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Care Personally, Challenge Directly

Taylor Leach

February 15, 2021

Effective leaders have the ability to motivate their team, communicate well and quickly solve problems in an ever-changing workplace. These qualities are evident in Garrett Miller, a manager and partner at Aurora-Oakwood Dairy in Auburn, N.Y. He is also a partner at nearby Aurora-Ridge Dairy.

As a manager since 2009, Miller has learned a thing or two about what it takes to build a reliable team, which consists of 25 people.

“Employees are the ones who really make what we do possible, especially on a larger scale,” he says. “My motto is ‘Care personally; challenge directly.’ You have to have personal conversations with your employees to establish relationships built on trust and respect. You get more out of your people on a daily basis by doing that. They know you care about them, and they know they’re not just a number.”

For more than a decade, Miller has worked every day to develop meaningful relationships with his teammates, but their trust wasn’t gained overnight.

Build Culture

Working alongside his employees, Miller tries to set a constant example of good work ethic. Whether it’s assisting with everyday tasks or staying late to help finish up a project, he works right beside his teammates day in and day out.

“I’m in the trenches every day with these people making sure we’re getting things done,” Miller says. “I want to make sure I’m seeing what they’re seeing, too.”

But it’s not all work all the time. Miller makes sure to add a little fun into the mix now and then.

“It was a little harder with COVID this year, but one thing we did last winter was host a bowling tournament,” Miller says. “We had it at a local bowling alley, and our shop manger made this awesome trophy with a bowling ball at the top. The two dairies got to compete against each other, and Aurora-Ridge brought the trophy home last year.

Anything we can do outside of work to promote teamwork is a good way to keep employees engaged.”

As it turns out, keeping employees engaged is one of the top ways to reduce turnover on the farm.

“When employees feel like an organization is investing in their development, they bring that back to their team, which can fuel higher performance,” says Rob Snarskis, a customer success manager for Quantum Workplace.

Allow for Growth

Another way Miller leads and encourages his team is by allowing them to grow. This means giving them opportunities to become more independent in their roles and take responsibility for certain areas of the farm.

“There are different kinds of people out there,” Miller says. “Some just want to show up, punch the clock, do their shift and then go home, but a lot of people want to grow. To provide that opportunity, you have to provide an environment where they can think on their own.”

Having employees create goals for themselves is an effective way to increase labor retention and employee performance, Snarskis says. He believes when everyone on your team is working toward personal and farmwide goals, employees are more motivated and energized to get the job done.

“Goals create alignment by uniting employees, managers and leaders around a common purpose,” Snarskis says. “They provide direction for employees on how to spend their time and how to make decisions.”

However, setting goals isn’t the only way to allow for growth in the workforce. Providing recognition is another way to help strengthen the team. Bob Milligan, senior consultant at Dairy Strategies and former Cornell University professor, suggests becoming a CCO – Chief Cheering Officer for your operation.

“Home fans for sports teams cheer loudly whether their team is struggling or their team appears to have gained some momentum,” Milligan says. “You need to do the same for your team. Excellent and specific feedback encourages and motivates employees.”

Find the Right Fit

“Finding employees can be really hard, and it’s something we’re currently struggling with,” Miller says. “We’ve advertised on Indeed and put ads in the newspaper, but it’s just getting harder and harder to hire local people.”

To poise your farm for future growth and success, you need to be recruiting strong candidates, according to Richard Hadden, a leadership consultant at Contented Cow Partners.

“We often start recruiting the moment we have an opening,” Hadden says. “That’s like going to the grocery store when we’re hungry; we’ll buy anything.”

But as Miller mentioned, finding the right people is easier said than done. However, it’s important to not fill a position just because somebody applies.

“The I-just-need-somebody phrase is when we get into trouble,” adds Kathy Peterson, a human resources specialist and founder of PeopleWorks. “Look for people who come in with a really awesome work ethic. Then train them on the agricultural aspects.”

To help find quality workers, use every recruiting source possible, and think outside of the box when it comes to the ideal candidate. Peterson and Hadden suggest the following methods.

Word of mouth: Your best recruiting tool is your reputation as an employer, Hadden says. Become involved in local and/or regional organizations to expand your network.

The internet or social media: You never know who might stumble upon your post. For a small fee, Peterson says you can boost your ads so they’re seen by more potential applicants.

Trade magazines: Magazines within the ag industry are still regularly read and have a longer shelf life than newspapers. Plus, you might find potential employees with farm backgrounds.

Train the Trainer

Bringing new employees on board can be stressful for the new hire and the manager. Done right, it can lead to a productive, long-term relationship that’s good for both parties. Done wrong, it can result in frustration all around and a potentially expensive firing.

“The first 30 days of a new employee on the farm dictate what kind of employee he or she will be,” says Michelle Painchaud, president and CEO of the Painchaud Performance Group, a human-performance consulting firm. “When you onboard effectively, you’ll have a higher performing employee. More productive employees lead to more profitable businesses.”

When a new teammate is introduced to Miller’s farm, he tries to get them off to the best start possible. Typically, that begins with safety training, an introduction to other employees and a quick tour around the operation. From there, he likes to start the new teammate off slow in their new position, then follow up with them to make sure they are feeling comfortable. However, the best way to accomplish this starts with adequate training.

“One thing that’s really important is picking the right people to train [the new employee,]” Miller says. “You want to pick the guys who are doing a better job, who realize the importance of training and who have a higher level of skill in their field to train your new employees.”

At the end of the day, Miller is driven to foster meaningful relationships with employees so they are energized to come to work at Aurora-Oakwood Dairy.

Words of Wisdom

For effective leadership, Garrett Miller, manager and partner at Aurora-Oakwood Dairy, offers these tips.

Build Trust and Earn Respect.

“You have to build trust and earn respect,” Miller says. This can be accomplished by establishing a team environment, providing regular performance feedback and keeping communication lines open. “It’s important to lay that groundwork early on in order for trust and respect to grow,” he says.

Establish Ground Rules

“There has to be rules and there has to be repercussions for breaking those rules,” Miller advises. “Chalk the field to let employees know where you stand.” Unfortunately, bad behavior can sometimes cause a snowball effect. If one employee gets away with it, others might think they can get away with it too.

Care Personally; Challenge Directly

“You’ve got to care about your employees, but you’ve also got to challenge them and let them know that there’s opportunity,” Miller says. “Give them that opportunity to grow and advance.”



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