Labor Pains - 2

Hire an HR Coach

Elizabeth Williams
By  Elizabeth Williams , DTN Special Correspondent
Lori Culler saw how her family's farm operation benefitted from her human resource expertise, prompting her to start a consulting company to help other farm businesses manage their employees. (DTN photo by Elizabeth Williams)

INDIANOLA, Iowa (DTN) -- When Menomonie, Wisconsin, farmer Bill Beskar took a vacation last winter, he was confident his eight full-time employees would keep busy and handle the day-to-day, off-season work of the row-crop operation. What he wasn't prepared for when he got back was the "night-and-day difference" in his employees' attitude, satisfaction and motivation.

"They were good employees before, but now they are unbelievable -- they give 120%," said Beskar. His secret? He hired an "employee coach" to give his key managers a four-session training course on how to be better supervisors.

Agricultural colleges do not typically offer classes in employee management or human resources. "Most small businesses, including farmers, can survive when managing first-line employees, but when the business gets bigger and you are managing employees whom you expect to make decisions, it gets more complicated," explained Beskar's coach, Bob Milligan with Dairy Strategies in St. Paul, Minnesota. "An employer will struggle if he just 'learns by doing'. There are too many things to try and it takes too long. Hiring a human resource consultant can help you avoid some of those trial and errors that end in mostly error."

Samaria, Michigan, potato farmer Kim Lennard brought his son, Kyle, into the family farm operation, in part for his strong production skills. But Kim recognized they also needed the skills of his daughter, Lori Culler, who was working off the farm in human resources, if they wanted to grow their business.

Culler added simple processes to help her family communicate better with their employees. "It doesn't have to be complicated," said Culler. "We developed checklists for every process from hauling in seed potatoes to truck driver expectations so everyone knows what needs to be done when." Plus, she overhauled and fine-tuned how they hire and manage employees.

Everything has a process, said Milligan. "There's a process for employee recruitment and selection, a process for performance management that provides feedback and establishes responsibilities. These processes provide clarity to the employees," he added. "And that makes a more satisfied and motivated employee."

"I wouldn't hire an employee today without Bob," admitted Beskar. "He asks the right kind of questions. I had one applicant that, on paper, sounded too good to be true and I was leaning toward him. But Bob asked more probing follow-up questions in the interview and I found out the applicant was too good to be true and was not our best choice."

Milligan also emphasizes leadership and conflict styles and how each person communicates. One Midwest farmer hired an employee coach because he didn't like working with people.

"I'm a stubborn German and I admit sometimes I'm abrasive," the farmer said. "Bob calls every week and talks to my key employee whom we put in charge of overseeing the other employees. It has made a drastic improvement in our farm operation. I understand my employees better, they understand me better and any problems that come up are dealt with immediately."

Sometimes, it just helps to have a disinterested third party keep things from getting emotional. "One of my employees who is extremely competent -- but tends to be domineering -- intimidated other employees," recalled Beskar. "Bob came in and using personality profiles pointed out to the demanding employee that he needed to realize his shortcomings and cool down first. But, also, the more submissive employee needed to be more forthright."

An employee coach helps you understand other people's responses. "Typically, we take an issue and help you understand better what's happening and help develop alternative solutions," explained Milligan. "The correct way to do discipline is to give choices. The final choice is: You can behave as expected and continue to work here or you have the opportunity to seek other employment."

"It's not that easy to change. Even I'm learning from this," noted Beskar, who has hired Milligan since 2009. "I was dealing with a problem with another employee and I was starting to get emotional. But rather than yell at the employee, I went home and thought about it. I cooled down and was able to figure out a solution in a calm manner."

Changing behavior is difficult, agreed Milligan, a professor emeritus, Cornell University. "You don't do it only by going to a meeting. Any education is better on an ongoing basis. To be a better supervisor, you have to change your behavior. There are a lot of farmers who can benefit from that."

Is it worth it? Beskar pays $1,000 per month for ongoing consultation. "On our farm, our efficiency as a group as increased at least 20% easily," said Beskar, who raises 10,000 acres of irrigated vegetable crops, non-GMO soybeans and corn.

Not all human resource consultants are worth it, however. "Earlier we had hired another consulting firm, spending $20,000 to $40,000 to help solve an employment problem with our harvest team. That company didn't offer any solutions that worked," said Beskar.

It's important to check out any consultant and find out from their current clients what they do and don't do well.

Culler found there was a need in agriculture for professional human resource advice. Combining her agricultural background and human resource (HR) training, she started her own HR consulting company, AgHires, more than two years ago, aimed at the farm business market.

"What we have seen is a big transition in agriculture; we have not only recognized that hiring top talent is important, we are now understanding our interactions with employees really do impact the business and performance of the team," said Culler. "We are seeing more requests from our clients in helping them develop materials for on-the-job training, orientation materials, performance reviews -- all in an effort to ensure everyone is on the same page and performing at their best."

Milligan believes awareness is a key step in improving your skills. "Learning to listen, choosing the right words, understanding the conflict styles of the people you work with ... it all boils down to an updated Golden Rule, what I call the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they want you to do unto them."

That's something a good coach can teach you and your team how to do.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In this occasional series, DTN details how to recruit and retain a talented farm labor pool. Read past installments at…

Need an introduction to employee management? DTN offers two scholarships to The Executive Program for Agricultural Executives (TEPAP), two weeklong management courses for mid-career farm and ranch operators. Deadline is Oct. 14. For details, go to…


Elizabeth Williams