Here's how many top farmers spend their days A few years ago, Steven Covey authored the best-seller book and seminar series on The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. This book did an excellent job segmenting successful habits with supportive anecdotes.

Let's focus on the agribusiness sector and develop a list of seven habits that characterize farmers who will remain successful in an industry that is challenged and changing.

When I talk with farmers across the country, I see one in five who I'd consider true agribusiness managers. They're looking to generate profit through lower overhead, cost control, cash flow management, liquidity and astute marketing.

So, here are the characteristics I see that separate long-term farmers from the rest of the pack. The list isn't exclusive or exhaustive, but it's a good start toward assuring your future as a farmer.

1 Be Objective A characteristic of peak performers in the agribusiness sector is the ability to step back and objectively assess their businesses and themselves. They are constantly doing SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of the business and conditions, and fine-tuning strategies to adapt or adjust to circumstances.

What separates these managers from the rest of the pack is that they're proactive and have plans with a bias for action. They're looking for opportunity in both the short-term and long-term to capitalize on their own strengths and those of their employees who want to grow.

These managers view threats to their operations as things they can't manage - but can manage around. For example, they view the Environmental Protection Agency proactively and consider value-added benefits that result from better record keeping and traceability. They may be able to sell their production for a premium.

2 Manage Risk The top-gun managers may be risk takers, but they're calculated risk managers. They evaluate "but-what-if" scenarios and have contingency plans and processes in place. They seek outside input and counsel and see change as opportunity rather than feeling as though they're victims of circumstance.

Astute risk managers analyze situations from the worst- and average-case scenarios. They use best-case scenarios as goals they aspire to reach.

Most successful small business managers have an escape plan at least thought through, if not written down.

I talked with a dairy farmer recently who is adding a processing plant to his operation. But he's building it so that if that plan doesn't work, the building could also be used as a horse barn or cottage.

Good managers don't like to think about that. They intend to succeed. They're confident that they're playing to win, not to lose. But you still need an escape plan, in case your plans don't work out.

3 Think Systems Rather Than Components The leading manager sees his business and life as a system rather than as components. Yes, he has the ability to compartmentalize tasks and focus on them, similar to how a coach divides up his practice time.

But unique is the manager who has the ability to step back and see change ripple through the business. The high-level manager will have monitoring and measuring systems that are comprehensive, but stealthy enough that he can explain them on a simple napkin.

While the devil is in the detail, he doesn't lose sight of the big picture and uses calculated judgment rather than emotion in decision-making.

4 Make Prudent Decisions Probably the leading component of excellent managers is knowing and sorting through the $100-, $1,000- and $10,000-a-day decisions. Too many $100-a-day decisions are being made in the coffee shop when there are $1,000- and $10,000-a-day decisions that need to be made at the farm.

In today's hyped-up world of the Internet, cell phones, beepers, pagers and e-mail, they're able to shut off the chatter and focus on what is important rather than urgent.

They stay within the maximum acceptable bounds of time management. For a manager, that means 300, 10-hour days a year in the business and 50, 10-hour days outside the business in family, church, school and industry activities. Exceed these limits and in the long run it will lead to burnout.

5 Manage Human Relationships Just as Larry Bird did with his teammates, effective managers elevate the performance of people they come in contact with. They have the ability to quickly size up people and to delegate responsibility and authority to accomplish tasks. However, they aren't afraid to do some of the dirty work and lead by example.

Top-shelf managers are usually described as head coaches rather than bosses. They are networkers and are trusted by their followers.

6 Communicate Well Top managers are excellent communicators. They're great storytellers who share the vision of where the business is going and each player's importance. They tailor their communications daily, weekly or monthly to the needs of the people. The talks don't always have to be formal. They may happen while you walk through a field.

They are excellent listeners with the ability to hear what is being said and not said. And, they remain available for private talks as well as regular meetings.

7 Exercise The Mind, Body And Spirit The high-performance manager sees life as a whole. He has a passion not only for the business, but for the industry. He guards special time to renew his mind, body and spirit away from the hectic daily grind. This might be in the form of exercise, special classes, trips or meditation.

If you don't do things that challenge you physically, mentally and spiritually, you get in a rut and lose energy. Top managers make sure they don't allow that to happen. They can't afford to. The leadership they need to run their businesses comes through energy.

As with Covey's book, these attributes are only a start. On cold days this winter, take some time to sit down and conduct an assessment and perhaps come up with your customized list.