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Would your leadership team be a winning sports team?

Bob Milligan for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 October 2020
Play board

I am a sports fan. We have season tickets to three University of Minnesota sports (oops, not this year). In addition to enjoying the games, I have the occupational hazard of studying how the coaches are leading the teams.

Obviously, the head coach is ultimately responsible for the team on the field, court or rink. I believe the second team (the team of coaches) is at least as important. Let’s call that the leadership team.

When watching the game in person, the players are directed mostly by specialty coaches (offense and defense in football) who are focused on their component of the games. This is what in management is called execution or operations. We in agriculture are great at execution; we know how to play the game – manage the crop, livestock, etc.

Although the games are won or lost on the field, the success of any sports program is also, maybe even more so, determined by the ability of the coach to lead the second team (the team of coaches or the leadership team). Success here includes developing the team culture that attracts great players, recruiting players, developing players, aligning players in their best role or position and developing game strategy.

Most of us in agriculture are less focused on and thus less successful with the second team – the leadership team. As our farms, ranches and other businesses become larger and more complex, the leadership team focused on the more strategic issues becomes increasingly important.

On our farms and ranches, the leadership team decision-makers are the owners and leaders of the business. In this article, we delve into three keys to successful leadership team function:

  • Discussion, dialogue and even debate are encouraged and constructive.

  • All leadership team members – partners – have role clarity, believe they have input into key decisions and rally behind the option selected.

  • Leadership team structure and operation are clear and agreed to. Each partner is held accountable to those expectations.

The common element of all three is: They require communication – discussion, debate, collaboration, decision-making. These interactions do not occur in a vacuum, and the best results are achieved with some structured interactions.

Create synergy

Better group outcomes the individuals could produce come from open exchange of ideas, thoughts, concerns and feelings. Starting with research by Google on high-performing teams, research has shown that teams with psychological safety have the best performance. Google states: “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.”

Creating a team environment where every partner has psychological safety requires:

1. An expectation to speak up whenever a partner has an idea or a concern. Some world-class family and corporate businesses have even created a culture where failing to speak up with an idea or a concern is considered a breach of integrity.

2. A trust level among all partners that discussion and debate will focus only on ideas and not on personalities. Partners are not expected to always agree with their partners’ ideas – in fact, quite the opposite. They must, however, always respect the ideas.

3. Open discussion of and agreement on the vision, mission and values for the farm business are necessary for psychological safety and leadership team success.

Perhaps the need for debate and discussion is best portrayed in one of my favorite quotes: “If two people on a team always agree, one of them is not needed.”

Input in key decisions

A failure to fulfill this key is one of the greatest sources of conflict in partnerships. Fulfilling this key is especially difficult for partners that were previously sole proprietors. As sole proprietors, they became masters at collecting input and then making the decision; this was their responsibility as a sole proprietor. In a partnership, all partners expect and should be involved in decision-making for key decisions. It is very easy for the former sole proprietor to operate as before, creating conflict because all partners do not believe they participated in decision-making.

Accountability

This bring us to a lightning-rod word: “meeting.” Meetings have a bad reputation because most are unproductive. Members arrive at or after the designated time, the meeting starts late, the meeting is dominated by the leader or a minority of members, there is little flow to the meeting, and little is accomplished. Do meeting have to be unproductive? No.

Let’s address this question by thinking about how we would approach the day’s work on the ranch if we approached that task as we typically approach meetings. Some employees would arrive on time; others would be late. When most have arrived, the day’s work would begin. There would be no common processes; some would jump right in while others would stand around and watch. At some point, the day’s work would end, even if not all the needed tasks were completed.

Just like ranch operations needs planning, expectations, structures and processes, so do meetings. Planning, preparation and leadership by the team leader or leader is required in two areas. The first is developing a structure that is effective yet flexible and enables the leadership team to function exceptionally well. The following are some of the items to consider as part of team operating rules:

  • Identify team members – partners.

  • Identify key workforce members and trusted advisers that will serve as resources to the leadership team.

  • Specify team member responsibilities – agenda preparation, meeting leadership, decision recorder/distributor, etc.

  • Devise a meeting schedule.

  • Articulate reasons for not holding a meeting as planned. (This is important.)

  • Clarify expectations of preparation for and participation in the meeting.

The second area is preparation for and leadership of the meeting itself. Effective meetings do not just happen. They require planning, preparation and leadership. An agenda is a necessity. I suggest that each item on the agenda also have an expected outcome. Every member of the team must come prepared. This means having studied all meeting materials and completed all assignments for the meeting.

A final comment

The reality is: Every farm has a leadership team. You may be a sole proprietor who works with key advisers or your spouse – or in today’s world, you more likely are a partner in the farm. Returning to our sports team example: Evaluate the functioning of your leadership team. Using college football, would that effectiveness make your farm an Alabama or Clemson (national champions the last several years) or a Kansas or an Oregon State (perennial basement dwellers)?  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

Bob Milligan
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