Farm management: How to become a better boss

Farmers who struggle with recruitment and retention issues when it comes to farm labour may need to look in the mirror to see what image they are projecting to current and potential employees.

Speaking during an AHDB seminar on staff management issues, Heather Wildman of Saviour Associates said that farmers are in a competitive marketplace for recruitment, and should think about how they become an employer of choice.

“When you look in the mirror do you see someone who is motivated, buzzing and passionate about their business,” she said. “So do you smile, are you cheery and do you have a spring in your step?

See also: Five changes to employment law that farmers need to know

“Or is your reflection someone who is stressed, tired, angry and quite frequently grumpy? Who would you rather work for?”

Mrs Wildman said finding and keeping staff is about far more than the financial package on offer, so employers have to “step up” to help keep workers motivated and engaged.

For example, for many people, being given opportunities to progress, and recognition and praise when they had done a good job, were far more important in terms of motivation than money.

Teams benefit from a degree of management © FLPA / imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

She said people tend to value quality of life and work/life balance much more – so time off to spend with their families is also becoming increasingly important.

Other employees might put a high value on being provided with practical, but important equipment such as the appropriate safety clothing to carry out their job.

Mrs Wildman said she had also worked with businesses where staff had reacted very positively to being provided with basic kitchen facilities or a washing machine on site in a dry building, which allowed them to take off their dirty clothes before jumping in the car to go home.

“It’s not always the biggest and the best that people want to work for,” she said.

“It really is about the environment, the farmer and the job. It’s not about having the best and newest kit – it’s definitely about how you are made to feel, your purpose and whether you are valued.”

Being able to retain staff within a business can save considerable time and money.

The costs of having to find replacement labour quickly escalate when you start adding up the time it takes to sort through applications, interview people, advertise, plus the time required to train someone up, she said.

“Whoever you are replacing, it roughly costs twice their salary to replace them.”

Personality traits

Mrs Wildman said the best bosses tended to share some common personality traits. These were:

  • Positive attitude – This is regardless of the pressures and stresses that come along during the day.
  • Being honest with staff – If you explain to staff why you are taking certain decisions, then they will feel more engaged with the business.
  • Delegation – People usually thrive on being given responsibility and failure to delegate and insisting “it’s easier to do the job myself” doesn’t help in the long-term.
  • Communicate – Don’t rely on telepathy to get things done. The best bosses verbalise what needs doing and then check that the employee understands what they are being asked to do.
  • Can inspire – Are you someone that your staff aspires to be? Do you act as a good role model?
  • Align the team – This is about pulling people together to work as a team even if they are very different.
  • Give credit and praise – The feeling of having someone say to you “well done and thankyou” should not be underestimated.
  • Encourage growth – People often get worried about investing in training in case the employee leaves. Great leaders surround themselves with people who are better than them – they don’t try and hold them back or suppress staff.
  • Fairness – Good employers are fair to everyone and don’t show favouritism.


Communication skills are one of the essential building blocks when it comes to being a good leader.

Mrs Wildman said farmers should consider writing a mission statement for their business, which sets out in a few sentences their vision and the values they want everyone to strive for. This should then be communicated to the team.

But successful leadership involves clear and continuous communication and team meetings are one mechanism to help people feel involved and part of the decision-making process.

But if the idea of a formal meeting is too uncomfortable then it could be a 10-minute catch-up anywhere on the farm.

Staff need to understand what the targets and goals are for the business and how they could contribute to helping the farm meet them.

Mrs Wildman said this approach required farmers to make time for their staff.

She encourages the farmers and managers she works with to implement an 80:20 rule – which means only planning to fill 80% of their own working day with the work they know has to be completed.

“This gives you 20% of your time to speak to staff and deal with any surprises that come up,” she said.


Recruitment can be one of the most challenging areas for farmers.

A common mistake was to advertise a job with a very vague job description – but it is much better to be very clear about what the job entails and what expectations you have of applicants.

“When it comes to references, check, check and then check again,” said Mrs Wildman.

“Also look at their social media accounts, as it gives you an insight into the language they use and the people they talk to.”


After someone has been appointed, it’s important to have an induction strategy in place and to make sure that enough time is set aside to make sure it happens.

Just because someone joins the business with glowing references and plenty of experience, it doesn’t mean that they know how you want your cows milked or land managed.

A farm handbook which outlines the protocols and procedures in place can be a useful tool at this point.

Significant time should also be spent explaining the health and safety policies of the business and to make sure that everyone has been introduced to everyone else on the farm.

8 top tips to keep staff motivated and performing well

  • Take opportunities to praise and give recognition – but be prompt, specific and sincere with feedback.
  • If goals are not being met then deal with the relevant staff member promptly, privately and in an emotionally neutral tone.
  • Offer progression and training opportunities to those that want them – it reflects well on the business as shows that it is committed to professionalism and learning.
  • Hold annual appraisals – they are an opportunity to discuss what is going well and what is not going so well and also have a conversation about where staff members aspire to be.
  • Whiteboards dotted around the yard can be helpful to help plan what needs to be done and in what order. Try noting down 10-minute jobs you would like people to do if they have a spare few minutes.
  • Get a diary and calendar so people can get holidays marked in and everyone knows when they are happening.
  • Encourage people to take two weeks off at once – it helps to recharge the batteries and gives people time to reconnect with their families if they have been working long hours.
  • Take an interest in the lives of individual staff members and be supportive of their families and hobbies.

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