I have interviewed many farm and agribusiness CEOs over the years about strategy. Mostly, they talk in venues of processes and functional plans. When I interview women CEOs about strategy, however, they speak differently. They talk about hard decisions they have faced regarding the farm business, about whether to stay the course or try to reinvent themselves. Women often feel more responsible for their strategies because they feel responsible to their companies and the people working for them.
What is strategy? How do you become more strategic? No single model defines a great strategist, but it is definitely someone more than an operator who “keeps the trains running.” Strategy typically involves the ability to see the future and create a vision for the business that drives employees and customers forward.
Cynthia Montgomery, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, describes the strategist’s job as determining what the company’s identity will be, why it will matter, and to whom. “Just saying why you are different isn’t enough if you’re not different in a way that matters to a customer. Think of the distinction Peter Drucker draws between doing things right and doing the right thing. Strategy is about doing the right thing,” Montgomery notes.
Why women make good strategists. Winning strategies are often those designed and developed by the people who really know their business, its markets and competitors. A clear strategic direction can be understood at all levels in an organization, from the boardroom to the shop-floor, if simple to use tools are used.
One reason women tend to make good strategists is because they are typically strong communicators. Whether communicating with employees, co-workers or business partners, an open dialogue stream allows for clarity in executing the vision or plan for the business. Strategic capability requires engaging others and then articulating plans for the future and what it means for the company. Great strategists invite discussion and challenges to their assumptions. They aim to build an environment of brainstorming.
A simple way to improve your strategic skills is to spend time strong women strategists. Watch how they bring others into the dialogue. Schedule a lunch date and ask them steps for building strong strategy and company alignment.
No business loses by having better strategy.
“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” noted former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a keynote speech at a luncheon celebrating the WNBA’s All Decade Team in 2006.
I think of this quote often when I talk to women in rural businesses, particularly in agriculture. Is there a lack of sisterhood among female entrepreneurs that we need to address?
Sure, every woman I know says she supports women in agriculture. But what does that really mean? Do you consider women farmers as potential renters for your farmland? Are you buying local produce from the woman-owned vegetable stand at the farmer’s market? Are you actively engaging women farmers as speakers in your local women’s groups and fundraising organizations? Do you see women as leaders in rural America, or as supporters?
These are tough questions for me to ask and address. I have always considered myself a fierce supporter of other women in business, but sometimes my actions don’t support my words.
When discussing women’s underrepresentation in ag business, there’s often a cited explanation that there aren’t enough women who want to be in the executive suite. But several studies show this is not the case. Research from Washington University in St. Louis finds that women often do not support qualified female candidates as potential high-prestige work group peers because of a concept called “competitive threat” – meaning a fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified than you are. Really? Are we all still playing on the junior high social field? Needless to say, we all need to increase the recognition of our sisters in agriculture.
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has been quoted as saying, “The glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that ceiling.”
I think the same goes for the “grass” ceiling. Do your part to help other women in ag business by supporting them, cheering them on and being a sister to every female farmer and women entrepreneur.
In talking with a farm client the other day, I asked her how things were going with some of her new farm employees. “One word: DRAMA” she said.
Yuck. Who needs extra drama in their lives? Employee drama takes up a manager’s time and is inefficient. It sets a bad tone for the office and makes other employees dread coming to work. Employee drama has to be snuffed as soon as it starts.
The first step is spotting employees who tend to become drama queens and kings. Drama employees thrive on excitement and attention. A calm, peaceful day on the farm is not rewarding. Drama employees will try to spice things up with dramatic announcements, gossip, personal traumas or breakdowns – the emotional kind, not the equipment kind (although I know my fair share of farmers who have an emotional breakdown when their equipment has a breakdown).
Drama employees prefer managers who will spend a lot of time listening to their stories and getting involved in their crises. They often want the manager to “fix” things for them.
How to stop the drama. Begin by working with the drama employee to help them focus on WORK-related goals. Most drama employees have lots of energy. Find ways to channel that energy into work projects and tasks. Set up regular meetings to discuss these projects. With drama employees, face-to-face interaction is more motivating than a phone call or email.
Plan to spend some time – but not too much time – engaging in conversation not directly related to work on the farm. Drama employees love an audience, so give them that audience in a controlled manner…on your time and with a set limit.
Drama employees can greatly benefit from career counseling. Many folks with drama personalities are seeking attention but don’t know how to find validation in a positive manner. Hiring a career coach or HR specialist to work with this employee can pay dividends.
Do not…and I repeat…do not…reward the drama employee by listening to endless stories or lending your ear to constant complaints. Once fed, the drama grows. It’s hard to focus on growing your business when you are growing drama.
Women have made great strides in recent years in gaining ownership and operating farm businesses. Today, women make up 31% of all farmers and are principal operators on 13% of U.S. farms, reports USDA. Women own 30% of the farmland across America.
Texas has the most female principle operators, according to the latest 2012 Census data (see map). Arizona has the highest proportion of farmers, ranging from chili pepper growers to alfalfa producers. In Iowa, one out of every four acres of farmland is owned by a woman.
Yet women are bumping up against a “grass” ceiling. Many women can’t break into ownership positions on large commercial farms because of lack of opportunities or cultural disperity on large farms. Of women-operating farms in the U.S., 98% have less than $250,000 in sales.
Not only are women principal operators running farms with smaller sales, these farms are very specialized:
- Nearly half of female farmers raise livestock;
- Women who own poultry, specialty crops, grains or dairy operations generate 72% of sales on all women’s farms; and
- Very few are involved in traditional large commodity farming.Many of the challenges women face as they try to break through the grass ceiling are the same challenges as their male counterparts: securing financial assistance — particularly in a low commodity price cycle — and access to land. Currently, the business of many beginning farm women are not surviving the first five years. Farming with family, especially women who have married into a farm business, can create additional pressures. It can be difficult to make tough decisions about the farm during the day and come together again for a family dinner at the farm homestead that evening.
What can we do to support and promote women in agriculture?
- Develop support networks offering women the opportunity to work together, share concerns and strengthen their farm-family role. A larger knowledge base and stronger interpersonal relationship skills can increase success.
- Push leadership on the farm. Women in leadership positions have a multiplier effect: Repeated exposure to female elected officials improves perceptions of female leaders and leads to future electoral gains for women. Look for local or national leadership seminars or online training to boost skills.
- Encourage women to speak up. Many women working in farming operations are afraid to share new ideas; they hang back if they think that they have nothing new to say or that their ideas fall short of profound.
- Empower women on the farm. More women should be given the chance to market grain, learn new technologies and run equipment. Today it takes brains to run a farm, not brawn!
How many workshops have you sat through that were designed to teach women about money and farm financials? Invariably, the focus is on financial transactions, numbers and spreadsheets – not on understanding your relationship with money.
Women often avoid the transactional side of finances UNTIL they can accept their emotional connection with money. Research reveals women and men do not think, talk or handle money the same way. For example, since women (on average) earn less money during their lives, they tend to see money as a pool that can run dry. Men tend to see money as a faucet they can turn off or on. Research shows men are better at taking risks with money. However, women are better at investing because they kick the tires, do homework, make their decisions and stay consistent.
I have interviewed hundreds of commodity brokers in my former career as an agricultural journalist, and hands down the brokers say the wife or woman partner on a farm does a better job of marketing the crop long term. Men tend to focus on moving in and out of commodity trades – women are more patient.
By discovering what drives your financial habits and choices, you can experience power with money. Figure out how emotions play into your financial decisions. Use this knowledge to guard against your weaknesses or play up your strengths. For example, did you grow up on a farm, packing your lunch every school day because your parents thought it best to feed you from their own pantry than pay for school food? How does this impact your decisions to eat out on a weekly/daily basis? Does it color your concept of consumer prices, food choices?
Here are two easy tips to begin understanding your relationship with money:
- What is your money FOR? What kind of future or legacy do you wish to shape? In your opinion, is your money used for the basics of living life or to help create a life worth living?
- What does financial security mean to you? Most women are taught that money equals financial security and a golden-paved road to happiness. But money can be immobilizing when you can’t decide how much money is enough. Money can bring guilt or even shame. Work with a Certified Financial Planner who is willing to talk through YOUR emotional and financial goals to security.
The reality is that life takes money. If you learn your emotional connection to finances, you will gain more control over your life choices.
I’m a reader. I’m a fast reader. Maybe I’m more of a skimmer. When I have a problem, whether in my business life or personal life, I go to my bookshelf and look for an author wiser, smarter, older or more interesting than me to give me additional guidance.
This is how I started my collection of business books. They range from the classics, such as Good to Great by Jim Collins and the Art of War by Sun Tzu to some very technical books like Farm Management Principles and Strategies by Kent Olson, a professor at the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.
I have a great collection of books dedicated to women in business, which are always fun to read, given their unique perspective.
Looking for something new to guide you in 2016? Here’s what I’m reading right now:
- Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What they Got Out of Getting It Wrong – by Jessica Bacal. Twenty-five successful women share their toughest on-the-job moments. These innovators across various fields reveal that they’re more thoughtful, purposeful and assertive leaders because they learned from their mistakes…not because they didn’t make any.
- The Better People Leader – by Charles A. Coonradt. This book explores the crucial role leaders have in creating environments that foster success and teaches the principles that unlock keys to employee involvement, engagement and energy.
- New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead – by Barbara Pachter. Are you breaking into a new job? Moving up at work? Trying to make a good professional impression? This essential guide outlines every mistake you shouldn’t make paired with real-life anecdotes to understand modern business etiquette.
- Rich Bitch: A Simple 12-Step Plan for Getting Your Financial Life Together…Finally – by Nicole Lapin. Money expert and financial journalist Nicole Lapin lays out a 12-step plan that rethinks every bit of financial wisdom you’ve ever heard and puts her own, fresh, modern and sassy spin on it.
- Unique Ability: Creating the Life You Want – by Dan Sullivan. Most of us are raised to fit in, taught we have to adapt ourselves to be useful and succeed. But your greatest strength lies in who you are already. This book helps define your own Unique Ability to create the life you want at work and at home.
If you don’t set goals, you don’t have a plan to move forward, right? Hence the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions. The reason these resolutions often fail is because we set unrealistic goals. As women entrepreneurs, farmers and agribusiness professionals, we will always try and conquer the unconquerable!
Instead, let’s set goals we can reach if we stretch ourselves: goals that make us smarter, stronger or less stressed; goals that make us better both professionally and personally.
Here are 5 New Year’s Resolutions that every women in agriculture should consider for 2016:
- Become a better leader. One of the top challenges I hear often from women who farm or manage farm operations is a lack of leadership skills. For those of you who grew up in your family farm business, you may be faced with managing an employee who once saw you in diapers or as a kid running around in the hay fields! As a woman, sometimes the challenge of delegating tasks comes with additional issues related to age, sexism or even knowledge. Make a goal to shore up your leadership skills: attend a conference, read a leadership book (see my blog on best business books) or make a short list of things you can do to improve morale in the office.
- Tell your story. One area women in business excel in is communication. So why don’t we tell our business story more often? Is it that we haven’t practiced? Are we shy? Are we embarrassed? More than ever, agriculture needs passionate women telling consumers about the quality of their food and why we work in this field. The ag industry is in desperate need of “foot soldiers” who can talk about modern food production in positive ways. Make it a goal this year to talk to three new people each month about agriculture, about what you do as a woman farmer or women in agribusiness.
- Spend less time in the office. Most of the business women I know are overachievers. We work 60 hours a week and wear that number like a badge of honor. Yet spending every waking minute on work just means we are going to burn out faster. It also means we become more tired easily and can lose sight each day of why we are in this business of agriculture. We can become resentful. We lose our playfulness and our joy. If you work in a home office like I do, it’s all too easy to sneak back into that office at night and finish “one more task”. Let’s make a goal to shut the door at the end of good day’s work and spend more time on ourselves, family and friends.
- Hire the right people. Far too often we as women find ourselves doing the jobs of three employees, and once we decide to hire help, we hire the first breathing person we can find. It’s ironic that women tend to be more people-oriented, but we are often terrible at hiring! Hiring isn’t easy, but the right people in your business are worth the wait. As Jim Collins says in his famous book Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats”. The bus is your business. The right people will not only bring out the best in your future business, but also your current team. Note: this also goes for your personal life. The happiest, most productive business women I know also have a team of employees or contractors to help them manage their home (think cleaning and shopping). But hold out for the right people!
- Stay up on current business events. I am shocked by how many women in agriculture don’t read the daily news. How can you run a business without knowing what is happening in the world? Agriculture is keenly affected by consumer trends, both good and bad, and by world markets. I make myself read the Wall Street Journal every day – a habit I have kept up since I left journalism school in 1995. Even if I don’t have time to read a full story, I skim the headlines. If an agriculture story catches my eye, I rip out that page and put it into a folder for later “deep reading”. Then I pull out that folder every Friday afternoon. Read so that you have the insight to make informed decisions in 2016.