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‘To thine own self be true’

Why we can’t look to corporate agriculture to define how we recruit and what we expect of employees.

The livestock production industry is not so simple anymore. Compliance, regulation, safety, labor relations, public relations, biosecurity, expanding responsibilities in light of expanding operations: All these facets of operational sustainability require both technical competency — how you do things — and behavioral capacity — motivation, a sense of ownership, conscientiousness, innovation, awareness, etc.

Industry requirements of our labor force redirect our efforts from hiring physical labor to recruiting and training people who must multitask: technician, manager, teacher, learner, counselor, communicator, enforcer, motivator, and innovator of processes, systems and solutions.

Producers find themselves competing with corporate agriculture for talented and motivated employees who can serve as critical thinkers in their organizations — the managers, trainers, and financial and technical specialists. That’s pretty tough competition when you consider today’s best students and the environments for which they are geared — classrooms decked out with every technical tool imaginable, state-of-the-art facilities and access to some of the best production specialists in the field. The next-gen talent has lots of choices, and working ground up to become a manager in a production facility holds less romance than Google tech and innovation environments.  

At conferences and in conversations about threats to production agriculture, labor surfaces as the No. 1 concern. We’ve reached a point where the practice of recycling old people and filling in with outside consulting is not sustainable.

What are we to do?  First consider, “What don’t we do?”

Answering the “labor” question will take significant industry focus and investment. But part of the answer to that question is “What don’t we do?”

1. Don’t compete or compare. Provide clarity about who production leaders need to be.

What we don’t do is attempt to compete or compare. A physical production environment is unlike almost any other agricultural business, and thus the type of managers and leaders we need and attract will be driven by different types of incentives, relationships and environments. The type of people inspired by team leadership sessions, technology and structured environments are not the same people who have the intellectual and physical constitution to handle manure management and animal mortality.

So what are we looking for, given the demands of a physical production environment? In addition to a technical understanding of the best practices in our field, our best production leaders exhibit behavioral capacity that encompasses character (this is infrequently taught):

  • Physical resilience to face the challenges introduced by live animals and crops subject to unpredictable incidences of disease, weather and environments easily compromised by biosecurity threats, negligence or safety
  • Emotional fortitude in light of disappointments or urgencies caused by circumstances beyond our capacity to manage. Metrics for success in production environments typically rely on performance and profitability — what happens when that’s compromised by things we can’t control?  Physical production requires leaders who can both tolerate discomfort caused by unpredictable environments and results and inspire and focus teams on metrics that demonstrate how they struggle together, and how they address challenges and learn.
  • Intellectual and emotional flexibility to shift practices, people and expectations according to the considerable breadth of physical and operational triggers inherent in physical production: educationally, culturally, and economically diverse labor pools; introduction of new practices and technologies; and environments compromised by natural shifts in animal behavior and weather
  • Physical and intellectual discipline required by increasing expectations for technical compliance, biosecurity and animal care; and regulation and documentation related to safety, employment, and insurance

Defining those qualities necessary for successful leadership will help you attract the right talent. When considering future employees, character and capacity are more important than technical competency. Often, technical competency is customizable according to operational habits and initiatives. Behavioral capacity, or character, is much harder to train for.

2. Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Define opportunities unique to physical production.

So you know what will make employees attractive candidates. Will potential candidates have a clear sense of what is attractive about your farm? What does a physical production environment demand and offer for motivated employees? We have to help define this for ourselves and potential labor pools if we intend to recruit talented young candidates. We need to understand, embrace and even celebrate how physical production environments create unique opportunities and types of leaders. Consider these:

  • Hands-on experience translating and transferring technical knowledge into physical practice
  • Opportunities to identify and build solutions for physical problems by collaborating with teams of technical specialists, owners and employees
  • Invitations to manage, create, and innovate processes, systems, tools, methods, and even operational approaches to production
  • Capacity and opportunity to own and influence, in a significant and measurable way, profitability, people, practices and culture, especially given the great demand for people who can connect and build relationships with internal and external stakeholders
  • The “make a difference factor.” Above all, consider what “millennial” experts broadcast about the greatest motivator for young talent — a capacity to “make a difference.” There is no better place for unlimited opportunity to innovate and impact than in a production facility. This is a virgin frontier for many operations focused on traditional production methods, technologies and labor practices. What we can promise our next generation of managers and leaders, and inspire them with, is that invitation to create structure, inject technology, solve problems, and minister to a portion of our labor pool that is unskilled or sometimes challenged in some personal or educational manner.

3. Don’t try to imitate corporate offerings. Align benefits and incentives with a stewardship culture.

Research tells us that most employees are driven by opportunities for autonomy, belonging and competency. Yet, our experience in the field of physical production seems to reflect a belief that employees are driven by bonuses and benefits, and that it is our duty to provide them job descriptions and performance metrics.

Perhaps mistakenly, our producers rely on cues from consultants, corporate cultures and universities that adopt a philosophical approach to employment that is transactional; if you give us X time and talent and ensure X profitability, we compensate you with X wages, benefits, vacation and incentives. The job of the owner then becomes defining contractual expectations — the job descriptions — of employees. Everything is tied to exchange and associated with individual performance, which is tied, of course, to operational profitability.

Transactional relationships are not bad in and of themselves; they’re just not the sort of relationships we need or want to prefer in a production environment. While transactions are necessary, they do not characterize the nature or motivations of our best leaders. For one, transactional relationships limit opportunity by defining pay for specific “services” or tasks; so, we should not be surprised only to get out what we put in. People are not vending machines.

I do a lot of problem-solving. One day, I was on the other end of a very heated conversation during which an owner said, “Our employees shouldn’t be leaving at 2 p.m. when their shift is over if they’ve run animals out of feed and things still need to be done in the barn. I wouldn’t leave if the pigs were out of feed or sick.” 

“So why would an employee stay past their shift if they can’t get everything done?” I asked.

“Because we pay them to,” the owner answered.

But we don’t pay them to.

You see the problem. If you have transactional relationships, you don’t actually pay people to have the character and compulsion to do more than fulfill the set of contractual expectations you’ve agreed to. So if they do stay, it’s overtime, unless there’s an overtime policy. What we’ve fallen into is a trap of compensating for everything beyond hourly delivery as “extra.”

Consider the producer who asked his employees to work short-term in another site — which required a longer commute. The producer compensated the employees by paying them an extra hourly wage until it became clear that the situation would require more people and more shifts. The producer had a conundrum — the expense was not sustainable. When the producer changed the program, the employees were angry. That’s the consequence of transactional relationships.

If we are considering what is best for production, we should be asking our employees, especially our leaders, to care and create safety for live animals and live people. So what we want and need is stewardship — not execution of a series of checklist tasks. Our capacity to secure our investment in people and pigs is first and primarily reliant on behavioral capacity to be aware, respond, invest, and care.

This, then, drives and informs how we execute. It should be clear from the beginning that we are not like corporate culture — we don’t pay people to fix washing machines and produce light bulbs. We need stewards, people who align their fortunes and their standard of living with investment behaviors — standards for giving.

How do we establish a stewardship culture and align rewards with people’s capacity to promote operational “welfare”?

  1. As a defining practice, value and mission, we elevate animal, human and operational welfare, and we establish clear objectives and outcomes for how that looks.
  2. We define the values and metrics of “stewardship” by which we assess employee performance. This means the entire focus of our leaders is promoting and maintaining people, animal and operational “welfare” in every aspect of production. Thus, the person who sees animals are out of feed at the end of her shift finds a way to secure those animals.
  3. We align the benefits we offer with the practice of stewardship. We articulate that health and vacation benefits are not part of compensation: They are what we choose to do because they promote the welfare of our people because we’ve adopted stewardship as our driving value and expectation. Health benefits ensure the care of physical self, and vacation promotes mental wellness. We make it clear that our care of live people and live animals drives our decisions, and that those decisions are connected to profitability.
  4. Owners and leaders practice and promote stewardship by the way they care for their employees. This means creating a community of belonging, investing in education, inquiring about family. Imagine if we did for our employee the exact thing that our frustrated owner expected of the employee — made sure they were cared for before we left for the day. Are you treating your employees like a job description? Are you the transactional employee that leaves his charges hungry or ignores their problems? Are you making sure the people who have come under your wing are being stewarded
  5. We compensate people to “own” the job. There are lots of ways to compensate — not just money. What types of “ownership” programs can we build that demonstrate and invite employee stewardship? If we are to capture a younger talent pool, we have to consider their desire to make an impact and participate. We have to understand that employees will connect the value of their contribution to the investment or reward we provide. In some cases, this isn’t big dollars; it’s big contribution. What does that look like for these younger stakeholders?
  6. Participating as influences and leaders in strategic planning sessions that change and grow the business
-Taking ownership for building and growing a specific business unit or functionality
- Having the opportunity to work autonomously to create, implement and be recognized for new systems, tools, or approaches
- Being gifted with increased quality time or opportunities for them to spend with family—box seats, experiences, not counting PTO toward hospital visits or funerals.
-Having owners participating in non-work employee activities (such as community initiatives that support the employees), sponsorship of children or special interest projects, inviting employees to participate as leaders in a philanthropy
  or education program
- Sharing performance profit for the ENTIRE TEAM; this is important because stewardship means operational (not individual) welfare.
- Clarifying a path to leadership/shared ownership in the operation, production facilities or services.
- Having owners provide resources and time off for advanced technical education or for personal education goals.

Does our standard of living match our standard of giving?

Consider this: Does our profitability — our elevated standard of living — match our standards for giving? I am reminded of the one thing that our frustrated owner didn’t think about when he said, “I wouldn’t leave the barn if my animals were out of feed.”

He owns that operation, and every decision he makes impacts his own profitability. He gets to choose where the money goes, and a lot of the money is invested into the owner’s future and the future of the owner’s family. Our owner connects ownership to his future welfare and should connect it the welfare of those he cares for.

That’s what we want to inspire in our leaders and barn workers. That’s the standard we need to hold ourselves to ownership inspired by a desire to steward our operations, our people and our animals. That’s what will make us competitive. If we can pull this off, corporate business will find it difficult compete with production agriculture when it comes to fertile ground for talented people to thrive and deliver.

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