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Motivating employees: Is there a silver bullet?

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Nebraska veterinarian says measuring daily progress, finding purpose and building relationships are crucial.

What are the two main objectives for a sow farm manager or farrowing lead? The first is getting results. The second, Larry Coleman says, might be more problematic, and that's retaining your employees.

"Obviously, you can get results by driving people hard, but if you have constant turnover, eventually you're going to fail on No. 1," says the veterinarian from Broken Bow, Neb.

Coleman says it's important to remember what it's like to work in the farrowing house when managing employees. It's fast paced, physically demanding and mentally challenging.

"This is for a person who doesn't mind, moving quickly through the course of their day. I would suggest if you're a slow walker and a deliberate personality, then maybe the farrowing house is not the best task suited for you," Coleman says. "There's a lot of walking, but there's also a lot of bending down, squatting down. You have to assist sows and you have to pick up a lot of pigs. I would suggest it is one of the more physically demanding jobs on a farm.

"Thirdly, I think under appreciated. It's also mentally challenging every day. It's a complex puzzle, where to put all of these pigs. There's cold pigs, there's hungry pigs, there's a wrong number of pigs, there's always challenges that have to be solved by a mental effort and this is not intrinsic on how to make all this happen."

With those job characteristics in mind, sow managers and leads need to help employees measure their success daily, Coleman says.

"This is a very logical thing to accomplish because in a farrowing house … basically there's a lot of pigs to count, there's stillbirths to count, there's piglet deaths to count, and mathematically, it's very easy to figure out at the end of the day, whether it's been a good day or a problematic day on the farms that I work with," Coleman says.

On a daily basis, Coleman's farrowing house clients figure out the net gain of piglets, which is simply the number of piglets that have been born alive for the day minus the number of piglets that have died anywhere on the farm, divided by the sows farrowed. For example, if you had 110 pigs born alive, and there were 10 dead pigs, you've gained 100 pigs that day. If it took 10 farrowings to accomplish it, that would be a net gain of 10, which Coleman says would not be a good day.

At the farrowing house, it is common for staff to talk about their daily success. Coleman suggests managers need to promote these kinds of conversations to keep employees motivated and in a competitive game.

Next, Coleman says managers need to help farrowing house employees find purpose in their work, which should be relatively easy.

"Because a good caregiver in the farrowing house, if you take an hour break in a busy farrowing house, there will literally be pigs that don't survive because you're not there," Coleman says. "Your daily job is saving lives of piglets and helping them get off to a good start. It's easy to see. It's easy to count and I would suggest that if you constantly remind your employees how important they are, because without them pigs die, pigs don't thrive."

Coleman sees the purpose of "saving babies" much more motivating than something financial and is the reason he does not recommend putting farrowing house personnel in charge of any euthanizations on the farm.

The veterinarian says it is also essential for managers to build relationships with their employees. "This is hard because it takes lots and lots of time," Coleman says. "We all are not opposed to building relationships, but we always like to pick and choose maybe who those relationships are [with]."

Emotions are contagious, so managers need to be cognizant of the emotions they are presenting in the farrowing house daily. Greet employees, use their names and talk to them.

"The people that are direct reports of yours, do you know the names of their children?" Coleman asks. "I would suggest that if you know the names of their children, then you are probably taking the time to talk to them on occasion. If you don't know the names of their children, then we might need to revisit it."

Managers do need to tell employees what to do, however Coleman suggests a much more productive way is to ask people to do things and then inspire them into action.

"I understand that this is the principle that is taught in the U.S. military and leadership school," Coleman says. "For example, if it is necessary to take a hill, as a commanding officer you ask the soldiers if they think they can do it and tell them the need of why it's so important and spend the rest of your time inspiring them to action. That's a much better principle than command and control where you say get this done or there'll be consequences."

After the work is done, Coleman says it is critical to debrief. There are many questions managers can ask employees at the end of a shift to check in on the day's events.

Once a sow farm manager is more seasoned, they can eventually progress from managing a person for a specific job on farm to coaching them for life success — a task Coleman says he has relished and has given him great job satisfaction throughout his career.

"When you become interested in people as people, even if you develop them to the point where they're capable of leaving, leaving your farm or another role or another position, that is when you will find motivated employees because they realize that you care for them as a person," Coleman says. "I would suggest once you can transition into a coach and become truly interested in caring for these people, developing these people and trying to move those into new positions, you'll find that you have very motivated people."

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