Recently, I had the privilege of escorting a second group of CEOs, from The CEO Institute, to visit the business of one of the members. He happens to be a farmer and produces crops of various types, and sheep. Sounds simple. You plant crops, fertilise them, then harvest them. You rear sheep, fatten them and sell them. I believe a number of those in the visit, thought that this about summed it up.
One of those in the group made the comment that they were ‘blown away’ with the complexity of the science, the scale, and the logistics of the whole operation. She said, I thought my business had a set of issues, but I feel quite insignificant in the face of this. That sentiment was reinforced by all those in the group. There was an increased respect for the farmers and what they deal with. Add to that, at seeding and harvest, they can be working 18 hours day after day, without complaint. Many of these farmers employ 12 -24 staff and run around-the-clock operations.
Are there any lessons we can learn from our farmers that can be applied to other businesses? Without question there are, as identified by the two groups of business leaders who have visited the farms. The primary one is planning. In order to seed and harvest with the equipment, personnel and time constraints, that allow conditions to be maximised, the planning needs to detailed and precise. For example, when your fertiliser bill is $3m, any savings through efficiency and minimising duplication are significant, or, can cost you degraded profit. So, farmers seek input from all their team, plan, brief in detail and prepare to adapt. As we know, any plan turns to mud the minute you implement it, as something will turn up you hadn’t considered.
This means the second great lesson is learning to be adaptable. The weather, conditions, prices, and a range of other inputs can cause circumstances to change. This requires adaptability with the planning and execution. By using group messaging tools and having regular conversations and meetings, these farm teams are able to swing with whatever is required, and, do so with ease and the full knowledge that they have maximised whatever conditions have been thrown at them.
Detailed analysis of costs is a significant issue. When a machine can cost up to $1m, knowing what area of land maximises its use delivers a return on investment that works. Under-utilising its capacity is simply money that’s idle, over-utilising and producing the best crops using the conditions, is jeopardised. Maximising your assets, material and personnel, is essential when margins are so small that a percentage swing either way can be the difference between profit, or back to the bank with your hand out, begging.
The thing you learn from farmers, is a stoicism, but with a sense of humour. They are optimistic people who enjoy what they do, despite the challenges and the hours that are required to make things work. They just get on with it. You hear no complaints, no ‘woe is me’. They look for solutions, not problems. If it doesn’t rain, they know they have done the best they can and planned for the worst.
All businesses have issues with their people. It’s a standard that leaders spend more time on their people, than on any other aspect. Nothing changes with farmers. In working with farms, what I have learned is that they are always genuine with their people. If something needs to be said, it is. It doesn’t mean they are blunt, just they do not shy away from conversations that need to be had. To a person, they do this with empathy, often going out of their way to support and provide everything they can to increase the level of happiness of each and every member of their teams. I believe this is because they are genuine people, with golden hearts. They know it can be tough on the land, and they stick together to ensure they thrive.
While working on the land generates a set of traits that allow you to deal with the issues thrown at you, it does not mean that others in business can’t take lessons from the way farmers operate. Plan well. Adapt. Maximise your assets. Treat your team with genuineness and respect, and, face each day thankful for what you have got, and the life you lead.