A Case For Growing Your Own Leader

Helping employees develop their managerial and leadership skills while working on your farm can have some unexpected benefits.Loretta Leman, in charge of staff development at Swine Graphics Enterprises, L.P. relates this reaction from a college-age son of an employee who saw his Dad change for the better.Leman says the son described his dad as "more relaxed, less judgmental, easier to talk to and

Helping employees develop their managerial and leadership skills while working on your farm can have some unexpected benefits.

Loretta Leman, in charge of staff development at Swine Graphics Enterprises, L.P. relates this reaction from a college-age son of an employee who saw his Dad change for the better.

Leman says the son described his dad as "more relaxed, less judgmental, easier to talk to and a better listener." His dad is a farm manager at Swine Graphics Enterprises, headquartered in Webster City, IA. The company employs 110 people who work in hog operations with 20,000 sows.

At Swine Graphics, they like to promote people from within the company and train them to be managers and leaders, one of their strong points as a company, believes Leman.

"It's a good business decision to prepare people with the training so they have a better chance to be successful," Leman adds. (See sidebar on training program, page S-15.)

One of the benefits for the company is more people stay longer in an industry where employee turnover tends to be fairly high.

Murphy Family Farms shares this belief in strong leadership training and promoting from within.

Finding The Best Spot "Nearly all the people we have in management positions today are what we call home grown," says Stacy Bond, human resources and training manager at Murphy Family Farms in the Nevada, MO, operation.

Bond, too, is testament to the promote-from-within philosophy. She joined the operation about three years ago after being a vice president at a financial institution. Her first assignment was in the breeding facilities where she swept barns and moved pigs.

"When they hired me, they told me they knew there was opportunity for me here, but they didn't know exactly where it was," she says. "I didn't either. But by starting on rung one of the ladder, I was able to keep an open mind to where I fit best.

"If they had put me in the job I'm in now, right at the start, I would have failed," Bond adds. "I had to understand the business first."

Murphy Family Farms has 1,900 employees and more than 300,00 sows. Many of the employees have stories similar to Bond's.

Doug Tennal, for example, was a jeweler who wanted to do something different. He started with Murphy Family Farms three years ago by working on a sow farm. With hard work and initiative, Bond says Tennel has progressed to manager over two farms with a total of 7,300 sows and 30 people.

Bond offered one final example: the person now in charge of Murphy's entire Midwest production operations, Stephen Summerlin, started as a powerwasher when he was a teenager.

Building Leaders Pays The bottom line is that Murphy Family Farms has found that developing their own leaders is more cost effective than raiding the competition.

"We have taken a person and have worked with them and trained them," Bond explains. "We have time and money invested in that person. We have a history with them and we know they are going to be successful in the job they are taking on.

"If we brought somebody in externally, we wouldn't know what they could produce." she adds. "There would also be a time frame of building their knowledge before they would be productive.

"I honestly can't remember when we last had a manager leave to go somewhere else," she says. "This process is working."

Identifying Leader Potential "We think of potential similar to a silver platter," Bond says. "We automatically provide some things to all employees. Then it is the person who takes the initiative to learn more - goes beyond what's offered on the platter - who gets to advance to the next levels."

Identifying potential leaders, however, starts at the interview stage. Murphy Family Farms uses an interview process through Talent Plus, a Nebraska firm. With it, there is a series of structured questions that help identify the interviewee's talents.

"Once a person is hired, we provide the best training we can," says Bond. "You can then start to tell if they are going to be leaders. Do they try to learn the information on their own or is it always going to be fed to them from the silver platter?"

Another part of the process is succession planning that involves the managers. As Bond explains, this is a monthly meeting where you get together with the managers and talk about employees with potential.

"The manager will say, 'Here are the observable skills and traits I see.' We discuss that person's potential and then we look at the needs within the company," Bond explains. "For example, you have Joe who has exhibited leadership capabilities and is a highly detailed-type person. We know that in about four months, we are probably going to have a position on one of our sow farms , for example, that requires a detail-type person with leadership ability.

"Maybe that is a good fit for Joe," Bond continues. "Then we discuss what are we doing today and going to do from here on to develop Joe to meet that need we see coming up in the near future."

They also place time frames on people during those succession planning sessions. Maybe Joe has the capability of assuming a leadership role within four months. But, for someone else, it may take 6-8 months because he/she still has more things to work on and learn.

"Once we identify the potential, we start really developing those people," Bond says. That's where an extensive training program (beyond their basic education and training programs) comes in.

"We get to see how they interact in classes and then their managers watch to see how they apply what they learn in their everyday work life," she adds.

Seven Traits Of Leaders Leman of Swine Graphics Enterprises lists some traits they watch for in leaders at the managerial level.

"We don't have a formal test or a process that identifies employees who have leadership potential," Leman says. "But we know what we're looking for."

Some traits they watch for include:

1. A desire to lead. Some people are more task-oriented and just want to do their own job and not have to supervise people - and that's okay. Others are people- and task-oriented and can get great production and efficiency out of those task-oriented people.

2. Proven work habits. Potential leaders must have shown that they are dependable, take initiative, are committed to the company, are organized and have a sense of urgency in getting things done, Leman says. They must also be problem solvers rather than let things go.

3. Effectiveness with people. They must have an attitude of service and helping other people in their jobs. They must communicate well, which includes deep listening and being clear, respectful and honest in their communications. They also must show courage in addressing and resolving conflicts on their own level rather than expecting their supervisors to solve those problems.

Another trait to watch for is the ability to do the hard things. Leman explains that when a leader is supervising people he/she will sometimes have to do things that aren't popular, such as giving constructive feedback, disciplining and terminating. It's important to ask: Can the person do those things in a respectful way?

4. Personal insight and understanding. They should recognize that they have a lot to learn; they should know their own strengths and areas needing improvement.

5. Being a good example. They must be hard workers and able to lead themselves, says Leman. They should have personal goals and ambitions they are working toward. They must be avid learners, always wanting to learn and better themselves.

6. Big-picture thinking. They must have a picture of the whole, how the parts fit together and how people fit in. They must avoid getting muddled in the smaller things.

7. Solid production and technical skills. If they are going to be leading in an area, they have to be very good at doing what they will be supervising.

Nobody gets to take a shortcut at Swine Graphics Enterprises when it comes to training. That's how important they view their three-stage, in-house program.

Stage 1: The first stage is simply orientation to their specific job in the company whether it is production, support or office work, according to Loretta Leman with Swine Graphics. They also have a full day of company orientation. Stage 1 training is required.

Stage 2: This focuses on the basic skills of pig husbandry, says Leman. But there's also a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills.

"We have more people coming in who have never really had experience with pigs before," Leman says. "Those employees need the basic production and technical training. This is also the stage where they learn to do those things the way we have found to be successful."

Focus for the interpersonal skills includes how to be a good team member, handling change, communicating effectively, dealing with difficult people, managing your own stress, and how to receive constructive criticism.

A three-day, team-building course is part of the Stage 2 training. "It probably impacts our company more than anything else we teach," she adds."It focuses on how to be an effective team member, how to work with people more effectively, how to give each other feedback and correction, how to handle your own conflicts within the team, how to build team decisions and how to conduct effective meetings.

"Another prime course is 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,' which has to do with leading yourself and managing your own life," she says. "We also stress continuous quality improvement, customer service, personal improvement, and improvement of job processes and systems.

There are no shortcuts. This Stage 2 training adds up to about three weeks of classes spread out over a year.

Stage 3: Managerial leadership training is required for those who are managers or anyone who wants to advance to be a manager.

There's a production side and a people side to this training, too.

The production side covers management skills in farm operations, including managing animals, schedules, projections, systems, finance, quality, community relations, manure management, etc., Leman says.

On the people side, topics include things like giving constructive performance feedback, handling complaints and delegating effectively. It also i ncludes legal issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, interviewing and hiring. This stage of training can take a couple of years with meetings one day per month.

What all this does, Leman says, is help people be happier in their jobs because it better prepares them to fit into the Swine Graphics Enterprises culture. And it's a job that's right for them.