Does a manager manage? You are probably thinking, “Bob, what a stupid question. Of course that is what a manager does.” Actually, I will argue in this article that the answer is “yes and no.”

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

Let’s start by looking at the definition of manage. The most relevant definition is: “to handle, direct, govern or control in action or use.” This definition fits when talking about managing cows, crops, facilities, finances, etc. These are the areas where most agricultural managers have training and experience.

With this training and great experience, most dairy farmers are great at managing cows, crops, facilities, finances, etc.

Now think about the other component of a working manager’s position – supervising people. How well does “to handle, direct, govern or control in action or use” fit for managing people?

Depending on the person, the answer varies from not very well to downright disgusting. Why the difference? The answer is that people have three attributes that enable them to “manage” themselves:

  • People can think and make decisions – manage themselves.
  • People can speak, so they can ask questions and provide input.
  • People can feel and thus have emotional responses.

Because people can think and speak, their emotional reaction to their manager “managing” them varies from simple resignation to anger. In any event, the reaction is definitely not what is needed to have a motivated and engaged workforce. Being “managed” completely disregards the importance of autonomy to motivation and engagement.

Most managers in agriculture and other sectors are trained to manage things. This disconnect when a manager “manages” employees helps explain the research result that most employees (two-thirds) who willingly leave a position leave their supervisor, not the farm, agribusiness or company.

If managers do not just manage, what do they do? This is my description: Managers manage cows, crops, facilities, operations and finances, and lead, supervise, coach, encourage and support people.

Leading, supervising, coaching, encouraging and supporting people is very different from managing things. In Table 1, I contrast the two roles held by most managers.

Roles held by most managers

Let’s look at each row:

  • The first row may be the most crucial, as the change to the supervisory role is such a dramatic change. Being a great decision-maker likely led to the promotion to a position supervising people. The challenge is that as a supervisor, just making decisions for people means they become dependent on those decisions and you, their supervisor.

    This dependence results in supervisors being overwhelmed, overworked and frustrated as employees return over and over with the same question or situation. Great supervisors, on the other hand, coach those they supervise to become great decision-makers. This is a very difficult transition for many new managers.

  • Managing animals, crops, etc. requires being very task-oriented – getting things done. Working with people also requires a task orientation; however, accomplishing tasks with people is dramatically easier when there is interpersonal trust. Developing great trust requires that the manager also be relationship-oriented.

  • To succeed as a manager of animals, crops, operations, finances, etc. requires the manager to be well trained in those fields. To succeed as a supervisor of people also requires training; unfortunately, most managers become supervisors of people with little or no training. Even when there is interest in supervisory training, it is often not available at the time of promotion.

  • Successful supervision requires that the supervisor be proactive in providing performance feedback, addressing issues and capitalizing on opportunities. Unfortunately, we human beings tend to be reactive when we do not have the self-confidence that comes from training and experience. This results in many supervisors being very reactive with those they lead, often with disastrous results.

Managers do not just manage. Managers manage cows, crops, facilities, operations and finances, and lead, supervise, coach, encourage and support people. This difference is why many companies no longer use the title “manager.” Instead they use terms like team leader or coach.  end mark

Milligan developed an on-demand Success for Supervisors Video Program to help train supervisors at the time of promotion. Email Bob Milligan for a short video description.

Bob Milligan