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Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine is the flagship publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario and a source of information for our province’s grain farmers. 

Effective leadership



IF YOU ARE thinking about investing in training or business skills development for your farm this winter, Kelly Dobson has a simple message – invest in yourself.


Dobson is a certified executive coach, fourth generation farmer, and chief leadership officer at LeaderShift Inc. in Manitoba. He specializes in coaching and leadership development for small businesses and the agriculture sector.


• Lifelong learning and skills development is the number one practice differentiating Canada’s top and bottom performing farms.
• The adoption of business practices on Canadian farms remains low.
• Young farmers and female farmers are more interested in business skills development, are more likely to adopt business practices, and are more likely to seek learning opportunities and support.
• Post-harvest is an excellent time to reflect on what went well and areas for improvement.

Dobson believes an unbalanced focus on agricultural production and technology is creating gaps in the sector’s appreciation of human performance and the leadership necessary for today’s farms.

“One of the most important statistics in business is that leaders ranked in the top 25 per cent of a group evaluated on their leader effectiveness, ran businesses that were 3.5 times more profitable than the bottom 25 per cent,” says Dobson.

And in an industry that measures performance heavily on horsepower, yields, hours clocked, and bottom line figures, his message to farmers is to start realizing the enormous impact their performance has on their businesses and start developing it.

“Stop blaming external forces you have no control over, or thinking every problem can be solved by different iron or a tote of something, and take charge of the one thing you have complete control over — yourself.”


“Our research has shown a commitment to lifelong learning and skills development is the number one practice differentiating Canada’s top and bottom performing farms,” says Heather Watson, executive director, Farm Management Canada, a not-for profit organization based in Ottawa.

According to Farm Management Canada’s 2020 annual survey, leadership and personal development didn’t make the list of skills farmers are seeking to develop, but did make the list for skills educators and consultants suggest Canadian farmers seek out.

Watson agrees with Dobson’s observation, saying she finds farmers and the industry in general are predominately focused on production management rather than business skills and leadership development. She notes that most investments by industry and governments also focus on production, leaving a gap in the availability and emphasis on skills development to help farmers build their capacity to make sound management decisions for personal, professional, and family health, wealth, and happiness.

“Applying proven business practices helps farmers build their capacity to confront change with confidence and seize opportunity, remaining resilient no matter what the future holds,” she says.

The adoption of business practices on Canadian farms remains low, even though they have been proven to positively contribute to mental health, family harmony, peace of mind, and profit. According to Farm Management Canada’s latest Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms research (2020), just 21 per cent of Canadian farmers have a written business plan, while 41 per cent of farmers who do not have a business plan believe they are succeeding without it.

“Further research from our 2020 Dollars and Sense Study Update indicates over the past five years, the adoption of farm business management practices has not increased at all — in fact, there has been a significant drop in adoption for the majority of business practices, including those proven to contribute to sustainable growth and prosperity,” says Watson.


Recent Farm Management Canada research confirms that farmers report the greatest barriers to adopting business practices and skills development is their belief that the farm is succeeding without them. But, how are these farmers defining success? And are they prepared to succeed if they are faced with drastic challenges such as a market collapse, pandemic, personal health crisis, or shift in family dynamics?

Watson notes that young farmers and female farmers are more interested in business skills development, are more likely to adopt business practices, and are more likely to seek learning opportunities and support.

“Let’s face it, technical solutions are faster and less work — when they work — but are insufficient when it’s the people that need to adapt,” says Dobson. “Farmers are hard-wired to problem solve, but when extreme or uncomfortable situations arise, it’s not about problem solving, it’s about confronting the current reality, letting go of the familiar, and moving to the unknown.”

And that’s where business plans, skills development, and personal growth come in.

“Money equals choices,” reminds Dobson, “and a profitable, resilient business creates opportunities and flexibility.”


Most people come to LeaderShift looking for support to confront an interpersonal challenge. Dobson describes these as any relationship within a family business or related to it. He is seeing many farmers who, after stepping into the CEO position of a multi-generation family business, are finding it daunting.

“Things are going okay, maybe even well, but there is an issue, maybe more than one, that is not resolving itself and it’s not because they haven’t tried,” he says.

Confronting hard truths in a positive, proactive way, engaging others to build partnerships in the family farm, increasing personal resiliency, and learning to perform better under pressure are common skills farmers seek to improve through LeaderShift’s program.

Watson says that typically, business or personal skills development is prompted by a reaction to a challenge, such as an emerging crisis that will have negative financial repercussions for the farm.

“That’s why we want farmers to be proactive, do a SWOT analysis, ask some hard questions about their leadership abilities, business goals, and vision for the farm. Determine if the farm has the capacity to succeed or if training, business planning, or expanded skills development is necessary,” she says.

A SWOT analysis identifies the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to your business.

Dobson encourages farmers to just dive in, saying, “the big message is that there are more profits to be found in developing themselves.”


Combining their expertise and sector insight, Farm Management Canada and LeaderShift partnered to launch the National Farm Leadership Program in January 2020.

The program is designed to offer participants individualized learning within a group setting utilizing a confidential online platform, three-day residency, and year-long personal and group coaching. Designed to increase leadership effectiveness on the farm, the program focuses on supporting participants to create individualized practices to develop resiliency, interpersonal skills, performance, strategic thinking, and building a network of colleagues. The 2021 National Farm Leadership Program begins January 27, 2021 and the deadline to apply is January 17. For more information visit national-farm-leadership-program. There is a fee to participate in this program.


Farm Management Canada focuses on introducing a business management process to farms. Their recommended approach includes assessing the performance of the farm and its people, assessing the business environment including risks and opportunities for success, and putting a plan in place to help farmers navigate towards sustainable growth and prosperity by building capacity to manage for success.

“Post-harvest is an excellent time to reflect on what went well and areas for improvement,” says Watson, who suggests farmers start by completing a business skills assessment at to identify areas for improvement. A list of upcoming training and skills development events and online training sessions is available on the National Farm Business Management Resource Centre at

Farm Management Canada offers a database of more than 200 free webinars on all aspects of farm business management from leading industry experts, along with a variety of training programs available to Canadian farmers.

“For 2020 and 2021, all of our skills development opportunities have been moved online, including our annual Agricultural Excellence Conference, hosted December 8-10, 2020. We will continue to explore new opportunities in this space that fit into busy farm life,” says Watson. •


Annual surveys drive the focus and resources of Farm Management Canada. The organization conducts surveys with farmers to determine skills development opportunities they are seeking, and with educators and consultants to find out what business topics they recommend farmers focus on to succeed in today’s farm business environment. These surveys are used to determine topics of interest with Canadian farmers, comparing the results with the adoption of skills and practices on farms to identify gaps. Here are some results of Farm Management Canada’s 2020 survey.

Top five skill development opportunities farmers are seeking:

  1. Cost of production and benchmarking
  2. Transition and succession planning
  3. Strategic business planning
  4. Marketing
  5. Risk management

Top five business topics educators and farm business consultants recommend farmers focus on for success:

  1. Strategic business planning
  2. Financial literacy and management
  3. Leadership and entrepreneurship
  4. Risk management
  5. Transition or succession planning

Barriers to adopting on-farm business practices:

  1. The farm is succeeding without them
  2. It’s too late (farmer is aging/retiring)
  3. Lack of time
  4. Don’t know where to start
  5. Getting others on board with the idea

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