Compared with the general business world, our dairy farm businesses are small, even referred to as micro businesses. The business definition of a small business is often one with less than 500 employees; a micro business one with less than 30 employees.

Milligan bob
Senior Consultant / Dairy Strategies LLC
Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornel...

Our farm businesses are growing in size and complexity, however. Today, most dairies are led and managed by several owners and/or key employees.

This means that most dairies – probably including yours – are led and managed by several partners. Being led by a team of managers is very different than being led by one primary decision-maker.

Most of what is written in our agricultural literature about working with partners focuses on “getting along.” “Getting along” implies that the partners can accomplish about the same working together as they could working separately. Let me suggest a much higher goal. Working together, partners should accomplish much more than they can working separately.

This is called synergy. It is not easy to accomplish, but is incredibly powerful. The greatest team that I have ever had the privilege of leading was the PRO-DAIRY team while I was on the faculty at Cornell University. We had synergy; we were all going in the same direction; our accomplishments were impressive. My favorite example of the synergy of that team is that often after a meeting when we were explaining an idea or a plan we had developed, someone would ask: “Whose idea was that?” Many times we could not answer that question. The idea or the plan was the product of the discussion, debate and interchange of all of the members of the team. That was synergy.


A discussion of increasing the synergy in your leadership team should begin with the ideal definition of leadership:

“A team is a group of people with a high degree of interdependence geared toward the achievement of a goal or completion of a task. They agree on the goal and that the only way to achieve the goal is to work together.”


Why is a common goal so important?
The diagram shown here (see Figure 1) is a great depiction of effective decision-making for a leadership team. It all starts with the think outer box. In decision-making terms, this is the frame. In order to have effective decision-making, all team members must have the same frame.

My favorite illustration of the importance of a common frame is a cartoon I once had that showed a husband and wife sitting in different parts of the living room watching their children play in a snow fort. Looking out one window, the husband could see the children playing happily in the fort. From another window the wife could see that a large band of older neighborhood children were preparing to attack the fort and the children with snowballs. Very different views of the same scene! Their decisions on what to do were very different because they were looking through different windows – different frames.

For your leadership team the frame is the vision, mission and goals of the dairy business. The only way you will be able to synergistically navigate the decision-making diagram above is to have a common vision, mission and goals – a common frame. If you do not, like the husband and wife, you will never reach a common decision because you are viewing the situation differently.

A failure to achieve a common vision results in:

  • Irreconcilable differences in decision-making
  • Every decision becoming a disagreement over the vision
  • Great difficulty at best in continuing as partners

Another way to view a lack of a common vision is to consider two people discussing the details of a beautiful outdoor scene they are viewing through different-colored glasses. The discussion will likely be frustrating and unproductive.

What is synergy?
The common vision – or frame – enables teams to have productive discussions; this leads us back to synergy. Synergy is defined as the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects. For a leadership team, this means that the decisions of the leadership team are better, hopefully much better, than the decisions would be if they were made individually by the partners. In other words: 1 + 1 > 2.

I believe excellent leadership team synergy can only be accomplished in a team environment that encourages, even demands, collaborative discussion and debate. This environment is only possible with a common vision; without agreement on the vision, mission and goals, collaborative discussion and debate is not possible because each partner has a different frame (remember the happy children versus the attacking older kids), thwarting attempts to reach solutions and eventually stifling debate.

Pursuing collaborative discussion and debate brings us back to the decision-making diagram. There are two key components of discussion and debate – gathering information and reaching a decision. As noted in the outline below, the gathering information stage is for brainstorming and freewheeling discussion. The focus is on quantity of ideas; analyzing the quality of those ideas can wait. This is the stage where diversity of opinions, ideas, experiences, etc. is incredibly valuable.

Gathering information:

  • Often referred to as the diverging stage
  • This is where we seek information and ideas
  • Brainstorming is a potential tool here
  • This stage benefits greatly from diversity in all dimensions

The challenge is to create a team environment where everyone is willing and comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions. Each time someone fails to share an idea or opinion because they feel uncomfortable, doing so reduces the potential for a synergistic solution. Heated debate and discussion is not bad as long as it focuses on ideas and issues – not people – and everyone is comfortable with the level of emotion.

This diverging discussion is only valuable as long as it is leading to a collaborative solution to the issue or decision at hand. When the discussion and debate begins to get repetitive and/or a consensus begins to emerge, it is time to move to the reaching-a-decision stage. At this point, the discussion becomes much more evaluative and focuses on converging to an outstanding decision or resolution of the issue.

Reaching a decision:

  • Often referred to as the converging stage, as in converging to an excellent decision.
  • Discussion, debate and synergy can lead to outstanding decisions.
  • Diversity can be a great asset here as long as there is a common vision.

A decision that has the complete consensus of all partners or at least can be supported by all partners, will generally emerge when everyone is viewing the debate and discussion through the common frame – vision/mission/goals. Without this common frame, collaborative decisions are difficult at best to achieve. The trauma of decision-making in a multiple frame – no common vision – environment will stifle the discussion and debate, as more ideas only increase difficulty in the reaching of a decision. A common frame/vision allows diversity in the discussion and the team.

Synergistic leadership team discussions are like any other process on your farm. They need some rules and structure. Leadership teams need:

  • Team responsibilities and roles
  • Operating rules
  • What decisions are the responsibility of this team
  • Partner job descriptions and performance expectations
  • Meeting preparation and participation

A concluding thought
For multiple-partner dairies, developing a synergistic leadership team environment probably is as or more important than developing the milking procedure or the ration formulation process. Like the milking procedure and ration formulation, developing a synergistic leadership team environment must be a priority and a focus. It also may require outside expertise.

Developing a synergistic leadership team environment with rich collaborative discussion and debate is not easy; it will, however, provide rich rewards both in personal satisfaction and business success. PD

References omitted due to space but available upon request to

Robert A. Milligan Senior Consultant Dairy Strategies,

bob milligan dairy strategies

Robert A. MilliganSenior Consultant Dairy Strategies