Family farms still need to focus on workplace culture

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This editorial was first published on Breaking the Box blog by Kristjan Hebert. 

Like many, we run a family farm in Saskatchewan. It was started by my grandfather and then taken over by my dad, Louis, in 1978. I started renting land in the late 1990s. In 2009, after I’d spent several years as a CPA with Myers, Norris, Penney, my wife Theresa and I made the leap to farm full-time, even though some thought I was crazy.

As we started to scale the 3,500-acre farm, acquiring land and leasing from landowners, it became apparent to me the family farm was very much a business. On our path to 30,000 acres, we needed to start treating it that way.

Yes, a lot of it came down to finding efficiencies, implementing processes and systems, benchmarking ourselves against others, and mitigating risks that were outside of our control. But, the #1 thing we decided to focus on was our people.

Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS)

About four years ago, we implemented the EOS system on the farm – the Entrepreneurial Operating System. Many business people are already familiar with this method, but I don’t think enough farmers are.

Under the EOS system, we track our metrics with a weekly scorecard. What’s really interesting is that about one-third of the 15 metrics we now track are what I would call “human metrics” – things like # of acres per full-time staff, paid hours per acre, overtime paid, days over 16 hours, attitude, and vacation schedules.

If you would have asked me years ago if I’d ever thought I’d be tracking these things – I would have said a resounding no. But, it’s become abundantly clear to me that people are our greatest asset, our team is an investment not an expense. There is no way we can execute on our performance and production goals consistently if we’re not focusing on our people and culture.

I highly recommend a book called Who Not How by Dan Sullivan. Essentially, the book teaches us that our most important job as entrepreneurs is to find the people who are best at solving our problems and then get out of their way.

Here are 5 ways we are building the culture at HGV:

1) Hockey team approach – many of you know, I’m a big hockey fan and played a lot of hockey growing up. These days I coach teams for both my son and daughter and we constantly talk about the importance of their work ethic, respect, and grit. Everyone on the team – from the goalie to defence and forwards – has an important role. We can’t win the game if someone isn’t committed and delivering on their responsibilities. If there’s a weak link, they let the whole team down. That’s the way we run things at HGV – we’re all working to help the business be successful because we’re all part of the business.

2) Invest in your people – Right now, many farmers are still stuck in the cost versus investment mentality and that needs to change. Yes, a new employee is a cost, but we need producers to start looking at an employee as an investment in the business. AT HGV we’ve taken great care to limit employee hours and overtime, we’ve started offering benefits and profit share in the company. Our employees are all in and they have skin in the game. At our Christmas party in December, all employees received a cheque that they weren’t expecting. Little things like that can make all the difference.

3)  Weekly scorecard – Instead of just reviewing the financial numbers once a year after the accountant has finished the taxes, we have a rolling 2-year budget that is checked to actual monthly numbers to ensure we stay on top of finances and capital planning.  However, the more interesting metrics are those that aren’t financial yet directly drive our bottom line.  The metrics include the human metrics described above, as well as sales and logistics metrics of our grain – things like % and metric tonnes sold by the week, as well as hauled, average price, and compared to budget.  The eye-opener for us was that people and logistical metrics drive our day-to-day and week-to-week business, and it is this execution that drives our financial performance.  We have switched from looking at historical metrics to live weekly items we can adjust on the fly to change outcomes.

4) Giving back to our community – We think it is important to give back to the community that we work in, where our team members live, as well as all of our kids go to school and play sports.  Scholarships at local schools, donations to kids’ sports teams, and larger initiatives like airports and healthcare are the key buckets we focus on.  Our plan is evolving continually with input from our team members.

5)  Trust, empowerment, and autonomy – At the end of the day, you’ve hired people because you believe in them. Give them the things they need to do their job and let them do it. Micromanaging is a waste of your time and incredibly disempowering to people.  Allow people to do the things they enjoy and are good at. At HGV, we say that people will have a job description 70% of the time, but that also leaves 30% of their time to help in other areas they may enjoy. For example, our office workers like to get outside during the spring and help in the fields or drive a truck. We allow for some flexibility to prevent boredom and keep things interesting. We know that people are more productive when they are doing the things they love.

Prioritizing family above all else

I love what I do, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of a long day, I really do leave it at the office. I know that’s difficult for some farmers who say farming is “just a way of life.”

I always say, “If you treat it like a business, it’s a great way of life. But if you treat it like a way of life, it’s a really crappy business.”

Theresa, Bentley and Ivy are THE reason I get out of bed and go to work every day. From coaching hockey, horseback riding and spending time with their aunts, uncles and grandparents, we feel very lucky to have our kids involved in HGV and learn where their food comes from and the important role agriculture plays in our food supply and the environment.

I know some days Theresa thinks my “give a sh&% meter” has broken, but she loves being part of the farm operation, watching the kids grow up here and putting up with all my crazy ideas. I am forever grateful for her, she is the consistent realist in my life.

The team we’ve assembled at HGV feels like family and I’m grateful for them too.

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