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Leadership effectiveness critical to farm success

Poor leadership prevents critical decisions, conversations from being confronted head on, says leadership coach Kelly Dobson

Technical competency and a good work ethic are no longer enough to be a successful farmer. Farmers need to develop personal and leadership capacity, Kelly Dobson told the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference.

Hard work and skill are “actually the minimum standard,” said Dobson, a certified executive coach with Leadershift, and a farmer from Fairfax, Manitoba. “Who do you know in ag who doesn’t work hard?”

Leader effectiveness has an incredibly strong and well-documented correlation to success, Dobson said in a talk at the virtual Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference on November 24. However, personal growth in this area tends to be passed over in favour of production and technology growth.

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While it’s probably no shocker that a well-led farm does better than a poorly led one, how much better a well-led business can perform can be hard to believe, said Dobson in an interview with the Co-operator.

One study showed that business leaders who scored in the top 25 per cent of effectiveness were likely to have businesses that had 15 to 20 per cent higher profit than the average business. Whereas those who scored at the very top of the effectiveness scale could have double the profits of the average business.

“(Being a good leader is) certainly better than being a bad leader… but if you really want your business to perform, what we know is that it’s better to be great, and significantly so,” said Dobson.

But what does that actually look like on farm?

“You’ll know you have bad leadership when… critical decisions or critical issues, whether they be challenges or opportunities, are not addressed front and centre,” said Dobson. “They’re not addressed immediately, that they’re put off to the side.”

Transition planning is the classic example, he added.

Employee turnover may be high, and it may be difficult to attract good workers. The farm may fail to grow because the farmer can’t bring him or herself to, or find a way to, hire employees.

The farmer may freeze under pressure or become reactive or rash.

An onlooker might say, “Why are they not doing anything?” said Dobson, or, “What the hell are they doing?”

Farms usually have far more critical external relationships than they might have had 25 years ago — farm advisers, accountants, lawyers, agronomists, banker, marketing advisers.

“The limiting factor is not the fact that we don’t have good tractors, we don’t have air drills that can plant seed evenly,” said Dobson. “The question now is that it’s a much bigger game… which one do I pick?”

The demand for farms to think and act strategically is significantly more than it was in the past, said Dobson. Even on a small farm, it takes significant effort to stay focused and on task with what’s important.

What Dobson advocates for through the National Farm Leadership Program, a farm-centred leadership development program which began in 2020, is to develop self-awareness, interpersonal skills, strategic thinking, performance, leadership effectiveness and a network of colleagues who are also committed to this kind of growth.

Along with coaching and accountability, this takes practice, said Dobson. He pushes for daily practice of a few minutes. What people should practice depends highly on their goals and needs, but it might include things as simple as taking a physical inventory — are they sleeping enough, eating or hydrating enough?

Many of the driven farmers who show up in his program are notorious meal skippers, said Dobson. That’s fine when they’re young, but when they get a little older the wheels come off a bit.

They may also spend time evaluating what they’re doing better today than they were the day before, reinforcing why they’re working on personal growth.

The person’s inner world needs to develop so they can be more successful in the outer world, said Dobson. This allows them to hear hard advice or face a challenging situation and be able to listen fully without getting defensive and to learn.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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