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Management skills can be learned

Steve Isaacs and Jack McAllister Published on 31 January 2013

Management is an explicit process. It can be taught, and it can be learned. It takes time, dedication and self-discipline. Management is often the difference between success and failure.

Management and labour
Management differs from labour; however, they are not mutually exclusive. Working managers are generally the rule in [many agricultural] operations.



The danger lies in the tendency to believe that somehow management is not “work.” To be “getting something done,” we need to be doing some production task. The following true story illustrates this tendency.

A family with a newly married son was evaluating the potential of expanding the farm to bring the son and his wife into the operation.

A day was set aside for a family meeting with a team of advisers. They spent the entire morning around the kitchen table evaluating options, estimating costs and returns and doing a “what-if” analysis to determine the riskiness of their decision.

A few days earlier the farmer had agreed to sell a load of hay to a neighbour. He had told him to come over around noon and he would load him up.

A truck and trailer pulled into the farmstead about lunchtime, and the farmer headed out the back door to meet the neighbour. The neighbour greeted the farmer with the well-worn expression,


“What are you doing sitting in the house? You can’t get anything done sitting in the house!”

The time spent “in the house” that morning was arguably the most important time in the lives of two families. The strategic planning decisions they would make that day would set the course for the long-term future of the business and all the current and future family members.

They did get something done “sitting in the house.” They were planning for their future.

Even when the same people in the operation provide both management and labour, it is important to recognize that labour (or hard work) alone will not assure success.

Management is a distinct task that demands a time commitment from the leader(s) of the organization.

Functions of a manager pie chart
Functions of management

Management is often defined along functional lines. The functions of management can be described as planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling (Figure 1).


1. Planning
Planning is the development of the mission, goals and tactics that will set the course for the business.

Estimating costs and returns is part of the planning function.

Planning includes data collection, problem solving and decision making.

Identifying, diagnosing and prescribing solutions for problems are a part of the planning process.

Identifying problems is the easy part of the planning function. Identifying opportunities is just as important.

Decision making is also part of the planning process, and good managers use good decision-making RADAR. They can Recognize, Analyze, Decide, Act and take Responsibility for their decisions.

2. Organizing
Organizing is the function of establishing a business framework and defining the duties, responsibility and authority of each position.

Complex institutions or businesses will often have an “organizational chart” to define the structure, responsibilities and chain of command within the firm. Even simple operations like small farms can benefit from evaluating their organizational structure.

Some of the most complex and often poorly defined farm business organizations are family operations. As multiple-entity or multiple-family operations become more prevalent, it is important to define areas of responsibility, chain of authority and channels of communication.

3. Staffing
Staffing includes having adequate and capable human resources in place to perform all the tasks necessary for the farm to function properly.

Staffing includes recruiting, hiring, training, evaluating and compensating employees. This logically includes hired labour but will also include paid and unpaid family members.

Many operations are small enough to provide labour internally from family resources. As farm sizes increase, more farm managers discover the need to develop skills in human resource management.

The process of finding the right person for the job, getting them hired at a fair wage and training them to do the job is one of the most difficult tasks many managers face.

Managing cows, crops and machinery often seems simple when compared to the complexities of managing people.

A real barrier to farm growth comes at the point where operator and family cannot provide all the labour for the farm. Breaking through that barrier can open the path to growing the business.

This step requires a manager who is willing to hire and train others to do some of what they have been doing. It requires delegating responsibilities and a willingness to accept and acknowledge the successes (and occasionally the failures) of others.

4. Directing
Directing involves coordinating, leading and motivating all the members of the business, including yourself. Coordinating the activities of the farm is closely related to the planning function.

Coordinating the staff (even if it is only one) to complete the activities is closely related to organizing and staffing functions. Directing integrates these functions into the leadership and motivation elements often present in successful businesses and institutions.

Although hundreds of books have been written on the topic, there are, unfortunately, no easy formulas to follow to successfully lead and motivate people.

Managers who are successful at the directing function are almost universally good communicators. They are also highly motivated themselves. And they are successful at sharing their vision with others in the business, both family members and employees.

5. Controlling
Controlling is the function of management that involves measuring and reporting data, comparing results to standards and taking corrective action to remedy problems revealed by the analysis.

Controlling includes record keeping, but it is more than that. Complete and accurate production and financial records are common on well-managed farms. Perhaps, more importantly, they are used as the basis for decision making.

To be able to manage it, you’ve got to be able to measure it. Top managers access, assess and use information. They use on-farm data to determine costs of production and to help identify ways to lower costs.

A key element of the controlling function is to compare results to a predetermined standard (a goal). Did the “plan” lead to a successful outcome? If not, why?

Using data to describe what has happened is the key to developing a plan to improve performance. The controlling function provides an important feedback loop into the planning function.

The five functions of management are integrated components of a larger process. They can be discussed and explained separately, but they are practiced in unison.

They are also practiced in the context of producing a commodity or a service. They can be illustrated in a management wheel, where the five functions are segments of a wheel with activities in each function representing spokes of the wheel. Like a wheel, all the spokes are important, and taking out any spokes can result in a bumpy ride.

Management is the key to a successful operation. All five functions – planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling – have to be present.

Few managers are naturally gifted in these five areas. It is just as important to work at management as any other area of the operation. Management can be learned, and the rewards are significant.  PD

Steve Isaacs is an Extension Professor, Agricultural Economics and Jack McAllister is an Extension Professor, Animal and Food Sciences, both at the University of Kentucky.

—Excerpts from The University of Kentucky Beef Book