Melissa Stanford: Canola Leaders Event

March 21, 2018

5 Lessons on Leadership from a Recovering Non-Leader

By Melissa Stanford, Bootstrap Farms Inc.

You are the future. You are among the upcoming leaders in agriculture. Me? Surely, they are referring to the guy next to me, the woman across the table, the farmer down the road. Not me. Definitely not me.

Melissa Stanford

Like many farmers my age, I am not quick to call myself a leader.

But Alberta Canola is taking bold steps to change that and to help farmers hone their leadership abilities.

Earlier this month, Alberta Canola hosted 16 young farmers and their policy intern in Edmonton to explore strategic thinking, board governance, policy and telling our farm story. Each topic was presented by an industry expert and we were challenged with hands-on opportunities to immediately apply what we had learned. It was two full days of networking and instruction from some of agriculture’s best talent.

So, what did I learn?

Be flexible.

Leaders are often flexible, nimble thinkers who keep an eye to the future. To this end, we learned from strategy advisor Bob Treadway. He explained the value of forecasting over prediction and the need to account for uncertainty in long term planning. Implementing Bob’s insights, we were tasked with developing a plan to achieve a future goal. For example, our group used so-called backcasting to anticipate autonomous spraying on our own farms.

Know governance.

Looking beyond our own operations, Mary Lynn McPherson of Strive! explained foundations for governance. Taking the time to learn and experience (good) board governance means that collectively a board is more effective, as are its individual members. To paraphrase Mary Lynn, it is up to all of us to make a meeting successful. Everyone seems to have an unfortunate meeting or board experience. Sound governance can limit those hiccups. (And I can’t help but wonder: could a culture of great governance in agriculture lead to more producer involvement?)

Farmers influence policy.

Attendees presented to a policy experts in a role playing exercise that demonstrated what meetings with politicians and policy makers are like for farmers.

Good policy should reflect society’s values. That said, farmers represent only 2% of the population and we need to advocate for our industry. Farmers know by lived experience that governments’ decisions can impact agriculture and consequently our businesses (TPP, neonic bans, income tax reform, etc.). Interestingly, panelists on this topic agreed that the farmer voice matters and is generally considered credible. And each of us can play a role in policy development. Some people will write letters. Others will engage directors serving on agricultural organizations. Yet others will be a part of meetings with all levels of government. Even social media can be an advocacy platform for agriculture. There are countless tactics. The bottom line: find a strategy that appeals to you. And don’t underestimate the impact of your voice, how ever you choose to present it.

Strong communication matters.

In addition to specifically exploring the idea of telling our own farm’s story, communication was a recurring theme in all of this. It matters on our farms, in our business-to-business relationships, in our business-to-customer relationships and as we advocate for good agriculture policy. The words we choose matter. Tone matters. Content matters. Communicating more and communicating well is important.

Leadership is a muscle.

Above all, these two days have led me to view leadership as a skill, not a black and white, have-it-or-not attribute. Leadership is not absolute. Maybe it’s rather like a muscle? Something that is there but needs to be trained and used in order to gain strength and agility. So, let’s exercise that leadership muscle!

Certainly there are big boots to fill in this industry. And Alberta Canola has left us a bit better equipped to embrace leadership: on our farms, in our communities and for the industry.

Thank you, Alberta Canola, for the opportunity. Thank you to the speakers and guests for generously sharing your wisdom. And a genuine thank you to fellow attendees for telling your stories, working collaboratively and teaching me so much. Agriculture and rural Alberta will be well served by your talents!

The 2018 Alberta Canola Leaders came from farms across Alberta.

Read more about the 2018 Canola Leaders program in this Alberta Farmer Express article:
Training program growing the next generation of farm leaders

Alberta Canola Connects is your window into the activities of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission as we work both locally and globally to help contribute to the long term success of canola farmers in Alberta. 

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