It's all about people
Jason Brancel is a big believer in the power of leadership and development training to help keep rural communities strong.
"Organizations that focus on developing talent win in recruiting and retaining top talent - and they win in the marketplace," says the president and CEO of Agfinity, a cooperative based in Eaton, Colo.
"Unemployment is below 2 percent here in northern Colorado. Agfinity benefits by having a great learning and development program. If we don't train our people, someone else will."
Making learning a priority has helped Agfinity succeed financially. "We are experiencing our third year of increasing local profits, returning cash to members at a time when they need it more than ever," says Brancel.
The cooperative recently enrolled two of its employees in Leading for Results, a new six-month course offered by CHS Cooperative Resources in collaboration with North Dakota State University.
"Some training programs have a blind spot when it comes to understanding the nuances and strengths of the cooperative business model," says Brancel. "Leading for Results has been top-notch; it's really Leading for Results for cooperatives. We intend to enroll other executives in the future so we can all speak the same language as we lead the company together."
Focused training is helping Brancel complete the process of integrating the cultures of two cooperatives that merged to form Agfinity six years ago. He uses the Gallup Organization's StrengthsFinder assessment tool and Employee Engagement survey, which help the co-op build teams of engaged employees with a harmonious balance of strengths. He turns to CHS support, including Mike Frame with CHS Cooperative Resources, for crucial conversations training for managers and supervisors, and board training on overcoming unconscious bias.
"If you're not talking about diversity, you're not thinking about it," says Keith Amen, an Ault, Colo., farmer who serves on several boards, including the Agfinity board. "Studies show that gender diversity strengthens a board by providing different perspectives. I have witnessed that value firsthand."
The training inspired the Agfinity board to take action.
"Rarely do we see women on co-op boards. It's up to us now serving on the board to help educate our members about the positive attributes diversity brings," Amen says.
"For co-ops to stay ahead of the competition and ensure longevity, we need more diversity on our boards and in our employee base."
Training up leaders
"Businesses are strong when their people, planning and customer relationships are strong, and that's especially true for cooperatives," says Lisa Husby, director of learning and development, CHS Cooperative Resources. "Knowledgeable, experienced employees are more adept at anticipating and meeting the needs of farmer-owners."
The power of strong relationships makes the building wave of cooperative leader retirements a serious issue, says Husby. A recent survey of local ag cooperatives shows more than one-third of cooperatives expect 10 to 30 percent of their key managers to be eligible to retire within five years. One in six cooperatives have even greater percentages of manager nearing retirement.
"We have to replace those seasoned people, and we'll need to look for replacements in new and possibly unexpected places," she says. "Providing leadership training and development opportunities for new and existing employees will be critical for companies that serve U.S. farmers and ranchers."
Strong leadership skills were names by 100 percent of those surveyed as critical for co-op manager success, while only 47 percent listed extensive ag or co-op experience and 44 percent noted previous management experience as important.