Up-and-coming executives often ask me for business advice. I love the look on their faces when I say: Treat your employees like cattle, and run your business like a farm.
You may have cringed while reading that sentence. But as someone who’s been raising red-angus cattle every spring and summer since 1991—while serving as CEO of several companies—I can tell you this: I’ve learned as much about business leadership—if not more so—while handling hundreds of cows and scores of horses on my family ranch in North Dakota. In fact, the last two companies I built and later sold wouldn’t have been as successful without my training on the ranch.
People aren’t cows, but treat them like cows
A company’s most precious assets are its people; a ranch’s are its cattle. Both need to be nurtured, cared for, protected, and cherished. If they’re worked mercilessly into the ground and ignored, the whole operation comes undone.
Yet in today’s efficiency-obsessed business culture, we can lose sight of the fact that these “assets” aren’t productivity units to be squeezed for every drop. They’re both living beings with personalities and emotional needs; this simply can’t be divorced from the company’s business objectives. Healthy, happy employees grow a company, just as responsibly raised cattle grow a ranch. I’d wager that, compared to most corporate settings, my cattle enjoy a superior work environment.
Quite like people, cows aren’t going to come running to you when they’re stressed or in trouble. When was the last time you asked a colleague how they’re doing and they answered with something other than “I’m fine”? Then, one day, they quit and you have no idea why. The key is anticipating your employees’ needs to be able to intervene when they need you most. Your business depends upon it.
When a cow is pregnant, for instance, I know by her behaviors when and where on the ranch she is ready to lay down and give birth. Without understanding subtle cues, from the position of her tail to her size and movements, I would be losing countless calves every year to preventable birth complications. My ranch would be in a state of atrophy.
Similarly, in business, it’s crucial to actually know the people you work with: what makes them tick; when they’re sad, happy, in need of help; and when to leave them alone. Not knowing what is happening in a colleague’s work or personal life can result in poor communication, questionable decisions, turnover, and a loss of productivity.
The family farm business model
Running a family farm has also instructed and inspired how I run my companies. I’ve found it to be the most honest, efficient, and team-oriented business structure out there.
On a family farm, everyone lends a hand to help, regardless of age, experience, or designated role. Whenever my neighbors in North Dakota go out of town, they don’t hesitate to leave their kids in charge of the whole operation. Those kids have been riding tractors and tending to livestock since the day they could walk, and their parents have always trusted them with real responsibilities and opportunities to grow. Each member of the family knows how the various parts of the farm work, so they can multitask and fill in for each other at a moment’s notice.
Corporate America, with its political and fragmented organizational models, could learn a lot from this approach. Most departments today are disconnected, not knowing what others are doing on a day-to-day basis, leading to duplication and inefficiency. Worse yet, corporate budgets are often rigid, incapable of moving funds around to where needs or opportunities arise. This breeds dysfunctional infighting for resources and erodes trust. People refuse to share knowledge and resources with each other; they’d rather benefit themselves than work together to advance a greater cause. A farm run this way would not survive.
Some may find the family farm a simplistic or naïve model for corporations. Yet, as workplace productivity is declining and employer health costs are on the rise, perhaps it’s time to revisit our old assumptions. The lessons I continue to learn on the ranch may hold the keys to solving what ails today’s corporate work culture.
Hal Rosenbluth is chairman and CEO of New Ocean Health Solutions and author of The Customer Comes Second: Put Your People First and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt.