With the increasing use of precision ag tools and increased machinery efficiencies, the whole dynamic of hiring farm employees has changed as well. Being a farm worker these days means being a technician, which in many cases requires a multi-disciplinary skillset. Gone are the days of needing a laborer with only strong back and a determined attitude. The game has changed and those who don’t recognize that the characteristics of what they’re looking for in farm employees has changed will be left trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. They say don’t send a boy to do a man’s job. Today in the farming world you could just as easily say, don’t send a laborer to do a technician’s job.
When hiring a new farm employee to fill an open position, there are three things I look for to evaluate hires both during the interview process and afterwards. I have adopted this list from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger both of whom are incredible people managers with their largely decentralized conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. However, you don't have to be running a multi-billion dollar business to put these thoughts into place.
Here’s an excerpt from a speech Buffett gave to a group of MBA students at Florida University.
We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don't have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you're going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb. I mean, you don't want a spark of energy out of them. So it's that third quality. But everything about that quality is your choice.
These three characteristics are pretty self-explanatory. If we are hiring for the long term, we can afford to take on someone who may currently lack a farming background or skillset but makes up for it with these three characteristics.
Of course, of the three characteristics the most important and the hardest to develop is integrity. If you find someone who has super integrity but doesn’t score quite as high with their intelligence or initiative, you can live with that. If a person has the first two characteristics but lacks integrity, don’t bother hiring them. Integrity is based on the choices a person makes over their lifetime and reflects the person that they are. You do not want the task of trying to develop someone’s integrity (if that’s even possible).
Notice there is one thing that is not there...experience. If you are in a jam and need someone to hit the ground running the minute they are hired, then experience may be important to you. However, if you are building a culture for the long haul, then experience is far less important than the self-development opportunities you provide for your employees to grow and stretch themselves personally and professionally. You want your farm team to be like a perennial college football powerhouse...not too reliant on any one or two individual players and developing talent from the bottom up who will one day be the team’s leaders.
I recently saw an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix and a chef named Francis Mallman spoke of his philosophy of developing chef’s underneath him. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said, “When an employee of mine becomes comfortable they stop growing, and when they stop growing there’s nothing more for me to teach them and it’s time for us to part ways.” Many of us would never think of doing this with a long-time employee but I have to admit, there is a lot of truth to what Mallman is saying. It should be on us as employers to create environments to help our employees grow their skill sets and foster personal development. If we do this correctly, even the most developed, long-time employees will continue to grow and evolve as employees and as people. Just remember to take some time and think about how to create this environment. If the environment and culture are good, and you evaluate your employees based on their intelligence, initiative and integrity then you will be on your way to building a first class organization that will reflect your own personal values and operates magnificently.