Find and keep the best team

Antarctic Expedition team leader Rachael Robertson spoke about the importance of respect in a team.

Identifying best practices in the dairy industry was the focus of Dairy Muster at Denison on May 5, where automatic dairy systems, carbon accounting, soil health, nitrogen use, staff recruitment and management, cow collars and genomic testing were on the discussion list.

Nollaig Heffernan discussed the dairy farmer as an employer of choice, competing in a tight market for labour.

Dairy Muster in Gippsland was hosted on a dairy farm at Denison, part of the Macalister Irrigation District, the largest irrigation district in southern Victoria. The MID covers 54,753 hectares, with 33,500 ha under irrigation, and about 90 per cent of that country is under pasture or fodder crops.

Guest speakers alternated with breakout stations where industry and dairy farmers presented topics and discussed their own management practices and adopted innovation.

Nollaig Heffernan and Rachael Robertson led discussion about leadership, team management and employee recruitment.

Becoming an employer of choice required recognising that dairy competed directly against other industries — and one farm competed against another — for staff recruitment and retention.

That included recruiting for specialist skills — agronomy, herd management, calf rearing — as well as generic farm labourers, said Nollaig Heffernan, who brought a background of psychology and change management to her presentation about dairy farmers being market aware as employers of choice.

“You need to identify what you need in your farm business and what is your unique selling point that makes you a good employer,” she said.

Nollaig strongly recommended employing a second-in-charge role on dairy farms, then trusting that person to do their job.

“Dairy farmers have phenomenal observation skills and can transfer that skill set for managing cows and pasture and weather, to identifying staff and managing employees.

“But in agriculture, too often the farmer is head down working hard, and that can blind you to identifying your own and other people’s skill sets.

“Your best value investment may be employing or contracting someone to do a job, allowing you to focus on other work.”

She said it was also important to have systems and data in place to identify and substantiate acceptable standards of behaviour and employment in the workplace.

That included industry standards of animal welfare and milk quality, and other standards of workplace behaviour that encouraged and attracted employees.

An induction process that clearly defined roles was key to this; as was allowing employees to fail safely at a task, rather than setting them up to fail.

Nollaig used an example that compared a grunting farmer who expects employees to read his or her mind to one who provides a welcoming and inclusive workplace for employees and service providers and takes the time to explain what needs to be done.

“Identify how your employees benefit your farm, and how you want to reward those employees by investing in them rather than thinking of them as a cost to your business,” she said.

“A key to this mindset is valuing yourself. Model to your employees how you value yourself and your time and commitment to the farm. That includes taking time off.”

Nollaig stressed the importance of investing in people’s skills development — on-farm and off-farm — and showing you appreciate them, so they want to work for you.

“Being an employer of choice depends on how you treat employees and how you treat service providers.

“You can measure and connect actions and activities to how much difference it makes in your business over time.”

Nollaig also recommended having a system that is adaptable to high staff turnover, given Australia’s strong reputation for employing backpackers and other short-term visa holders in agriculture.

Antarctic Expedition team leader Rachael Robertson spoke about the importance of regular team meetings and establishing values in the workplace that everyone understood and agreed to.

She spoke about how easy it was to make the mistake that everyone in the team will or should be friends.

“It’s much better to have respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities in the team, than to be friends,” Rachael said.

“Then in a crisis everyone knows what they’re doing.”

With 120 people housed together for most of a year in an isolated, inhospitable environment, common sense was a highly rated value.

Rachael said people applied for the Antarctic Expedition mostly for financial reasons or to escape relationships, and were from a range of nationalities, cultures, industries and ages.

Sometimes Rachael found herself reminding crew members who were driven to risky behaviour that the medical crew consisted of one doctor supported by carpenters and an IT specialist.

Risky behaviour occurred because team members would identify there was a lack of policy framed around activities.

Embedding respectful behaviour into team culture was necessary and led to compassionate treatment and collaboration between people.

“The number one value we chose for our team was respect. Respect always trumps harmony,” Rachael said.

“If you only focus on harmony, bullying goes underground and leads to unsafe practices and unsafe mental health.

“With respect, team members can work together to deal with crises.”

The other key relationship behaviour was integrity. It meant people were encouraged to speak directly to each other when there was a disagreement or tension, because speaking to a third party was discouraged.

“People want to be valued; they notice and remember how you made them feel,” Rachael said.