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Turning the team around for a better work-life balance.

This month we continued our series of articles in British Dairying Magazine on farm labour.

Good relationships are absolutely critical for a fulfilled and efficient workforce, whether that comprises family members or employees. But are businesses doing enough? British Dairying speaks to one producer who’s benefited from having honest conversations.

Jack Elliot was struggling to find the right people for his high-input, high-output 460-cow dairy farm in Little Torrington, North Devon. That is until he opened up and asked for help – and ever since the business has gone from strength to strength.

A fifth-generation farmer, Jack took up the reins at Henshaw Farm six years ago after running the dairy operation with his father for a number of years. Today, he farms in partnership with his wife and father and is responsible for overseeing the complete operation of the farm. His all-year-round calving herd is achieving high-performance figures; averaging 43.5 litres/day from three-times-a-day milking while maintaining high fertility and low mastitis incidence.

When taking on the farm responsibility, Jack was keen to progress the business; adapting and evolving to ensure a productive, profitable and sustainable future. But experiencing a high staff turnover, and often having to work seven days a week to cover staff shortages, he found that the pressure was mounting, both on the farm and at home, where he had a young family to think about.

Acknowledging the problem, Jack decided he needed some help and sought the advice of Real Success founder, Paul Harris, an industry-respected people management coach. “I saw Paul at a business management talk some years before I approached him,” says Jack. “I thought to myself; I will need him one day.”


Come February 2018, Jack and his team had met with Paul, and it was clear that there were frustrations for everyone, with staff shortages and clashing personalities resulting in people struggling to function as a team.

And while increasing pressure to fill in the gaps himself had led to Jack largely focusing on his own gripes, the honest conversations soon made him realise that he had to hold himself accountable, too.

“The reality was, I was in my early 20s and had no real business and employee management experience, and needed some help. I had a lot of ideas about where I wanted the business and team to be – but I didn’t know how to get there,” he explains.

Action and Results

  • Team dynamics: Understanding team dynamics was vital in shaping the staff management and recruitment strategy. Using VITA personality profiling, Jack was able to identify and understand the character types within his existing team, as well as his own leadership style.

The individual personality types are also shared amongst the team to help them better understand each others’ personalities and ways of working. “Getting a sense of the personalities has helped build a much more settled team – and benefits productivity,” he adds.

  • Skillset analysis: Having a grasp on team dynamics, Jack was then able to look at the skillset of the team. Employing people with no previous experience was a strategy Jack implemented to develop a team with no preconceived ideas or inherited bad habits, while also providing new career prospects. However, a robust training plan was lacking.

“Before we worked with Paul, we had a core team that had the skills to do everything on the farm,” explains Jack. “The issue was not having enough people with those skills, which led to pressure on us – including my wife, who was picking up milkings while looking after a newborn baby.”

Introducing levels to learning key processes and protocols like milking and calf rearing was fundamental to upskilling individuals and the team as a whole, as well as building confidence, initiative, and accountability.

The levels work on first creating a foundation of good practice and then learning how to tackle problems, by looking at the bigger picture. For example, instead of focusing on mastitis as the problem, staff focus on parlour routine, which consequently reduces mastitis cases in the first instance.

“Level one; carry out the protocol, level two; challenge protocols to produce a positive outcome, and level three; undertake tasks and make effective decision-making,” Jack explains. “But the key to all this is communication. We reward our staff with a package that encourages self-development and a lifestyle that is enjoyable inside and outside of work – better pay and working hours, and flexibility.”

He has supported training by creating a staff handbook comprising protocols and farm procedures. An organisation chart was also established to show chains of command, which helped Jack spot where gaps in the team existed.

  • Core values: Developing a set of core values identified the culture Jack wanted to grow within his team, as well as giving everyone purpose and direction. “Attitude, energy, work ethic, passion, time, and be ready – these are our core values,” he says.

“I 100% believe, and am committed to, my core values. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, then you won’t be able to sell it to your team, and you need to if you want them to actively participate in the business.” 

  • Annual reviews: Introducing one-to-one annual reviews has given Jack the opportunity to have positive and robust discussions with individuals. The annual reviews have also given staff members the opportunity to share their concerns and ideas, which all help towards having a better understanding of improvements needed on the farm, and with staff management.

“I’d be very disappointed in myself if all was to come to light at an annual review,” notes Jack. “It’s so important to get to know your staff and build personable relationships, it means you’re more likely to be able to sit down and have a positive conversation with better outcomes for the individual, and for the business.”

  • Team briefings: Regular team briefings are an effective way for Jack to bring the team together and communicate clearly on important issues – be that a job at hand, a challenge or opportunity, or how the farm is performing.

“I want to be holding more regular team meetings because it brings the team together,” he says. “It can be a challenge to get us all in a room at the same time – it’s easier to touch base with one or two people at a time. But it is valuable to everyone – staff will often choose to come in on a day off to sit in on meetings.”

  • Second in command: It was clear from the beginning that a big hole in the farm tapestry was the lack of a second in command; someone who could support Jack on the farm and with staffing, and importantly, be able to step into Jack’s shoes to afford him time off.

“What we’ve wanted to do is to have a member of the team step up to that more senior role rather than recruit someone from outside the business,” he says. “We’ve had someone for two years who’s progressing to that role.”

Difficult decisions around staffing were a necessary step in looking at his team, as were making decisions on who to recruit. “I’m not employing on experience, so I’m looking for someone who shows me in the space of an interview that they tick my core value boxes and really want to make a career and life for themselves,” he explains. “I will be honest with people – I will always try and enable them the best I can, but if they aren’t showing up, or coming with the right attitude, it isn’t going to work.”

Jack also intends to reintroduce VITA profiling to help him recruit people.

  • Pay, contracts, and rotas: Jack moved away from hourly rates of pay to annual salaries, with the average working week comprising 48hrs. To manage overtime, working hours are still recorded to ensure staff aren’t working too many or too few hours. “It works well, undoubtedly at some point they will have worked some additional time, and keeping track means we can all make sure everyone is having the time they need to recharge – it makes people happier and ultimately more productive.”

And it’s important when recruiting. “You want to attract the right people when you’re recruiting and, when you’ve got a good team, you also want to make sure they stay,” explains Jack. “We have a package that has career prospects, a higher salary and reasonable working hours, which allows them to build an enjoyable and comfortable life outside of work.”

So how has Jack’s perspective changed? “I’ve got a good team here now,” he says. “And I think the proof is in the health and performance of the cows; that’s all down to having the right team and making sure people remain motivated even when it’s all going well.”

And being able to leave the farm, confident that his team are effective and efficient with the resources they need, has given Jack his life back, with plenty more time free to spend with his young family, as well as pushing his own physical limits off farm and up mountains.

“Five years ago, I was exhausted and run ragged by staffing issues,” he says. “Working with Real Success, I’ve taken on more staff, invested in their development, and improved working hours and facilities. My team have never been happier, my family have never been happier, and my cows are producing more milk than ever.”