What Are You Culturing?

June 11, 2021
What Are You Culturing?

By Tim Terry, Dairy Farm Strategic Planning Specialist with Cornell PRO-DAIRY. 

If I were to ask you the question above what would be your response?  Would it be a scientific answer like, "Staph and Strep species"? If you had a value added enterprise would it be, Lactobacillus acidophilus (yogurt) or Propionibacterium freudenrichii (Swiss cheese)? "Snap Test." Or would it be just plain, "Huh?"?

However, the culture I'm talking about has little to do with microbiology but more with the day-to-day work environment your employees and/or other family members are experiencing.  Culture is determined by the thoughts and behaviors that are encouraged or discouraged on a daily basis.

Heads-up: Reality Check ahead!

If you want to get a real sense of your operation's culture be prepared to ask yourself, your management team, and the rank-and-file some detailed questions.  Be honest with yourself and be prepared for some honest answers from your staff, as well.  Even if you struggle to answer the questions that in itself may be an answer -- granted, likely more in the negative than the affirmative.

The Questions: 

When was the last time a team member changed your mind?  In other words, do you fancy yourself as the "Great and Powerful Oz" or are you open to other ideas and opinions?  Yes, sometimes it's hard to listen to other ideas, but this is also a chance to convey how you'd prefer to receive information and what you value.

Can you name someone you're proud of? What's your attitude regarding developing people and celebrating their successes? This communicates and reinforces the behaviors and skills you value.

Do you routinely call people during holidays and vacations?  This is not the odd emergency fill-in call because someone is ill or has a family emergency, but do you believe in boundaries and protecting that time and space so they can enjoy a vacation, wedding, family reunion, etc?

Can you describe a recent success or win?  If not, it could mean you're not great about celebrating progress or personal achievements. This doesn't have to be a huge win, but it should be something within the last month or so. If you can't come up with an answer don't beat yourself up too much about it, but try to do better going forward.  This may mean delegating the task to someone more in tune with these activities.

How did you handle the last disagreement or conflict on the team?  Good teams will have conflict. Conflict is the crucible from which ideas are generated and paradigms are shifted. The key is to have the right tools to constructively navigate the conflict.  If your answer is, "We don't have conflict," you're either living in denial, "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood", or prior opinions have been met with such disdain that your team now sits in silence.  You need to be able to have those difficult conversations in a professional and productive manner.

How do you typically start meetings? (This might include one-on-one conversations, as well.) Do you jump right into the agenda or do you allow time for everyone to catch up with one another? This is how you build esprit de corps among the troops.

Who have you last promoted and why? Now I realize there are some 50-somethings out there who still occupy the same position on the family farm that they've had since high school. It's not unusual to have one senior family member calling all the shots (see the first question).  In fact, I had one college roommate that was not going home to the family farm because, "change won't happen until we pry Grandpa's cold, dead fingers off the steering wheel of the farm." Like a championship sports club you need to build depth in your team. Ideally, you should be growing and developing personnel such that you work yourself out of a job (aka - retirement). Unfortunately, I have seen several otherwise good farms go under because the senior generation failed to coach and systematically convey responsibility and authority to the succeeding generation.  When it came time to assume the mantle of leadership it fell on them like a ton of bricks.

Who was the last person you recognized and how?  This can be as simple as an "atta boy", positive email, award, or all out recognition in front of their peers.  Your job as coach is to help people see the value of the contributions they are making.  Indirectly, this may inspire others to greater performance when they see praise bestowed on their coworkers. Remember the Pygmalion and Galatea effects I wrote about a couple of years ago?

How do you focus on your own growth and development? Do you keep up with the latest trade journals?  Do you attend webinars, listen to podcasts, or download training materials?  If you don't develop yourself how can you develop your team?

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey lists #7 as "Sharpen the Saw" which means, "preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have-you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual."

The Last Word

Culture is experienced at the individual and team levels.  Don't shy away from these questions, but be brutally honest with yourself.  You may want to ask them of any advisory committees or profit teams that work with you.  Their answers may provide you with some unique and very useful insight. 

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