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Follow the leader – it all starts with you!

  • 7 min read

If you do an online search for the traits and actions that define a great boss or team leader, you will find hundreds of books, articles and webinars to guide you. You can also find an endless supply of great quotes from political and military leaders that are truly inspiring. There is an entire industry devoted to helping people become better and more effective leaders and employers. The resources are available, but it can be overwhelming. Where to start?

Our goal with this series of articles is to provide the foundational skills and strategies involved in managing people. This introductory article looks at how a leader’s actions and management style influences their team, whether it’s one employee or 30.

Farm businesses have evolved from where the leadership position was passed down from generation to generation within a family, and the workforce was primarily family members. As farms grow in scale and scope, more non-family employees are required, leading to a more diverse workforce.  Instead of just working with family or neighbours, you may be hiring new Canadians, temporary foreign workers and people with a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The success of the business depends in large part on how the team performs. And whether the team is made up of family members or hired staff, it all starts with the leadership provided by the boss or team manager.

It’s important to understand that while the terms leader and manager are often used interchangeably, they describe different roles. For example, leaders think long term, take risks, coach rather than micromanage their team members and always think about ways to move the team forward through strategy and innovation. Managers execute the vision in the short term, maintain a solid process and stick to the plan. A natural-born, instinct-driven leader may find they need to sharpen their manager skillset to be more disciplined and process-oriented. Likewise, a manager who struggles to connect with and motivate their team could benefit from improved leadership skills.

Before we start examining how to select, develop, engage and retain good employees, a logical first step is to self-assess as a leader and understand how your attitude, personality, time management and decision-making processes create the work environment or culture that employees will be exposed to and pattern their behaviour on.

So, the question is, what kind of leader or manager are you? Before you can answer, it’s important to know what kind of person you are.

Self-awareness reveals leadership style

Some leaders never take the opportunity to self-assess and, without realizing it, attempt to hire a team of people that are clones of themselves. The result is a team with all the same strengths and weaknesses of the leader – not optimal. Know yourself and how your personality, management style and decision-making tendencies determine what kind of leader you are.

There are many paths you can take here, ranging from an in-depth self-assessment in partnership with an HR professional or reputable coach to taking a Meyers-Briggs or other credible personality test, to something informal that you do yourself. Honesty is required. It’s fair to recognize your strengths, but it’s going to be more valuable to identify things about yourself that keep you from being the best leader you can be. (See 8 great questions to ask yourself).

Are you a reactive person that makes decisions on the spot based on emotion, intuition or a gut feeling? Or, are you a contemplative person who prefers to gather all the information at hand and take time to consider everything before pulling the trigger on a decision?  Are you a people person who values in-person interaction with team members or are you more comfortable directing the team via email or written communication?  Are you organized and consistent in your interactions with the team or free-wheeling and unpredictable? You can see how these different personality traits would present different work environments for your team. Being aware of strengths and weaknesses becomes a superpower for leaders. Acknowledging that they can’t be awesome at everything helps leaders surround themselves with employees that complement their strengths.

Emotional intelligence and the ability to connect

Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is another term that you’ll encounter as you move through a process of leadership self-assessment and self-awareness. EQ is a measure of your ability to be aware of emotions and how they impact personal and professional relationships. Many leaders are incredibly intelligent, but it’s how they connect with people on an emotional level that makes them successful. If this is an area that you know is a weakness for you, there are techniques that can help improve your emotional intelligence, understand different emotions and manage them.

Leaders often strive to take emotion out of the equation when making business decisions. It’s all about the facts, data, and experience. But today’s leaders are putting more emphasis on emotions and being mindful of how all of us, managers and employees, operate on different emotional spectrums. Ignoring emotions, both your own and your employees', makes it impossible to optimize team performance.

The faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University in Halifax offers a two-session online course to help farmers learn techniques to understand, use and appreciate the role of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Creating a culture

There are a lot of factors that go into creating a corporate or workplace culture. Everything from dress code, safety protocols, office or workplace environment, benefit and wage levels, and how clients are treated - these are all part of the culture. But let’s look at how your leadership plays into it.

Workplace culture refers to the beliefs and behaviours that determine how a company's employees and management interact and how everyone goes about their day-to-day tasks. It can be a subtle thing that develops over time – often the case with family businesses where the corporate culture mirrors the family values. When employees are non-family members, a more defined and documented approach to culture may be beneficial.

The leader sets the tone and needs to be aware of their influence on how employees behave and interact internally and with customers. The influence can be positive or negative so starting on the right path is far better than changing an ingrained negative culture. Keep in mind that the status quo is perfectly designed to get the results it gets, and a leader gets what they are willing to put up with and walk by every day.

An intentional and clearly articulated workplace culture lets the team know that how they do things is just as important as what they do. It’s not exaggerating to say that as a company and staff grows, creating, refining and maintaining a positive culture becomes a priority for anyone responsible for leading a team.  

A leader’s behaviour and management style will set the standard for employee behaviour. Regardless of what the employee handbook says, if you take a cavalier approach to workplace safety issues, you send a signal that it’s acceptable. If you are volatile with employees and dismissive of clients, that is likely to become part of your workplace culture. It’s often said that leaders bring the weather – what kind of weather do you want to bring?

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has created a program called Becoming the Employer of Choice that helps farmers improve their human resources skills. Part of this program examines workplace culture and how to build, improve and maintain it. An employee survey – Working on this Farm is presented as an important first step in understanding how the team sees the culture. The survey results are used to take actionable steps to improve the workplace culture. It’s simple, but not something that every farm manager undertakes.

As we progress through this series about managing people, self-evaluation for leaders will be an ongoing theme. A key element of effective leadership is continuous self-evaluation and making the necessary changes to optimize team performance and fulfilment.

8 critical questions for leaders to ask themselves

An article by Diane Gottsman that ran in Inc. magazine a few years ago provides a compelling list of questions to help leaders self-assess their influence on employees and workplace culture such as:

  1. What kind of environment are you creating for employees?
  2. Are you setting the example you want employees to follow?
  3. Do you understand your employees’ motivation?
  4. Would employees say you communicate well?
  5. Are you accessible to your employees?
  6. Are you encouraging an atmosphere of professional growth?
  7. Does your team understand your expectations?
  8. Are you letting your team do their job?