Smart Series Midsummer 2018: Sneak Peek

Five business lessons from the farm

Growing up on a grain farm in North Dakota, there were many lessons my dad taught me. When reflecting on some of these practical lessons, I recognize many of them as analogies for business principles. Here are a few:

Wash from the top down. Part of an early lesson on cleaning a vehicle was making sure to wash the dirt from the top to the bottom. When thinking about business leadership, the same principle applies. If we are going to make change happen in an organization, we need to start at the top first. If we’re at the top, then change starts with us.

Keep your eye on the horizon. When first learning to work ground straight, I was coached to find an object in the distance to focus on during the first pass rather than looking right in front of me. The tractor would then ‘magically’ make a bee-line straight to the target. In business, we need a picture of the future in mind to focus on and help us with day-to-day decisions. If we get too focused on what’s right in front of us, our path is certain to get off course.

Know where the wind is blowing. North Dakota is windy and I quickly learned the importance of knowing which direction the wind is blowing. If you didn’t keep that front of mind, you might get a truck cab full of chaff in harvest or tweak the pick-up door in the spring. As a farm leader, knowing the wind means staying tuned in to reality. What’s changing in our market? What’s coming that could threaten our business? It’s about understanding reality, and rather than fighting it – using it to your advantage when you can.

Scrape the old paint. When we needed to paint a fence or building on the farm, the first lesson was to put the work into preparing the surface well. As much as I disliked scraping paint, I was taught that if you want the improvement to last – you have to put the work in ahead of time. The same goes for building a great business; much of the work must go into things that are never seen in the end. This means building your skills, developing your network, and doing the things that are often ‘easy not to do’ early in the life of the business.

Plant trees. Dad was always deliberate about planting trees to provide shade and protection. When he put work into tending the trees when they were young, it wasn’t with the goal of what they would do that year. It was a recognition that the benefit wouldn’t be seen for ten or twenty years. The same goes for farm businesses – if we notice something that would make our business better, we could get discouraged by thinking, “That will take ten years!” But a ‘plant the tree’ mindset says that the only way we are going to get that benefit in ten years is to take action today.

The lessons we learn on the farm are many and I’m certain you have a long list yourself. Think about which of those early lessons can apply with regard to your responsibilities and role in the operation and your daily leadership.


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