John Millington  -  Communication for staff & managers on secondary dairy units

John Oldacre Foundation

I am John Millington, a second generation tenant dairy farmer based in mid Staffordshire. I run 450 cross-bred spring calving dairy cows on a 'new zealand' type grazing system. The home farm carries 240 cows and all the youngstock, and a secondary unit has 210 cows and is run by a single labour unit.

I live with my partner Janty and we have a son, Nathan, who is 9 yrs old. I have two older children, Ruth (21) and Alex (18) both of whom are studying at University. I graduated with a degree in Agriculture from Reading University, am vice chairman of the Turf Accountant's Discussion Group and have a passion for passing on the message of the benefits of the pasture based system and the animals it supports to the next generation of potential producers and consumers. We work with the Countryside Trust enabling inner city children to access farms,farming and farmers, and get a lot of satisfaction from undertaking this work.

My secondary passion is playing village cricket, with a very varied degree of sucess! My philosophy on life is that I may be wrong, but I'm never beaten.


Back on the road

Picking up the thread after an difficult year

Posted by John Millington on November 5, 2013

Appears in Business, Dairy

I am pleased to say that I am now able to renew my stiudies, after what has been a difficult year. Illness in my close family somewhat changed my priorities for 2013, and as a result the Nuffield project was shelved for a while. I would like to thank the Trust for their patience and understanding during this period.

I have travelled to Denmark where I have one week to discover what support Danish farmers are receiving during difficult times. Similar to the UK, many  dairy farms have grown rapidly in recent years and the 400+ cow herd is not uncommon. Virtually all cows are housed continually with no access to grazing, partly due to the great fragmentation of land parcels, with very limited hectares around the barn. Many extremely good farmers with excellent husbandry skills now find that their roles have rapidly changed. No longer are they managing cows, instead they need people skills, management skills and governance skills. Expansion has rarely been achieved after this upskilling has occurred, rather a crisis in the business has driven farmers to look for them. It has been estimated that up to 25% of danish dairy farms are currently insolvent.What help is available and who is trying to provide it? What is being covered and does this meet individual farmer needs? Is sucession planning part of the framework and are family needs being taken into account? I hope to learn some of the answers.

A template for consideration

A review of various literature has helped to put together a bullet point list around managing remote workers.

Posted by John Millington on December 2, 2012

Appears in Business

A review of various literature has led to the following conclusions.

Risks for the employer; Out of sight out of mind, abuse of position of responsibility, need for greater coordination, greater need for communication but can lead to better systems, health and safety risk needs close monitoring, and impact on teamwork, positive and negative, healthy and destructive.

Risks for employees; Isolation, home distractions, workaholism, invisibility to managers can be a career restricter, limited access to resources.

Benefits and rewards; EMPLOYERS; productivity, increased attractiveness of position to some employees, management by results. EMPLOYEES; manage own time, responsibility and accountability, self-esteem. 

What can your business do to prepared to manage off-site staff?

 1 Commitment and support of management – consistent management practices needed throughout the business with effective policies, practices and processes.

2 Clear guidelines must be considered, documented, communicated and consistently applied.

3 The contract agreement should state what times the employer and employee should be available by phone, email, etc.

4 A greater need for a well thought out policy on training for staff and managers.

5 A method of evaluation of success – clear criteria measureable against goals. 

Characteristics of a suitable employee; a good employee is a good employee no matter whether on site or off site, independent thinkers, self-starters, productive workers who understand the requirements of the job, little supervision needed, good communicators in terms of letting people know where they are, seek out communications (proactive communicators), happy in their own company, seek out resources, well organised, actively seek off farm activity, can separate home from work, work with technology, know when to take a break .They enjoy learning independently, have the ability to resolve their own problems, demonstrate initiative, make well thought out decisions quickly, set and stick to a schedule, can handle admin and can pace themselves.

Training off-site workers and their managers; training is critical to success. The ability to manage through outcomes rather than process, clear expectations and regular communications are skills that need honing. Managers must take responsibility for off-site workers. There are leadership opportunities for employers, and employees who are given the responsibility to run a team.

There are three parts to training; employees, employers and team training.

EMPLOYEE; skills for I.T. communication, strategies to cope with isolation and learning to be a proactive communicator will help to retain some face to face communication.

EMPLOYER; need to be a better supervisor, concentrate on results, fine tune expectations, give feedback on performance, detect problems early and deal with them effectively.

TEAM training; understand each other’s problems, negotiation and planning, training other staff within the business.

Be aware of; retaining face to face communication, over use of e-mail with its lack of aural and visual signals, share knowledge and expertise, aware of jealousy and misconceptions, work life balance, efficiency of time use, show trust.

Traits of successful remote managers; are the same as all managers but heightened need for excellence in communication, goal setting and providing feedback. Leadership skill training to motivate, facilitate and inspire others.

Establishing job expectations; Quality- How many errors omissions complaints will you tolerate? Quantity- How much production do you require? Timeliness- daily, weekly and monthly deadlines. Cost/profit levels- acceptable cost variance.

Feedback; assume employees want to do a good job. Inform them of your level of satisfaction so that they know where to improve. Employees need to understand the criteria for their review. There needs to be regular informal feedback, not just one formal review per year. Focus on the outcome, not the characteristic of the person that led to that outcome. The process has to be a two-way feedback to retain good work relations.

Communication; individual preference of style for different people, be prepared/organised, don’t be distracted while communicating, let people speak withouit interupting, seek active listening skills, encourage participation, regular timing of meetings, make them feel included in the team using tools such as  social events, an on-line newsletter with their contributions encouraged and discussion groups.

How to avoid invisibility of a staff member; honesty, their role in being visible, provide support staff with their details, newsletters, include in team activities, frequent evaluation, professional organisation membership, regular training courses and encourage them to communicate with colleagues.

Motivating off-site staff; listen to their concerns, be available, share information, give recognition, provide opportunities for professional growth, treat as individual, be open to new ideas, make work fun and follow through with promises.

Seek advice and experience of successful managers/staff. Find balance between over managing and ignoring. Help with organisational development. Develop a list of “what if” contingencies. Don’t judge how they spend their time, only results (ROWE- Results Only Working Environment).

Evaluating success; employ mechanisms that measure the effectiveness and morale of the staff member.

Reasons for failure; Lack of quality face to face time, absence from the workspace by staff, lost creativity through lack of interaction, unmet expectations of either party being left unresolved.

Common success features; Planning and readiness, varied and flexible communication methods, management adaptability, learning to proactively communicate, all staff treated are equally, retaining teamwork and ultimately a movement towards remote management.

Going global?

Developing a series of processes over a short period of rapid expansion has enabled Spectrum Group to look towards a sustainable future.

Posted by John Millington on December 2, 2012

Appears in Business, Dairy

Mike O’Connor farms near Te Awamutu, Waikato with his wife Andrea. Their dairy farming career includes 50/50 sharemilking, farm ownership and equity farming. As a founding shareholder of Spectrum Group, Mike has been heavily involved in setting up the structure and guiding Spectrum Group’s development

The Spectrum Group was first established in late 2007. It is controlled by five directors, of which Mike O’Connor is the managing shareholder. Spectrum Group consists of twelve Canterbury based Dairy Farms which collectively milk in excess of 15,000 cows and have a targeted production of over 5.2million kg milk solids.  Tower Peak Station, a dry stock support unit based in Te Anau covers an area of nearly 2000 hectares and winters up to 4,000 dairy heifers. This property provides the grazing for the Spectrum Group Canterbury Dairy Farms.

Each farm is a separate Equity Partnership, with at least one of the Spectrum Group directors involved in each of the farms. They run as autonomous companies with their own budgets that the shareholders are responsible for. This ensures that the correct decisions are made for the individual businesses, and are not compromised in the interests of the Group. If it were not structured this way a decision made in the group interest could impact negatively on an individual business, which in turn could lead to a culture that produced average results across the whole Group. This dual board business structure with cross population is interesting. Care needs to be taken to stop the Group Directors from dominating the shareholder boards if true independence is to be achieved, and the structure is to avoid being dysfunctional. This could be prevented by having an independent shareholder board chairman, and may be the case in some of the Equity partnership structures.

Mr O’Connor says that the people policy in the business is not about producing robots, despite the size of the business. Instead it is about building individuals into great agribusiness people. The Spectrum Group believe in delegating clear responsibilities to their mangers and staff, trusting them to want to do their best and supporting them in trying to achieve this. In doing so they set no boundaries as such, but instead prefer to encourage the managers to use Mike as a sounding board for any ideas that they may wish to implement. Tiffany Cawte, Spectrum Group Accountant, describes mike as “the cushion” that enables each company to have a different set of limits that are flexible and ever able to be remoulded. This philosophy to process can allow innovation and excellence to flourish, but also increases the risk in the businesses of poor performance being the result of a poor decision being made. The relationships that Mike has with the farm managers are therefore very important. He describes them as being based on trust and great communication to ensure that there are not nasty surprises for either party. His role is to discover the issues quickly and deal with them appropriately and rapidly.

Mr O’Connor says that “The global purpose of the Spectrum group is about developing young people, especially their management skills and introducing them into land ownership.”  This process will at some stage need a degree of capital and the staff in this business are encouraged to look at “non-traditional sources of capital” as well as the usual sources. He believes in the saying that success drives success, inferring that successful managers should be backed to perform well again. To achieve this on-going feedback is essential to make them feel valued and to enable them to measure their performance. All staff is treated with professional respect, and Mike makes sure to make appointments with his managers if he wants to visit individual farms. He concentrates on delivering on his promises which, he comments, is one of the main drivers in building staff loyalty.

As the perception that land ownership is becoming more difficult to achieve gains momentum, with increasing farm size and capital intensity, some managers may lose this vision as a long term objective. In these cases the managers can become focused on their salary. Without a culture that builds staff loyalty it could be difficult to retain high performing, quality staff. This would not be good for the group, or in the long term, the industry. To further aid in staff retention, employees are encouraged to build their wealth outside of the business, with the medium term aim of being to cash in the investments to purchase a stake in the business in which they are involved.

The long term future of the Spectrum Group has not escaped the directors’ thoughts. The group do not have the security of ownership enjoyed by Landcorp, but does need to think along similar long term lines if it is to best secure its future. As the business matures it may be best to introduce a non-shareholder Chairman. Their role would be to provide a continuity of vision for the Group, which is “easier to do with no emotional connection with the money being spent to achieve it”, say Mr O’Connor. The business purpose can then move to one of looking to provide food production solutions instead of yearly profits. A move into research and development could be the next stage of progression for this business.

In term of the functions of a Board outlined in the last blog, The Spectrum Group could be summarised as detailed below:

The strategy is outlined as one of business longevity with a focus on people development and retention. A global purpose is beginning to emerge.

The culture is one of inclusiveness through delegation, trust and support. A structure of good governance has been progressively developed with a degree of “back filling” as the business has rapidly grown. All shareholders, no matter the size of their investment, have a pathway to leave the business if their personal vision changes.  The retention of an unhappy shareholder can lead to inconsistency of message and the breakdown of a culture.

All of the directors of the Spectrum Group are farmers. Although this makes understanding of each other’s positions easier and brings a mutual respect for each other’s achievements, it does limit the skills within the knowledge base. For compliance issues in particular, this means a reliance on purchased professional skills. With the culture of expression within their manager’s remit, these skills are vital to make the business a safe place for directors.

New Zealand has a tradition of sharemilking and as such has farmers who are used to standing back, leaving others to manage their businesses. This clear division of responsibility is accompanied with a tradition of accountability both of others and of oneself.

Mike O’Connor is obviously a people person, open and welcoming. He is ideally suited for the role that he performs with no little skill and determination to complete on his responsibilities. He leads his staff by example, knowing when to examine his own performance as well as that of others. I’d like to thank him for the time he put aside, and that of his two associates, Tiffany and Shona.  




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