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Winning the talent wars to attract the best team

Here’s some tips from Donald Cooper on creating a better culture on the farm

Eight essential steps to attracting, engaging and leading a top-performing team” was presented by my speaking colleague Donald Cooper at the FarmTech 2017 conference in Edmonton. I appreciate Donald, who at age 75 has decades of business life experience for how he translates creating a better culture on our farms.

Much of this article are his tips, with my edits. Download many useful templates at

We hate to lose money as farmers, but do we understand the costs of losing a valuable employee who works well on our farm and is part of the team? Cooper wants us to understand the costs of retraining, and the cost of losing a great employee.

Are you a talent magnet? Don’t stop looking.

1. CLARITY is the first step. What is the job description? What is our vision? What do we commit to become? Cooper is really big on commitment, which is different than motivation. Commitment means there is action at your business to accomplish what you set out to do; you are not just “trying.”

2. Mission is the action we commit to do each year to move towards our vision… the extraordinary bottom line we commit to generate. How do we commit to behave along the way? Cooper talked about becoming bitter about your job, and then comes death! He would prefer that we show up on our farms with passion.

“You get to choose your journey,” says Cooper. “Choose passion.” Are your lights of joy on? No one will love your business more than you do.

Farmers need COMMITMENT to act. Are you keeping your promises for action on your farm?

“When we change our language we change our culture,” exhorts Cooper. I agree.

“Lean and mean are not helpful words,” he says “Let’s be lean and kind!” It doesn’t rhyme, get over it.

What is our purpose?

Our customer purpose is to help ____ to____.

Our investor purpose is to generate an ROI of at least _____ per cent.

3. Take ownership of the problem. You can only solve problems that you take ownership of! The best people have to work for somebody, and you have to deserve them. “Whining is not very effective,” says Cooper.

4. What kind of ag business would the best people want to work for?

5. Specifically, what must we do to become that kind of business?

Good people want opportunity to grow, clear honest, consistent communication, a positive uplifting environment with values they can be proud of, and recognition of work/life balance.

Make jobs more engaging and make people more productive.

How can you enrich jobs so that people are not bored?

Young people are smarter and better informed.

Work/life balance is important to them.

They know they have career choices.

Collaboration is the key word for young people.

They want to know “why.”

They feel entitled.

Determine the specific skills, qualities and experience required.

We become what we hire.

You can’t build an extraordinary business by hiring ordinary people!

Do you know who you are looking for?

6. Talent issues to explore:

  • Knowledge experience;
  • Positive attitude and personality;
  • Judgment and maturity;
  • Ambition;
  • Physical requirement;
  • Fit with our culture, values and standards.
  • How are you playing the deck you got?
  • Where do we find the people with the qualities we need?
  • Where have you looked successfully? Other businesses, online?

Cooper suggests giving your farm business card to people who serve you well, and invite them to take a look at working for your farm. Great businesses are on a mission to make a great difference in the world.

7. Getting the interview right:

Ask better questions:

  • What did you like and not like about your previous jobs? Why did you leave?
  • What would you like to get out of this job?
  • What would you like to get out of your career?
  • What would you like to be doing in three years?
  • What would make this a great working experience for you? (Write a script to help you out to be a better interviewer.)

Test your candidates. Check references!

Here’s a creative way to check references by leaving a voicemail:

“Would you rehire the person, and if not what would the concerns be?” Reference checker says “Only call me back if they were great!”

Create an introduction, training and ongoing communication for your employees.

Teach your history and share your vision.

Live by values that people can be proud of.

Share your results. Let them know they are part of a winning team.

Create a career path for those with the desire and ability.

Celebrate and reward success and deal with non-performance.

We cannot grow our businesses without growing ourselves.

“Train them so well that they can leave and then treat them so well that they don’t want to leave,” says Sir Richard Branson.

Make sure you are explaining why you were doing what you are doing. (We do this first for this reason… etc.)

People cannot read your mind! Communicate and then involve and explain your WHY. You get their ideas and input, and we learn from them by listening and we honour them. You want people to be more than informed, you want them to be committed.

Create regular idea fests three times a year. Do you capture great ideas from you team?

Challenge them to operate more efficiently, safely. Reward them with cash, e.g. $50.

Do you give opportunity for your team to challenge and empower themselves?

Create a sense of urgency. Say, “By when can we agree that this will be completed?” Turn procrastination into insubordination. Create a culture of accountability.

Every person on your team is part of your value or part of your problem! Are people able to be rescued or not?

8. Create a culture of celebration

Acknowledge, reward and celebrate success.

Cooper believes that we have four currencies in our lives: money, time, feeling safe, and feeling special.

A recommended good read is 1501 Ways to Reward your Employees, by Bob Nelson.

Give a thank you every day to your employees. Believe that you make a difference.

About the author


Elaine Froese is a Manitoba 150 Woman Trailblazer. She is passionate to guide farm families to find harmony through understanding. Her mission is for you to have rich relationships on your farm. Visit to learn more and book her for speaking engagements at



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