Advice for livestock farmers on improving management and people skills

Taking stock at the end of the year and considering what you would like to achieve in 2024 might include a building project or filling some knowledge gaps.

But it is important to also think about ways to invest in yourself.

Improving self-awareness and mastering people skills helps in communicating with everyone else involved in the business – family, advisers, dealers, suppliers or staff.

It also has a direct effect on managing your business, says Irish independent management consultant Dr Nollaig Heffernan.

See also: Farm managers’ award-winning ways with staff

Having good people skills is hugely important for livestock farmers because they are dealing with people all the time.

Nollaig says that a typical dairy farm, for instance, will have about 30 stakeholders attached to it. “You get something from them and they you, whether that is fertiliser, livestock, land.

Or, you have a relationship with a vet, employee or landlord,” she explains.

“Some farmers say they ‘only’ work with family, but they are people too – and usually the most difficult ones to deal with.

People are the limiting factor to your business, and learning more about people management will help improve the way you handle business negotiations and deal with staff.”

Nollaig teaches leadership methods, time management and people skills to farmers in the UK and Ireland.

She says that while an outward focus on others is essential for managing people, personal development – looking inwards – should come first.

This involves maintaining physical health with a good diet and plenty of sleep, then considering mental health.

Investing in the farm owner

“You have to invest in yourself because the owner is the key player – and the most valuable person – in a farming business. If you use a blunt tool, you do a bad job and it takes longer, so you need to sharpen the saw.

“Being self-aware – how you think and feel – is valuable because farming can be tough and lonely,” she says.

Nollaig has put together a  reading list as a guide for farmers attending her courses (see panel) to continue their learning.

Self-help literature is not necessarily “touchy-feely” these days, she says: it can be found alongside books on best practice in business.

“The titles are mainstream bestsellers; you’ll find them in any good bookshop. They get to the point quickly, with lots of helpful tips, they are readable and you can go back to them.

“Many have rigorous research behind the topic.”

For those who are not great readers, most of the titles are available as audiobooks.

Nollaig also points out that for different learning styles, upskilling can be about finding someone who is doing a good job in management, then sitting down with them to discuss how they achieve it.

Discussion groups, conferences and farm walks similarly offer an opportunity to see and learn how others do it well. The internet offers a further learning format and a chance to upskill on a global level.

“There are so many video platforms out there now, such as YouTube.

“There are also (Ted Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks, which are a maximum 18 minutes long, on a wide range of topics from genetics to business to psychology. It’s a treasure trove of information, constantly updated – and it’s free.”

Time for reading

Fitting in some book reading during the working day could seem unrealistic in a very practical industry.

However, Nollaig says it simply requires a bit of time management, some planning and a willingness to start a new habit.

She points out that just 10 minutes a day over the course of a year adds up to 48 hours – the average maximum working week in employment law.

“And a week developing yourself is a good use of your time. If you don’t want to spend the best time of your day reading a book, you could do it after lunch when we naturally have a dip in our circadian rhythm,” she says.

“Anyone can do 20 minutes [of reading] or listen during a 20-minute drive travelling between farms or doing a routine task.

“Spot these opportunities: if it’s an additional task, you may say you don’t have time, but if it’s a built-in task, you will do it. It will help you work, manage people and negotiate better.”

Dr Nollaig Heffernan’s reading list

Personal effectiveness

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Chimp Paradox, Prof Steve Peters (Vermilion)
  • The Power of A Positive No, William Ury (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini (HarperCollins)
  • Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman (Bloomsbury Publishing plc)
  • The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel (Little, Brown and Company)
  • Blink,Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin)

Business efficiency

  • Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy (and any other Brian Tracy book on time management and goal-setting) (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The ‘One Minute Manager’ series, in particular:
    • The One Minute Manager
    • The One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey
    • The On-Time, On-Target One Minute Manager (HarperCollins)
  • Start with Why, Simon Sinek (Penguin)
  • Winners, Alastair Campbell (Simon & Schuster)

Effective change management

  • Leading Change – John Kotter (Harvard Business Review Press)
  • Our Iceberg Is Melting – John Kotter (Macmillan)
  • Who Moved My Cheese? – Spencer Johnson (Vermilion)
  • Managing – Henry Mintzberg (Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

TED Talks (online)

Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator – Tim Urban
How to Multiply your Time – Rory Vaden
How Great Leaders Inspire Action – Simon Sinek
10 Ways to have a Better Conversation – Celeste Headlee