by Suzanne Deutsch
Farm economists are predicting agriculture will go through faster sharper cycles in years ahead. While this model can present producers with great opportunities, it also comes with added risk
Farm economists are predicting agriculture will go through faster sharper cycles in years ahead. While this model can present producers with great opportunities, it also comes with added risk. The question for many operators will be how to do more than just survive but prosper in times like these? Ron Witherspoon, a Regina-based consultant with over thirty years of experience advising corporations and farmers on business management and strategic planning decisions, says the entire agriculture industry has to spend more time developing leadership skills and discussing where the industry should go.
Witherspoon describes a leader as someone who leads people and provides a vision for their company. In a large organization, they might spend a third of their time envisioning where the industry will be five years from now and what their company needs to do in order to be successful. Managers, on the other hand, mostly focus on managing tasks.
“A lot of the farm management skills that we’ve taught is how to get an extra bushel, how to market for 10 cents more,” Witherspoon says. “There hasn’t been as much emphasis made on teaching people how to envision where their company needs to be, how to collaborate with others and solve problems.”
Witherspoon uses a conversation he once had with a top executive in the oil industry to illustrate how poor leadership skills can make problems seem insurmountable. During their discussion the oil executive was complaining about the difficult time that industry was having finding workers. Instead of commiserating though Witherspoon responded that the industry’s labour shortage was actually a symptom of an attitude problem.
“We really don’t have a labour shortage problem,” he explains. “We have an immigration, a management and a training problem. But anybody who says we have a labour problem, that we can’t fix when there are a billion people under-employed in this world, is not showing leadership.” He says the oil industry has done itself a disservice by adopting a red seal standard for labour quality in Alberta without putting in processes to bring in immigrant workers and train them to those standards.
Farmers do the same things. When Witherspoon meets young farmers he’ll ask for a show of hands to see how many of them feel they are able to meet their labour needs within their own community. Usually none come up. “Obviously there hasn’t been enough done with these young farmers to get them to think down the road like a leader does,” he says. “They all have the ability to manage somebody they hire in the short run, but they all lack the leadership knowledge they need in order to position their farm to be successful in the future.”
Never too small
Good leadership is required whether your operation is big or small. “In business, you either grow or prepare to go,” Witherspoon says. “If your mindset is I’ll always only have a couple of employees, then you have set yourself on a track to not being competitive and not being in business in the future.” Being in a stable, rather than in a growth mode of management, he explains, is like being retired without having left the farm yet.
Contact: Ron Witherspoon is the CEO of Interactive Management Group and a former vice-president of Human Resources at Farm Credit Canada. He can be reached at www.interactivemanagementgroup.com