How to Rise Among the Ranks at Your Farm Operation

How to Rise Among the Ranks at Your Farm Operation

Picture this: You’re a member of the rising generation on your farm. You’ve recently taken on a lower-level management role and you now find yourself in the position of managing an elder family member or even a long-time employee who watched you grow up. While this transition is a good step in your involvement in your family’s operation, the role will likely come with a few challenges.

So, how does the rising generation navigate this new role?

Wendy Sage Hayward

Wendy Sage Hayward


Wendy Sage-Hayward, Senior Consultant at the Family Business Consulting Group, says you’re going to have to remember that transitions and acceptance in the workplace isn’t going to happen overnight with a promotion.

“They need to be patient. They’re not going to step in and have credibility immediately,” she says.

However, developing a few key skills will help ease the barriers that might spring up and help strengthen the roles to come.

Ask, Ask, Ask

The first, Sage-Hayward says, is to be curious in your role and ask curious questions. She says this is essential to understanding how a new idea might be incorporated into the operation.

You can ask, “What hasn’t worked previously? What are some of the challenges we might face in trying something new?”

She says it’s so much easier to start a dialogue when you’re asking questions and avoid defensiveness both to you and to anyone with whom you’re discussing topics.

“You can’t be judgmental and curious at the same time,” she says. “Your ability to ask open, curious questions is key.”

Communication Skills

Along with being inquisitive, Sage-Hayward says being a good listener is another skill vital to professional development. She says it’s important to understand that different people listen differently.

“Some people are content listeners where they’re critiquing and assessing what people have said,” she says. “Others are people-oriented, and they’re thinking about the feelings and the subjective side of what that individual is saying.”

And it’s important to distinguish in how people listen to what you’re saying in order to be a more effective communicator. You need to understand how to adapt your communication styles so you can connect effectively with the people you manage and report to and ideally reduce stress for yourself and for your employees.

“That’s usually where the rub comes from in those opposite styles [of communication],” she says. “Your ability to adapt yourself so you can reduce stress for others and connect with them where they need to be connected is important.”

It’s also worth noting that you need to realize there will be differences among generations in how those in your operation communicate. Younger generations will be more comfortable in using technology to communicate at work, while older generations may be more reluctant.

“Look at it as a relationship-building exercise rather than focusing on the generational differences,” Sage-Hayward says.

Leadership Styles

Along with differences in communication, Sage-Hayward says leadership styles can differ among your operation’s generations and also in how your business is structured.

“At a founder stage, leadership is often unilateral decision making,” she says. “For some of the senior generations, there is more of a command and control [leadership] style. Because in the earlier generations, there often is only a single decision-maker.”

But, when there is shared leadership in a sibling partnership or a cousin consortium, the leadership styles change.

“It’s often much more of a collaboration and a shared leadership, where people feel like there is a shared voice,” she says.

In those instances, it’s vital that your family is on the same page as far as what type of leadership structure you’re moving toward and where the responsibilities are, which goes back to being an effective communicator.

“Your ability to manage yourself is another really important skill so that you’re not getting triggered by the family communication patterns, by your own self-confidence issues, or by your own ego issues,” she says.

This goes beyond self-awareness, Sage-Hayward says. It’s a delicate line, but you need to be able to keep dialogue moving while showing respect.

“It’s diffusing conflict, being able to assert your own ideas without shutting people down,” she says.

Get a Mentor

As a member of the rising generation, you probably have some innovative ideas on how to revolutionize your family’s operation. It’s important to have some advocates for your ideas within your operation or in similar situations to your operation.

“It can be definitely challenging [returning to the family business], especially if there’s conflict within a system and you have a headstrong founder who is having a difficult time letting go,” she says. “Sometimes the Millennials are going to need some advocates to help them traverse the system.”

The Human Element

Sage-Hayward says the most important thing to keep in mind while moving up the ranks at your family farm is that the elder generations on the farm likely felt similarly to you.

For example, those of the Baby Boomer generation were criticized by the generations before them. And this is nothing new. She said she’s reminded of a quote by George Orwell that reads “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

She says it’s very normal for you to experience criticism and judgment from your parents or grandparents, and it’s likely they experienced similar criticism when they were young.

“They might have gone through something similar and they just don’t remember it or they just haven’t thought about from that perspective.”