Beyond the Barn: Healthy Culture Drives Business Success – Jon Wilcox

Posted on June 26, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Jon Wilcox, Vita Plus western region dairy team sales manager

A family with energetic boys raised cattle on a hobby farm. A well-intentioned neighbor, with decades of experience in cattle production, was critical of the “results” he saw and often shared his wisdom.

One evening, as the neighbor was chastising the father, the mother finally stepped in and said, “You don’t seem to understand. We’re not really raising cattle on this farm. We’re raising boys!”

It’s true that agriculture has evolved tremendously and the hobby farm in this story is an idealized lifestyle with few similarities to the pressures and stresses of global markets, fast changing new technologies, specialization, commodity price fluctuations, and government compliance issues that we wrestle with today. Change has become the constant in agricultural operations and yet, despite all this, there’s still a strong family component in almost all operations.

Family relationships can complicate an already complicated business with another layer of intimate experiences, expectations, differing ages and shared history. This can have subtle or blatant effects on how decisions are reached. The effects can be deeply satisfying and a source of pride for all involved. But when they are dysfunctional, it’s like watching a car accident in slow motion.

In my experience, the businesses that clearly define their values and cultures – and make their decisions accordingly – are the ones best positioned for long-term success.

Defining culture
A culture is created whenever two or more people align together.  Families, teams, neighborhoods, churches, ethnic groups, businesses and nations all have unique cultures. The “culture” reflects shared values, beliefs, attitudes, history and goals. The ways individuals interact, communicate, make decisions and perform flow out of the group’s culture.

A team’s culture is dynamic and fragile, requiring proactive management. A cohesive culture can play a huge role in business success. A sick culture will drive the best talent away.

Although “culture” tends to be a hot topic these days, many farming operations may not have much exposure to it. When you’re dealing with the pressures of daily issues, crops and weather, labor and wild markets, it’s understandable that a concept seen as “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t get much attention.

Culture’s effect on business success
Famous business guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” The point is that a visionary leader can develop a brilliant strategy – but it likely won’t succeed if it doesn’t fit the culture of the organization.

Let’s look at that concept on a dairy.  A farm can have good genetics, the finest facilities, strong health protocols and a sound nutrition program. But, if the management team doesn’t “click” and the culture is characterized by bitterness, distrust, disrespect, fear, high turnover and employees feeling abused, well … good luck. The farm won’t reach its potential.

On the other hand, we’ve all seen farms with older facilities, limited or less-than-ideal land, and equipment that’s just adequate.  But those involved are made to feel like they’re an integral part of the team. Perhaps most importantly, the values and culture are built upon deep respect and mutual purpose. On tough jobs, everyone pitches in and people feel they’re listened to and rewarded for caring. They go the extra mile for each other and, not surprisingly, their livestock are treated humanely.

Why does that happen? 

On farms with healthy cultures, everyone recognizes the roles they play in the overall success of the farm.  They know their work matters and they’re committed to working extra hard to see results.  They make decisions based on what’s best for the whole farm, not just the individual.

In any business, leaders and employees must identify core values and consciously build a culture around those values. All stakeholders must be accountable. Only then can a strategy be implemented that capitalizes on the farm’s most important resource – the people.

This article was originally written for Progressive Dairyman in November 2012.  Click here for the full article.

Category: Business and economics
Employee management
Starting Strong - Calf Care