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Lessons from coaching leaders in other industries

Mark Uhlenberg Published on 30 June 2015

My previous articles defined coaching, the economic value and fundamentals of building commitment in ourselves as leaders and in our businesses.

In addition, we looked at selecting a professional coach to work with your development as a leader and how to ensure you get the support you need.

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This last article is going to be a sharing of my perspective on the similarities and differences I’ve experienced in coaching leaders from different industries.

Coaching has become an important offer for leadership development. Each industry and specific organization has very particular issues and their own unique challenges. The health care industry is a great example.

When mistakes are made because of breakdowns in leadership and communication in health care systems, patients can die or suffer unnecessary interventions. It is easy to see how poor or ineffective leadership can greatly affect the safety of patients.

Dairy operations may seem less complicated than a hospital, but safety is a common thread. There are numerous opportunities on dairies where the safety of cows and people can be improved through greater leadership.

Breakdowns happen under the best of situations, for sure. For example, when leaders “value” safety and make it their focus, they are leading. You have moved from “reactor” to “actor.”

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I coach leaders in churches, health care, financial management, agriculture retail, global credit transaction management, consultants (inside and outside of ag), farm managers and farm owners. My coaching practice has intentionally been focused on a wide-ranging group of clients.

Any business system needs to perform in order to achieve its vision, goals and fulfill on promises to their stakeholders. I enjoy being connected to leaders in a variety of industries, and my clients indicate that it deepens my ability to bring perspective to our coaching conversations.

What do all businesses need from their leaders?

Performance has been mentioned in every article as key to coaching. Numbers are quantitative ways to see how we are “moving the needle” toward goals. Always make sure that you have some tangible things to observe. However, it’s not all numbers when I help a client develop a coaching plan. There are many ways to measure how well we are performing as a leader.

We may not readily see that the trends of our most common metrics on a dairy relate directly to our leadership. They do. Just like market share or customer retention has a direct correlation to the leadership at the customer level in a sales organization.

Your farm managers are a direct reflection of you, just like a district or division manager is the direct result of a CEO for a firm in another industry. All businesses need a clear line of sight to the metrics that mean the most.

Qualitative measurements are just as important – and often the most important. Leaders are key architects of their business’s culture.

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Culture is just one example of an important qualitative measurement. For example, if your culture is failing because people don’t feel appreciated, that would be vital to remedy or the hard numbers will start to show a downward trend.

It could be a big trend like people leaving your organization. Or it could be cows staying in the hospital pen too long or an increase in DOAs in the calving pen.

It’s hard to learn what the root cause is when qualitative things impact quantifiable results. We learn by asking others good questions, getting consistent and constant feedback.

The following quantitative questions I would ask a leader in any industry or organization:

  • What are the key goals you want or have to achieve?
  • Which metrics do you look at most to measure your progress toward these goals?
  • What is the current momentum to reaching the success you want?
  • How confident are you that you can achieve your goals? Why?

The following qualitative questions I would ask a leader in any industry or organization:

  • How would you describe your relationship with your manager and immediate direct reports?
  • What words would you use to describe how the work gets done in your organization? (culture)
  • What is working the best for you right now as a leader?
  • If you could change anything, what needs to improve the most?

High-performing leaders are influencing results at every level. Success does not rely just on the owner or CEO, but the foundation of vision and clarity for the organization’s key performance goals start and end with the leader.

If “the buck” stops anywhere on setting course for the future, it resides there for sure. Yet we can’t let that stop any one of us making our own decisions about what our roles can and should be in making the future happen.

It’s not complicated. All businesses and organizations benefit from effective leadership. Leadership is not defined by or limited to just a position or job title. Anyone can build value by acting on things they can help influence. So taking action requires no title and can influence an entire organization.

We expect our CEOs, managers and owners to see all and know all, which just isn’t possible. When everyone is acting as a leader, everyone can lead more effectively. And everyone can benefit from coaching, and then we start coaching each other.

What is common to dairy leaders and leaders of another industry?

Maybe the best way to illustrate similarities is to share a few examples of common requests or dialogue I get into with clients across industries. I’m sure some of these will resonate with most leaders.

  • “It seems like all I do is react. I can’t seem to get organized and don’t have time to get to what I know is most important.”
  • “My managers just don’t hold their people accountable. It’s hard to get people that really want to work.”
  • “My manager is too inflexible and doesn’t connect with his or her direct reports well.”
  • “When conversations involve conflict, I just avoid them.”
  • “It seems like I have to tell everyone what to do, and they can’t figure it out for themselves.”
  • “I put a plan together, but before the day starts, it’s all blown up. I want more balance in my life and just don’t have any personal time.”
  • “My (fill in family member/peer) doesn’t have the passion I do and I’m left with all the work.”

Fundamental issues involving people management are most common. They often involve some degree of disappointment in the level of commitment to perform.

When I dig deeper, the leaders don’t always do their best at defining expectations and may not clearly define the performance needed. It’s all opportunity to be more intentional and build a set of practices and process that serves your business and goals. A little more communication yields huge results.

Assumptions are the downfall of a business owner and leader. Where assumptions abound, there is frequently a potential to bring more definition. This area has great return on investment for leaders, and investing in people and process can create more profitable businesses.

I have also seen where process has been used as a crutch or a “check the box” adventure that is disconnected from the business strategy and values of the business. Meaningful development requires a sincere desire to grow the people in your business.

Whether we own a dairy farm or a deli, there are several issues common to family businesses. I’m asked regularly to help facilitate conversations around planning for a transition of the business. This involves building a solid strategy for “how” to do it and articulating a clear vision and set of goals for developing the future leaders.

The “why” can’t be assumed and needs to be talked about intentionally. Leadership transition is vital to continuing the success of any business. It goes beyond the financial and legal aspects of any hand-off to the next generation and requires a strategy.

What is unique to dairy leaders?

Coaching key leaders in a diverse set of industries has shown me that each industry does have some unique challenges. Full disclosure, I grew up on a farm and farmed in a family partnership for several years after college.

Farming is a part of my heritage, and my core values are biased by that experience. However, my own work experiences outside of agriculture help me ground my perception of both the similarities and unique challenges for dairy leaders.

Dairy leaders are managing living systems that include cows, plants, machinery, technology and people. It’s a unique combination. This requires dairy leaders to understand systems and how each interacts with another. There are several factors directly out of your control as a dairy leader.

The obvious ones are weather, market demand, supply and inputs (availability and price). These are core areas that influence the success of a dairy business and must be managed.

Most of my dairy clients own their business. They have “skin in the game” when it comes to making changes in their leadership of people and their business. When you work for a corporation, even though you are the CEO of a global business, it’s different when you “own it.”

This single aspect is a big part of why coaching business owners and dairy leaders has lots of momentum for change. When a client has an insight through a coaching conversation, they can immediately make that change or shift happen.

The biggest difference (that is beginning to shift already) is the intentional development of leaders. Corporate settings have invested in developing leaders and leadership skills for a long time.

Practically any larger organization you could think of has a defined human resource development program and strategy focused on developing the next group of leaders.

You don’t go from front-line manager to CEO overnight. Yet many dairy leaders do just that with managers and wonder why they struggle to lead effectively. Leadership is a skill that can be learned and developed.

Summary

With the increase in size of operations, increased regulations and rapid pace of technology, dairy leaders find that they are leading more complex, high-performance systems.

If you are a successful dairy leader, you might take for granted how much you know and how skillful you really are. I would readily take my best dairy leaders into any industry to lead systems. All you would need to acquire is knowledge of the industry.

I would do the same with my best leaders outside of the dairy industry as well, but I don’t see a lot of defined process around acclimating someone outside to the nuances of leading a successful dairy farm. If you are a dairy leader that wants to farm into the future, you had better figure this out for your next generation.

You will also need a way to identify, train and coach talent that comes from outside the dairy industry because supply and demand for talent is increasing at a fast rate. The market for top dairy leaders and managers will only become more competitive.

Dairy leaders are hungry to learn more about leading and want perspective on how they are doing. Developing dairy leaders has been a privilege as a coach. Coaching is an area that has huge upside for your dairy. Even though coaching seems to take more time upfront, you will go faster in the future. Dedicate yourself to be an exceptional leader.  PD

Mark Uhlenberg is president of The Heartwood Group LLC. He can be contacted by email.

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