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The Green Thumb Approach to Leadership: What Farming Teaches Us About Executive Talent Management

The Green Thumb Approach to Leadership: What Farming Teaches Us About Executive Talent Management

October 2023


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When leadership teams discuss key positions in mid-to-large organizations, the conversation often evolves to the question, “Do we look for talent inside or outside the organization for this role?”

In forward-thinking cultures, this discussion may come at a time when succession planning is being rolled out. All too often, though, it doesn’t happen until a role is unexpectedly vacated. 

As the daughter of a third-generation farmer, I see several similarities between farming and a company’s talent strategy. In both scenarios, the stakes are high, and the method used is the cornerstone of success or failure. 

Here are three critical lessons from the farm to consider when evaluating talent. 

1.  Take Your Timeline Into Account 

A farmer knows it takes time to grow a high-yielding product. Every crop may be different, but none of them grow overnight. If a customer demands a crop’s supply this month and a farmer has just started to till the soil, that customer will be looking to fill the order from another source. 

Similarly, a business leader might wait until a position is vacated before asking, “How long will it take to get an internal candidate ready for this role?” Failing to consider the lead time for developing talent is a problem.  

Fortune and Deloitte report (via Harvard Law) that 54% of CEOs believe their company possesses a strong slate of individuals who can fill the CEO position in the future. And yet, often, these same individuals don’t plan on enough time to develop those candidates before their new duties are thrust upon them. 

Whenever possible, begin to prepare for a talent gap or upcoming recruitment need before it arises. This gives you the ability to consider multiple solutions. If the ramp-up time for your internal candidate takes several months to a year to prepare, you can get that process started sooner rather than later. If you don’t have the timeline for that kind of delay, you may need to adjust mid-stream and make an outside hire. 

2. Evaluate Your Environment

It’s no secret that a farmer would be hard-pressed to grow a cotton crop in a catfish pond. That doesn’t make one or the other wrong. On the contrary, both crops are “farming.” However, each requires a very different environment to succeed. 

The same principle applies to any organization recruiting executive talent. The environment matters—and in the case of a workplace, that equates to a company’s culture. Protecting or improving your organization’s culture can be the deciding factor in the success of not just your hiring practices but of your company as a whole. 

Failing to identify the potential to foster an undesirable culture through internal advancement can undermine your entire business. At the same time, if you lack the foresight to see that an outside candidate is a cultural mismatch, this can also be damaging to your entire team. 

On the farm, a successful cotton farmer takes great care to ensure healthy soil and a dependable water supply for their crops. At work, a successful business leader takes the time to nurture a healthy culture and a dependable path for growth in their planning. They may look different at first glance, but both are operating on the same principle: evaluate your environment. 


3. Consider Your Climate Conditions

In farming, the climate you work in is critical to success. A farmer who plants tomatoes in Wisconsin in January is going to have problems from the get-go. Attempting to grow a delicate crop in a harsh climate will have little gain and, more than likely, will spell pure disaster. 

In the same way, business leaders must consider the climate when attempting to both grow and buy talent. Transitioning a successor during turbulent or stressful times can lead to an individual in a new position “dying on the vine.” At the same time, it can further the gap the position creates within the company. 

When the climate for a young hire or an internally grown candidate isn’t there, you need to take that into account. If that’s the case, a “weathered” option from outside the organization would likely be a better option. A highly experienced leader can adapt more easily and will be able to provide greater stability during a period of uncertainty or at a time when the team is stretched thin. 

Bringing the Lessons of the Farm Into the Office

In farming and leadership development, you always want to begin with the end in mind. What does the perfect “crop” of leaders look like for you? 

If you start with this picture in mind, it makes it easier to consider your options. Of course, floods may come after you plant your soybeans in the spring, or a hurricane may hit just before harvest time in your orange grove.  

But if you consider your risks from the outset, you minimize the possibility of jeopardizing your customer relationship. Even when “disasters” take place, being prepared means you’ll have contingency plans in place. Remember, the worst option isn’t failing to deliver on your own product. It’s showing up with nothing.  

Remember, the worst option isn’t failing to deliver your own product. It’s showing up with nothing.

When it comes to talent growth and acquisition, the same principles apply. Track your timelines. Evaluate your environment. Consider your climate. If internal growth isn’t an option, work with an executive search consultant to effectively identify and recruit the right outside hire to help smooth a leadership transition.  

No matter what C-suite position you’re planning to fill, use the tried-and-true tips above to stay one step ahead. Above all, keep your business going and protect your culture at all costs. 

About the Author

Shelly Perkins serves as a Director at Stanton Chase Nashville. With over 20 years of professional experience, Shelly has dedicated much of her career to talent optimization and leadership development.  

Prior to joining Stanton Chase, Shelly led a career consulting and business coaching practice for 12 years. This practice focused on accelerating transformation for organizations across a variety of industries, including healthcare, hotel, manufacturing, retail, and commercial services. 

Executive Search
Succession Planning
Leadership Development

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