We have all heard these statements from beef producers and their families. They clearly illustrate that the reason people are beef producers has to do with more than productivity and profitability. Also, especially in recent years, we have heard people argue that producing beef is a business, not a way of life.

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

Viewing business and way of life as conflicting has always made me uncomfortable. Recent experiences and learning have enabled me to better understand they are truly complementary. Explaining this complementarity, even synergy, is the purpose of this article.

We will see that this complementarity is the key to a passionate and engaged workforce – and maybe even a way to better connect with consumers of our products.

First, a note about the applicability of this discussion. I focus the discussion on beef producers; however, the thought process is equally valid for any other profession and for each of us as we pursue our careers.

Before further discussing how a farmer or rancher can utilize this complementarity, we need to understand more about how we, as human beings, develop a passion like that reflected in the opening quotes and look at an example.


Where does passion come from

I have often commented that the family farm was the original “vision-driven” entity, but as employees were added, they were not brought into the circle. Although I believe that is a true statement, it is not as simple as farms failing to include employees.

To understand this better, think about a time when you have tried to explain to someone why you love them. It is difficult because love, as an emotion, resonates in the part of the brain called the limbic brain.

Emotions are felt there, but the limbic brain has no capability to communicate. All communication comes from the rational part of the brain, the neocortex.

Returning to the family farm: When the farm was only the family, there was no need to articulate and communicate why the farm had meaning. The family members were together all of the time, and the communications just happened, almost by osmosis. It began essentially at the birth of the next generation.

When employees were added, the farmer needed to articulate the vision and explain it to the employees. Explaining the reason the farm exists in terms of productivity and profitability was easy because it resonated in the neocortex. To explain the true meaning required articulating and communicating the emotions that resonated in the limbic brain.

An example

I have written before about one of my passions, the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team and the growth of its coach, Brad Frost. An article in the Saturday, March 21, 2015 St. Paul Pioneer Press captures his growth from a coach using neocortex-based goals – winning – to a culture built around limbic brain-based values.

I begin with this from the article:

Coach Brad Frost took the Gophers women’s hockey team to consecutive Frozen Fours in his first two seasons, but something was amiss.

At the team’s season-ending banquet in 2010, Frost saw his players and their parents still stewing that they didn’t win two national championships. Then he turned inward.

“It was my fault.” Frost said. “As a young coach, I was focusing on ‘Hey, we’ve got to win the Frozen Four. We’ve got to win the Frozen Four.’ And that’s going to determine whether we’re successful or not. That’s what the players focused on because it was what I focused on.

“And then when you don’t win, you’re like. ‘OK, I guess this was a failure.’ and it wasn’t. Just to get to the Frozen Four is a big deal.”

Coach Frost’s focus on winning resonated with the players; however, it created a will to win but not a meaning for what they were doing. It resonated in the neocortex, not the limbic brain.

Coach Frost concluded one thing that was lacking was gratitude. He then began setting goals that were not defined by wins and losses. In our words, the new goals resonate in the limbic brain; they produce more meaning.

To increase gratitude and to evoke more meaning to the players, he added values to “gratitude.” They are tough, disciplined, grateful and devoted. Continuing from the article:

“The first year we did it (the four values), it was just words on the wall (at Ridder Arena),” said Frost. … “It wasn’t completely implemented and really invested into our program.”

Now Hannah Brandt, a standout junior center, said those values are reinforced almost daily.

“It’s definitely something that we all try to live out,” Brandt said, “they (the coaches) set a great example for us.”

The shift from neocortex-driven goals (winning) to limbic brain-driven values has changed the culture of the team and greatly enhanced the meaningfulness of the experience to the players.

By the way, Coach Frost’s women’s hockey team just won its fourth NCAA championship in five years.

What about for beef producers

The complementarity of way of life and business stems from deriving the limbic brain meaning from the way of life and using this meaning as a basis for developing a farm culture that produces the neocortex-based productivity and profitability results.

As with Coach Frost, this process is not easy or instantaneous. I suggest the following three steps:

  1. Recognize that meaning is derived from something with more meaning (emotions) than profit or productivity.

  2. Introspection and discussion: Identify what provided meaning to the founder and the current owners. This is not easy, as you will have to put into words the emotions and meanings that are not well understood in the neocortex.

  3. Create something – slogan, vision, mission, values – that can be communicated that will provide meaning to owners, employees and other stakeholders.

A final note: Instead of there being conflict between way of life and business, with great leadership there is synergy between way of life and business.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. 

Bob Milligan