Are dairy managers more likely to ask how they can improve as a boss or how they can find better employees? My experience suggests that dairy farm managers are more likely to focus on finding employees. The question reminds me of a recent visit I had with a dairy farm manager.

Let’s call him Robert. I was there at Robert’s invitation to discuss the attitude, morale and turnover problem he said he had with his employees.

Robert was anxious to give me a pretty thorough cow and facilities tour before we dug into his questions about employees. At different times and locations during the tour, we passed within 10 feet of six employees.

He spoke to none of them, called none of them by name, introduced me to none of them and had no comments for me about any of them. I learned a lot about Robert’s justifiable pride in his cows and modern facilities.

I learned nothing about his employees. By the time we finished the tour, I was pretty sure the real question was what changes Robert could make to become a better boss, not what changes the employees needed to make.


Some managers take offense at being called the boss. I am using this informal title because most employees think of and call their employer, leader, supervisor or manager “the boss.”

Research has established that the number one reason for employees leaving a company is loss of trust and confidence in leaders, i.e., people quit bosses, not companies.

On the other hand, I have yet to find a dairy manager who likes being known as a poor boss, even though many bosses suffer from bad reputations and well-known histories of treating people badly.

Not surprisingly, few employees prefer to have a mediocre boss. Most employees do in fact care about their progress, their reputations and the progress of the business where they work.

The goal of this article is to help dairy managers make choices that will lead to being a better boss. The outcome is likely to be employees who are more productive, have better attitudes and stay longer.

I want to share 13 guidelines to help dairy managers become better bosses. Bosses make choices in each of these 13 areas of action and responsibility.

(It may be helpful to give yourself a grade for each of the 13 as you work through the list: 1 = One of my strengths; 2 = I’m doing OK here; 3 = I need to make better choices in this area.)

1. Envision success. Have a vision of what success is for your employees, your dairy and you. Insist on high standards for all important tasks. Treat mediocrity like the poison it is.

2. Show enthusiasm. Display a lively interest in your employees, their jobs and their careers. Make your enthusiasm contagious. Employees easily notice when their boss is having a bad day. On those days, make believe you are enthusiastic until your bad mood passes.

3. Hire well. Poor hiring decisions increase employee turnover, increase training time, decrease efficiency and frustrate your best employees. Hire to meet your dairy’s needs, not because you feel sorry for someone who needs a job. In hiring, emphasize self-motivation, previous accomplishments, demonstrated willingness to learn and interpersonal skills.

4. Emphasize communication. Make communication the key to building relationships with employees. Improve your understanding of communication and communication skills. Send important messages over and over.

Vary how you send messages. Make staff meetings regular, interesting, fun and useful. Encourage questions. Don’t depend on employees always being the ones to bring up important issues, and ask questions. Deal with communication barriers such as muddled messages, stereotyping, lack of feedback, poor listening skills and disorganization.

5. Train employees to meet the dairy’s expectations. Decide how you want each major job to be done and the standards to be met. Decide what you want an employee to do when facing a new problem. Be a patient teacher in helping others learn.

6. Have clearly understood procedures, policies and rules. Make procedures understandable, practical and as simple as possible. Have clear policies and rules to guide employee behavior.

Explain the whys behind procedures, policies and rules. Keep job descriptions and your employee handbook current and useful. Welcome employee input on how procedures, policies and rules can be improved.

7. Be fair. Avoid bias, dishonesty and injustice. Be consistent. Avoid gossip and rumor. Reward on the basis of merit, not need and favoritism. Reward with both money and complimentary feedback. Be friendly with all employees; be a buddy with none of your employees on the job.

8. Show empathy for your employee; work at understanding others’ situations, feelings and attitudes.

9. Show trust through delegation. Believe in your employees’ integrity, strengths and assurances. Delegate as much authority and responsibility as circumstances allow. Deliver more than you promise.

10. Be flexible. Adjust your leadership style for each person supervised to fit his or her experience, capabilities, psychological needs and self-confidence. Incorporate judgment into rule enforcement. Be prepared to respond appropriately to crises.

11. Provide performance feedback. Most employees want these two questions answered: “How am I doing? How can I improve?” Of course, answering these two questions for an employee at least once each year can lead to much fruitful discussion useful to the employee, the boss and the dairy.

However, providing feedback on how employees are doing and how they could do better is difficult, takes training and practice to be able to do it comfortably, and needs to be preceded by careful preparation. Job descriptions and clear performance expectations are a helpful foundation for feedback. Informal conversation about performance throughout the year reduces the stress of a once-per-year formal session.

12. Welcome change. Like it or not, the boss is expected to be a change-agent. No dairy can stand still. Change is inevitable. If one’s boss does not lead it, to whom are employees to turn? Leading change includes giving timely information about the what, why and where of it.

Leading change also requires an understanding of why employees may be resisting change and then addressing their concerns. Like much of the rest of human resource management, leading change requires both persistence and patience.

13. Continue to get better. Be humble about what you know and don’t know. Accept that you need to keep learning and improving your people skills. Seek ideas from your most trusted and insightful employees on how you can improve.

One way to do that is to ask a couple of your most trusted employees what would make your farm a better place to work or how their jobs could be improved. Also learn as much as practical from your departing employees about how your dairy can become a better place to work. Find out what other managers have learned about leading and managing people.

You have more control over your success as a boss than anyone else. You will be about as good as you choose to be. Your choices will make a difference. In the process, both you, your employees and your business will benefit enormously.  PD

Bernie Erven is also a professor emeritus at Ohio State University.

Bernie Erven