Transforming leadership in agriculture: A success story

Pāmu Farms' chief people and safety officer discusses 'nature of leadership'

Transforming leadership in agriculture: A success story

In a nation celebrated for its lush pastures, fertile soils, and deep-rooted agricultural heritage, New Zealand has seen farming rise as a prominent industry, constituting a substantial portion of our Kiwi workforce.

Traditionally, leaders in the farming industry have been elevated due to their proficiency in the technical aspects of farming rather than their demonstration of leadership attributes. 

But one HR leader is leading the charge to overhaul leadership training at one of New Zealand’s largest agricultural enterprises.

Bernadette Kelly, chief people, safety and reputation officer and director at Pāmu Farms , told HRD, “In some cases, with leaders who had just fallen into leadership, there was great intentions, but poor delivery.”

The organisation had run leadership programs before, but Kelly said, “they weren’t bespoke, and they didn’t stick, they didn’t use language that farmers understood, and they didn’t work with farming hours.”

So, Kelly’s main objective when she took the role on in 2020 was “to make sure that we got something that would work, and we got something that would stick.”

The 'Nature of Leadership'

"We set up a programme called the ‘Nature of Leadership’,” Kelly continued, “and what we wanted to come out of this program, was a common set of tools in a common language, that our farmers would be used to.”

The program’s foundation lay in Pāmu Farms’ core values of being bold, shoulder-to-shoulder, genuine, and grounded. Competencies were then designed around these values to form the basis of leadership development.

The final program comprised five modules over four days. “It was designed to be not only informative but also engaging and practical, incorporating well-known leadership tools like GROW and SCARF,” she said.

While participation in the program wasn’t technically compulsory, it was highly encouraged – “Anyone in a leadership role needed to undergo this transformation,” said Kelly.

120 participants from 11 cohorts went through the program in the first year.

Keeping leadership training alive

Initially, people would all come in “dragging the chain,” said Kelly. “So it was hard — some of them didn’t want to be there, but once they’d been to one, we didn’t have that problem anymore.”

Graduates of the programme left with a set of leadership tools they can put to use to develop high-performing and highly engaged teams.

“For those who have done it, the key has been keeping the program alive,” said Kelly.

After completing the program, graduates become part of the ‘Nature of Leadership’ alumni who participate in regular peer-to-peer “Communities of Practice” to keep the learning from the programme ongoing.

This investment in leadership development has yielded positive results; the most surprising to Kelly was fostering better relationships between corporate and farming parts of the business — but she says other more tangible results have been seen too.

“Our turnover is the lowest it’s been in two-and-a-half years, our engagement is up year-on-year, our employee net promoter score is up year-on-year,” said Kelly.

“I think money invested in developing your people will come back to you positively, and sometimes in ways you didn't expect. I think you can do all the numbers, but you will also be surprised that a little bit goes a long way.”

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