Managing people can be your key to long-term growth.

I was traveling down the highway last month with my partner, Terry Jones, when he mentioned, "The greatest hindrance to growing my operation is getting and keeping good hired help." That's common and I hear it often.

We were returning from a northeastern Missouri road trip and stopped and talked to a lender I hadn't seen for awhile. I asked him what's the greatest challenge his producers face and he said, "people-management issues."

I've always had an interest in this area since I managed a large staff when I was with Farm Credit Services. We now help our clients in this area.

Having the right people in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills - and doing the right things - makes your job easy and fun. How do you do that?

The first thing I ask clients is, "Do your employees have answers to five basic questions?" I call it the management wheel (right).

The first question is at the center: "Why are we here?" That's what the management gurus call a mission. If your mission is to be the best soybean producer in the state, then your employees need to know it. That allows them to work for a bigger cause than just a job. Coincidentally, this is also the first step in developing a business plan. Many state soybean associations have training programs on developing a business plan.

The next question is, "Where are we going?" Most employees don't know the goals of the farming operation. The goals can be simple, but need to be specific and written. I saw one on a blackboard in a machine shed that said, "To beat last year's yield we need better stands and less weed pressure. And we're going to have harvest done by Oct 23."

Everybody knew what was expected. And do you know what? It happened. Remember the power of having written goals that I wrote about in the February issue a year ago?

The next question, "How am I doing?" is generally the biggest area where we all fall down. Most people don't know how they're doing until something goes wrong - and you know what happens then. It's no different with big corporations. The way to solve this is to post your progress.

One of our clients has written scouting reports of every field so everybody knows the status. People want to do a good job and will if they know the rules of the game and how the score is kept.

"What's in it for me?" is a natural question everyone has. Plus, paying bonuses is easier when everyone knows the rules and the score, and if the game gets won.

Last but not least is, "What happens when I need help?" If you answer the first four, your employees feel comfortable in coming to you with problems when there are yellow flags and before they become red flags. Another neat thing happens when everyone has answers to these questions - they start thinking like an owner.

One final point. These management tools work with family members and other owners, too. That's where I would start. The key to long-term sustainable growth for farming operations will be human capital, not financial or physical capital. Henry Ford understood this a century ago and it still applies.