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Does a manager manage?  You are probably thinking: “Bob, what a stupid question.  Of course that is what a manager does.”  Actually, I will argue in this article, that the answer is “yes and no.”

Let’s start by looking at the definition of manage.  The most relevant definition for a manager is: “to handle, direct, govern, or control in action or use.”  This definition fits when talking about managing livestock, crops, facilities, finances, etc.  These are the areas where most agricultural managers have training and experience.  With this training and great experience, most farmers and agribusiness professionals are great at managing livestock, crops, facilities, finances, etc.

Now think about the other component of a manager’s position – people.  How well does “to handle, direct, govern, or control in action or use” fit for managing people?  Depending on the person, the answer varies from not very well to downright disgusting.  Why the difference?  The answer is that people have three attributes that enable them to “manage” themselves:

  • People can think and make decisions – manage themselves.
  • People can speak so they can ask questions and provide input.
  • People can feel and thus have emotional responses.

Because people can think and speak, their emotional reaction to their manager “managing” them varies from simply resignation to anger.  In any event, the reaction is definitely not what is needed to have a motivated and engaged workforce.  Being “managed” completely disregards the importance of autonomy to motivation and engagement.

Most managers in agriculture and other sectors are trained to manage things. This disconnect when the managers “manage” employees helps explain the research result that most (two-thirds) employees who willing leave a position leave their supervisor, not the farm, agribusiness, or company.

If managers do not just manage, what do they do?  This is my description: Managers manage cows, crops, facilities, operations, and finances AND lead, supervise, coach, encourage, and support people.  

Leading, supervising, coaching, encouraging, and supporting people is very different from managing things.  In the table below, I contrast the two roles held by most managers:

Crops, livestock, etc. roles – manage People roles – lead, supervise, coach, encourage, support
Great decision-maker Coaches others to make great decision
Task oriented Trust – relationship oriented
Well trained Often little or no training. Training required
Proactive Often reactive but should be proactive.

Let’s look at each row:

  • The first row may be the most crucial as the change to the supervisory role is such a dramatic change.  Being a great decision-maker likely led to the promotion to a position supervising people.  The challenge is that as a supervisor, just making decisions for people means they become dependent on those decisions and you, their supervisor. This dependence results in supervisors being overwhelmed, overworked, and frustrated as employees return over and over with the same question or situation. Great supervisors, on the other hand, coach those they supervise to become great decision-makers.  This is a very difficult transition for many new managers.
  • Managing animals, crops, etc. requires being very task oriented – getting things done.  Working with people also requires a task orientation; however, accomplishing tasks with people is dramatically easier when there is interpersonal trust. Developing great trust requires that the manager also be relationship oriented.
  • To succeed as a manager of animals, crops, operations, finances, etc. requires the manager to be well trained in those fields.  To succeed as a supervisor of people also requires training; unfortunately, most managers become supervisors of people with little or no training. Even when there is interest in supervisory training, it is often not available at the time of the promotion to supervising people.  This is why I developed the on demand Success for Supervisors Program (see right column description and links).
  • Successful supervision requires that the supervisor be proactive in providing performance feedback, addressing issues, and capitalizing on opportunities.  Unfortunately, we human beings tend to be reactive when we do not have the self confidence that comes from training and experience.  This results in may supervisors being very reactive with those they lead, often with disastrous results.

A Concluding Comment

Managers do not just manage.  Managers manage cows, crops, facilities, operations, and finances AND lead, supervise, coach, encourage, and support people.  This difference is why many companies no longer use the title “manager.”  Instead they use terms like team leader or coach.

Full steam ahead,

This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of ‘LearningEdge Monthly.’ To subscribe to the newsletter, please visit