This is the fourth post in Rhoda’s Tips from a Farmer series. Read her first post on working smarter, not harder, her second on Prioritizing like a farmer, and third on Getting Help.
In my secondary line of work (farming), literal poop happens. By the shovel load. Sometimes by the trailer load. In my primary line of work (managing a customer service team), the poop isn’t literal, but it can be just as stinky at times. One type of poop has taught me a great deal about how to deal with the other.
Growth is uncomfortable
I have just completed one of the most challenging months of my life. Last year I acquired my first flock of sheep, and last month (April) was lambing month. I was excited about the new lambs, but I was terrified, too. I had helped other people with lambing over the years, and I felt that I knew just enough to be dangerous. I wasn’t wrong.
Over four weeks, I battled through lack of sleep, constant worry, sciatica, bad weather, and my own ignorance. I was warned early on that my first lambing would be my worst, and I hope that’s true.
However, I wouldn’t trade this month away if I could. I came out of lambing a changed person. I learnt that I am stronger than I thought, and that I can keep going, even when I am asleep on my feet. I learnt that beating myself up about something outside my control is fruitless. I learnt to make peace with the outcome of split second decisions — I was on my own, and I had to make the best decision possible and hope that it worked out. I was forced to ask for, and accept, help. I got a crash course in life and death and everything in between. I learnt that sometimes I will never know if I did the right thing, and that that is ok.
Poop happened last month, and because of it, I grew. Now, when I’m confronted with the metaphorical poop of customer service management — an outage, an angry customer, a seemingly inexplicable increase in customer churn — I find myself asking, “What am I learning from this? How can I use it to become a better leader?” I’ll shortly be spreading literal poop on the vegetables to help them grow, too.
Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock
In farming, we have a saying, “Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock.” My customer service manager version of that saying is, “Where there are customers, there is churn.” It is a fact of life.
We work hard to provide great service and to keep customers happy, but sometimes, they just roll over with four feet in the air. When that happens, the best thing we can do is to try to learn all we can from it. A bit of reflection often helps us see where we could have planned ahead, or put a better monitoring system in place, or taken a complaint more seriously. Every time we ask “Why?” and find even one possible answer, we’ve taken a step toward avoiding the same mistakes in the future.
But we also have to recognize that there are times when you don’t know why something goes wrong. Why did this animal die? Why did that infection take hold? Why did a great customer suddenly decide to switch to a competitor’s product? In that case, the lesson to be learned is one about making peace and moving on. Obsessing over a few isolated mysteries will only hold you back from caring for the many other customers (or sheep) who depend on you.
Interrupts are a fact of life
We all think we can beat the interrupts. I thought that whilst I had a week off work during lambing, I could get the potatoes planted. How I laughed last week as I finally planted those potatoes a month late. There was no way I could have got that done. I barely managed to eat, never mind think about the veg side of my farm.
What I should have done, and intend to do next year, is to scope the lambing “project” a bit more realistically! It’s one of those times when the “must do “should do, would be nice to do” framework that I often apply to work projects would transfer beautifully from my managerial life to my farming life. Anticipating that I might have to throw my plan out the window — planning for the fact that there is no plan, as it were — doesn’t really sit well with my personality, but I’m getting better at it.
Making hard decisions
Every manager has to make hard decisions, and every farmer has to make them, too. Especially whilst dealing with life and death as it relates to animals, hard decisions never get easy.
I made some very hard decisions in the last month. When it is blowing a gale and pouring rain, and there is a lost lamb in one field and a sheep in distress in another, there is a decision to be made. When a ewe doesn’t have enough milk for her lambs, there is a decision to made. When a sheep is gravely ill and all the evidence points to her not making it through the night, there is a decision to be made. I made more difficult decisions in the course of a month of lambing than I make in quite a few months at work.
These decisions will never be easy to make, but they do get easier to process. If I can look myself in the eye and know I did all I could, that my animals lived a good life and didn’t suffer, I know that is all I can do.
As a manager, the same principle applies. The first time I made a really hard decision, it was horrible. The next time was horrible, too, but I had learnt from the previous decision and was able to give myself more context. The more difficult decisions I make, the more I learn from them, the better I understand myself and the way I process hard choices. Moving forward, I can use that understanding to make the next decision, if not easier, at least less stressful.
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