems with their employees: the need to constantly correct them was one, and they were generally expecting to find more employee-related problems around the next corner.
When employees see a positive attitude in the owner or manager of the farm they tend to have a more positive attitude themselves. Attitudes are contagious, and frankly its much more rewarding working for someone that openly expresses a progressive, positive attitude. Employees feel that the farm is going in the right direction, and good employees want to be part of that type of an organization. Employees on these farms we visited wanted to “step up to the plate” and do their part as a member of the farm team. Employees responded well to the “coaching” style of leadership that seemed to naturally grow out of these farm owners/managers.
When employees see a negative attitude they become negative as well. It becomes difficult for them to see how they can be successful in a job in an industry that is destined for eventual demise. Good employees will likely leave the farm, and may also leave the dairy industry. Employees also tend to live up or down to the expectations of their supervisors. If employers are always expecting the worst, they are much more likely to see it, and employees are likely to not over-perform since there is little chance of being recognized for providing their “best”.
So what can you as a farm manager or owner do to improve in this area of leadership?
Start with the tone that you set through the attitude that you display to your employees, from the farm managers to the milkers. If you are having a “bad attitude” day, check it at the door. Have a few key individuals, off the farm, with whom you can share your frustrations rather than your employees. Make sure employees know that you are committed to the success of your farm, their success as employees and as individuals, and ultimately to the success of the dairy industry. Setting a positive tone for the farm needs to include both personal interactions with employees as well as farm meetings.
Next, start trying to move from a punitive style of leadership to a coaching style of leadership. It begins with expecting the best of your employees. This is not some idealistic concept, but rather you provide clear instructions and training to employees and then expect them to contribute to the success of the farm by meeting or exceeding those expectations. With clear goals, or key performance indicators, employees have a target to reach and you have something to recognize them for as they reach or exceed the goals that you mutually have set together.
As dairy leaders, you have a critical role in employees performance and ultimately in developing a team that will help your farm continue to improve, and it all starts with the tone that you set.