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What Ranch Employees Want In a Job

How do you motivate and retain productive ranch employees? Two human resource management experts provide answers.

“Can you think of a business or sports team that is succeeding while its people are failing?” That's a question Bob Milligan, Cornell University emeritus professor, often poses to business owners to stimulate thinking about the importance of effectively managing employees.

Milligan, a human resources consultant in the livestock industry, says the good news is anyone can become a good employee manager. “It's about the choices you make,” he says.

For starters, Milligan offers three “simple, yet so powerful” reminders:

  • Genuinely care about your employees as people.
  • Make your trust clear, particularly emphasizing fairness. “Employees may not like all of your decisions, but if they know you are fair, they'll trust it.”
  • Praise hard-earned progress. “Show appreciation; a simple ‘thank you’ may be remembered for years,” he says.

Milligan and Bernie Erven, an Ohio State University emeritus professor and also a consultant on human resource issues, have produced a workbook entitled “Human Resource Management on Modern Ranches.” It's designed to help ranch entities enhance their human resource management skills. Here are five essential steps they recommend for motivating and retaining employees:

  1. Establish a relationship that engages employees and identifies expectations

    Being an effective supervisor to existing and new employees hinges on the supervisor's ability to build a relationship that's motivating, engaging and focused on business and employee success.

    Milligan says people can learn to be good supervisors through the human resource management choices they make. He lists communication, fairness, enthusiasm and trust among the characteristics of an effective supervisor.

    Additionally, Milligan says, “supervisors must provide clear job and performance expectations to employees. Defining rules, procedures and expectations — sometimes referred to as ‘chalking the field’ — can contribute greatly to employee job satisfaction and productivity while also helping ensure that ranch practices and goals are being met.”

    This might include:

  • Sharing the business vision, mission, core values and goals.
  • Identifying the day-to-day procedures used to get things done on the ranch.
  • Being clear about job responsibilities.
  • Defining policies and consequences for failing to follow rules and policies.
  • Communicating and reviewing performance expectations.
  1. Provide appropriate training

    Ensuring that people are trained well to do their jobs is one of a supervisor's most important responsibilities, say Erven and Milligan.

    Milligan adds, “Training should be viewed as an ongoing investment throughout the employee's career. It's an investment that will help employees succeed in their role with the ranch” — and builds a cycle linked to recruiting and retaining quality employees.

  2. Communicate effective feedback

    Feedback is essential to the success of any supervisor-employee relationship — and to resulting job performance and satisfaction. Unfortunately, feedback is often given informally and employees are more likely to hear negative feedback from supervisors rather than positive. A lack of appropriate feedback can make employees uncertain about their performance and how they might improve it.

    Erven and Milligan emphasize that feedback should focus on performance not the person, and it should be specific to a particular action. For example, rather than saying, “You're doing a good job,” say, “I can't remember a year when we had a group of newly weaned calves as healthy and heavy as this year's. The payoff is obvious from the way you have put our new herd health program into practice.”

    Feedback should also be timely. Rather than rely on the traditional annual review, they suggest monthly coaching and feedback sessions among employees and supervisors.

    With a monthly system, there should be no surprises for employees about how they're doing come annual performance appraisal time. Plus, the opportunity for performance improvement becomes a regular part of ranch activities, instead of a once-a-year event.

  3. Offer a fair and competitive compensation package

    Pay is important to being competitive in hiring, rewarding and retaining the best employees. But, most employees say the total compensation package matters more than pay alone.

    To illustrate this point, Milligan asks ranchers to think about why they ranch. Economic compensation, including both income and asset accumulation, is certainly one reason, but there are likely also several non-economic reasons why you ranch. These may include independence, enjoying the lifestyle and tradition, satisfaction, doing what you love, personal growth and success.

    Likewise, recognize that most dedicated employees also work to receive both economic and non-economic compensation. While their economic return includes a salary or hourly wage, they also seek non-economic benefits, such as a feeling of success or accomplishment, being part of a winning team, developing new skills, and personal growth, as well as enjoying the ranching lifestyle, say Erven and Milligan.

    Milligan concludes, “The challenge in determining how much to pay employees — and which indirect and additional benefits to offer — is that every ranch business is different and not all employees are alike. There are no simple answers for questions about pay — each ranch needs to determine what is fair and competitive to their employees. The overriding principle is to strive to be fair.”

  4. Encourage career management planning by employees

    The final and perhaps most important factor in retaining top-quality employees is encouraging their personal career development, Erven says.

    Consider that many employees find that even with hard work and dedication, their job brings disappointment. It may be because job satisfaction doesn't hinge solely on take-home pay, promotions or title; it's also influenced by the employee's personal sense of value and happiness.

    Getting employees involved in managing and planning their career can help foster that feeling of happiness. A career-management plan is essentially a personal mission statement with written goals. “It also changes the focus from ‘having a job’ to ‘having a career path,’” Erven says.

    While Milligan and Erven acknowledge that many ranchers may lament the lack of time to follow all these steps outlined, they counter that ranchers also don't have time for problem employees. “That's often the scenario that exists if adequate time and preparation isn't devoted to hiring the right person for the job followed with providing a work environment where employees can succeed,” Erven adds.

Editor's note: Milligan and Erven's step-by-step manual is available through the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. Call 361-593-5401 or e-mail [email protected].

Kindra Gordon is a Whitewood, SD-based freelance writer.