Managing Your Dream

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No one loves a business and wants it to succeed as much its owner. Entrepreneurs invest their minds, hearts, souls, sweat equity, and dollars into building their businesses. As a lesson program, training facility, breeding farm or ranch grows beyond the ability of the owner to handle everything on his or her own, finding the right person to help manage the dream becomes critical.

“I have found it very difficult to have the barn manager that I want because I want a barn manager to be an extension of me‚” says Bray Anderson, owner of Moon Run Farm in North Berwick, Maine. “I have more at stake than someone I hire. This is my passion, my love, my dream. And no matter how much someone else may be passionate about certain aspects of it,” she points out, “their motivation is totally different from that of the business owner.”

Anderson’s sentiments are echoed by equine business owners across the country. Searching for “me” can be frustrating. A manager highly skilled at caring for horses or maintaining barns and fences may have a personality that drives customers away. The empathetic employee whose people skills make her a favorite with clients may have a chaotic inventory management system or such a poor sense of time that lesson schedules fall apart. “There is a shortage of good quality labor,” says agribusiness management coach Don Tyler of Tyler & Associates in Clarks Hill, Indiana.

One reason for the shortage is that running a horse operation is a 24/7 occupation. Farm managers often work long hours for low pay, doing tasks that may seem endless. Even the best managers can burn out.“Burnout has nothing to do with money,” says trainer and riding instructor Tina Bell of Molalla, Oregon. And she should know:?she burned out as a barn manager, left for a 9-to-5 job but eventually was drawn back to the horse industry—as her own boss.

“There is always something to do and never enough time to get it all accomplished,” Bell says. “A lot of horse owners have an unrealistic expectation of what someone in a barn manager’s position can do for them. They want one person to fill all of these different shoes. That creates a lot of pressure.”

PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT 101

Seth Burgess, founder of equine employment agency Equimax (www.equimax.com) in Alpine, Texas, agrees with Bell. He says many employers have a naive concept of what a farm manager can and cannot do for their businesses. Most simply advertise, hire, and hope it all works out. Instead, Burgess says, employers who want to attract quality managers need to develop their own personnel management skills. For starters, they must develop a process that helps them clarify their expectations and identify top candidates. He advises these steps:

Planning. The first step is writing a job description that clearly outlines the skills required, duties to be performed, and performance measurements important to the employer. Burgess notes that a good job description becomes the springboard from which many other things happen. It gives both employer and employee a starting point for regular communication about what has been done or needs to be done on the farm. It becomes the measuring stick for performance reviews. And it provides the rationale for rewarding outstanding employees or firing those who underperform.

Advertising. Burgess advises people to write ads that describe the positive aspects of the available job and its career-building opportunities. Too many ads, he says, read like warnings (“grumpy people need not apply” or “must be willing to work long hours”). The real message this type of ad sends is that the employer is a poor personnel manager.

Interviewing. Most interviewers ask questions that focus on skills or past jobs listed on a candidate’s resume. The key to finding “me,” says Tyler, is asking questions that sort out the people the employer doesn’t want. He advises turning employment problems you have encountered in the past into behavior-based questions. A few examples:

“Tell me how you handled an incident when your boss disagreed with you and you were sure you were right.”

“Describe a conflict you had with another employee and how you handled it.”

Your questions can get quite specific. For example, Ranch owner Larry Erdman asks job applicants at his Grizzly Creek Ranch in Emigrant, Montana, how they will feel when they wind their way back up a long, difficult road to the isolated ranch in winter after visiting friends in town at a much lower, warmer altitude.

Investigating. It can be tempting to go with your gut and hire what appears to be a really promising candidate without doing a background check. Don’t do it, advises Helen Goodman, a counselor with the Lower Fairfield County chapter of Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) in Connecticut. This is especially true if the barn manager will have a great deal of autonomy or handle large sums of money. “The resume is never the reality,” says Mary K. Thomas of Equistaff, Inc., (www.equistaff.com) an equine employment service in Ocala, Florida. The background checks that Equistaff offers as a service to employers include checking criminal records, credit rating, and past employment history. Some employers also check driving records. Physicals and drug screening are becoming more common.

Negotiating. Employers should have a second meeting with candidates that make the final cut to discuss salary, benefits, hours, and other conditions of employment. The first interview provides an opportunity for the employer to make his or her expectations clear and to learn about the applicant’s expectations and aspirations. In the second interview, it is time to hammer out the details of a potential agreement that meets the needs of both sides. Salary may be most important to one person, while living arrangements that include housing for a family may be more critical to another (see sidebar). Now is the time to determine whether it is even possible to come up with an arrangement that will keep both sides satisfied over time.

Decision making. Employers need to stay objective as they review the expectations outlined in the job description, the candidate’s resume and other background information, and the negotiated compensation package. If any part of the deal looks like it might not work, don’t just hope it will, says Burgess. Make sure you are comfortable with the total package before you go to the next step.

Hiring. Make the candidate a written offer that reiterates the responsibilities outlined in the job description and the compensation agreed upon. A written document becomes a place to return to if the employee’s performance falls short or as a reminder of how bonuses, commissions or other compensation items are to be handled.

Trial period. In the Florida market, Equistaff offers employers a temp-to-hire option. Farm owners can hire employees on a temporary basis to see if they will work out before putting them on the business’s payroll. Negotiating a trial period can be beneficial for both employer and employee, but employers should be prepared to help job candidates with any extra costs that may be associated with a temporary hire, such as maintaining a current home or rental until the new job becomes permanent.

KEEPING GOOD MANAGERS

The final step in a good hiring process, says Burgess, is career building. Many Baby Boomer employers approach the job market with the attitude that working at any job is a privilege, regardless of how poor the working conditions or salary may be. That attitude, he says, is completely foreign to Generation X applicants, who feel that walking away from an unsatisfactory job beats job security any day.

Burgess advises employers to motivate younger employees by asking about their career ambitions and creating opportunities to help them develop the long-term skills they want. Regular job reviews are important to revise the job description if necessary, make sure everything is still working, find out if the employee has the right tools to do the expected job, and to reveal any other issues that may impact performance or job satisfaction. Owner Chris Cassenti of Chrislar Farm in Rowley, Massachusetts, says she does a daily “happy check” with each of her six employees. She asks how things are going and identifies small problems before they become large.

Employers who find and keep good managers agree that regular, open communication is the most critical element in creating satisfactory relationships. Cassenti holds staff meetings on a daily basis to make sure that everyone knows what is going on, whether they are teaching riding lessons, training horses, or managing the barn. Anything that takes place during the day, such as a change in feed or veterinary instructions, gets written down in a staff book. Any staff member who has been off for a few days can check the book and quickly come up to speed. Message boards and daily work sheets are posted in an easily accessible location. Staff members check off and initial daily training sessions, mid-day feedings or any other events.

“There is responsibility and accountability,” says Cassenti. With everyone in the same communications loop, Cassenti’s staff works smoothly as a team. No one is ever left guessing who is responsible for what action on a given day. Staff members can easily fill in for one another as they rotate days off. At the end of the day, everyone can see what has been accomplished.

PERSONAL PERSONNEL ISSUES

When Thomas asks people why they left their previous jobs, salary is usually low on their list of reasons. More likely than not, broken promises, perceived favoritism, or a lack of written policies and procedures are their primary complaints. Employees become angry when they are cursed at or blamed for things, warned about being late when another employee’s tardiness is overlooked, or are promised a perk or commission that never materializes.

Thomas urges employers to write policies down so that all employees understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from their employer. For example, do employees who help with horse sales share in any commissions? Is there a policy about tardiness? Do employees who work overtime accrue extra time off? Written polices are clear to all employees and are more likely to be applied consistently than those that are only carried around in the owner’s head. Burgess warns employers to be careful not to make verbal promises that may be interpreted as implied contracts. They are a significant source of employee dissatisfaction and may even be cause for legal action. Written policies can also help prevent blurring of the line between business and personal life when the owner and manager both live on the farm.

Bell feels it is critical to give managers the tools they need to meet the owner’s expectations. She gives the example of turnout areas that tend to become muddy if drainage ditches are not kept open. If there is no tractor to keep drainage ditches open and too much work to do by hand, it can look like the manager is falling down on the job.

Anderson agrees. “As a barn owner, don’t lower your expectations of what people are capable of doing, but it is important to check in with the barn manager a lot, to make sure they’re OK, that their needs are being met, and that they are not on a fast track to burnout.” You can never ever acknowledge farm help enough for what they do, says Bell. “Thank you” and other expressions of appreciation are important if employers expect to keep good workers.

Goodman argues that employers should work hard at developing good personnel skills because they directly impact the bottom line. Employee turnover is costly because the employer has to search, hire, and train all over again, she points out. More often than not, turnover is a destructive process that damages both operations and profitability. Equine entrepreneurs must learn to pay as much attention to how they hire and manage people as they do to buying and managing their horses.

WHERE TO FIND PEOPLE

Anderson and Cassenti have been fortunate enough to look within their businesses to find good managers. Boarders whose job situations have changed or former students who want to return to the farm have become excellent employees, in large part because they already understand the philosophy of the owner and the culture of the barn.

One of the greatest challenges for employers seeking good managerial help, says Tyler, is that really good people are in such short supply that they are most likely to find their next job through networking within the industry. Cassenti found a recent hire because of a fellow horse professional’s recommendation that the woman contact her.

Goodman advises that employers contact others with similar businesses to learn from their experience and network. Contact professional trainers or organizations such as the United Professional Horsemen to advertise a job or find out about people looking for new positions. Colleges with equine programs, or credentialing organizations such as the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org) or American Riding Instructors Association (www.riding-instructor.com), which also offer certification in barn management, may be able to help employers find good employees.

Employment agencies that specialize in the horse industry can help screen candidates and enable employers to advertise a position widely. Equimax in Alpine, Texas (www.equimax.com; 1-800-759-9494) and Equistaff, Inc., in Ocala, Florida (www.equistaff.com; 352-622-2040) provided help with this article. Check breed, sport or regional horsemen’s directories for others.

Finding the right person to manage your business is not easy, but the effort is rewarded with a more smoothly-run operation and more time for you to pursue your dream.