What Attracts High Quality Employees?

Bob Milligan, Dairy Strategies LLC

Dr. Bob Milligan
Bob Milligan, Dairy Strategies LLC

We begin with a tale of two farms. Farm A was analytical, deliberate, and timely in all purchase decision - capital and inputs. The result was excellent land, equipment, livestock, and inputs producing large quantities of high quality crops and livestock products. Farm A's managers were always learning and improving their decisions. They were prepared and timely in their operation and were proactive in preventing and correcting problems.

Farm B often made purchase decisions - capital and input - hastily and at the last minute. The result was variable quality land, equipment, livestock, and inputs producing modest quantities of variable quality crops and livestock products. Farm B's managers relied only on their many years of experience in making decisions. They were often unprepared at critical operation times and reactive in preventing and correcting problems.

The reality is that most Farm B's are no longer in business. Today's Farm A's are continually getting larger and more complex.

Hiring, developing, and retaining an excellent workforce has become a critical issue on these farms. Most Farm A's make employee hiring decisions hastily without structured recruitment and selections processes. The result is great variability in the quality of the employees hired with high turnover levels. Few Farm A managers spent time learning employee hiring, developing and retaining skills and practices. Most Farm A's lack structured employee development and performance improvement systems.


What do you conclude from the above tale of two farms? My conclusion is that most Farm A's are still using Farm B practices for hiring, developing, and retaining employees. Is that sustainable? I think not!

What should Farm A practices for hiring, developing, and retaining employees look like? They should start with structured recruiting, including networking, and selection processes to ensure that quality employees are hired. Once hired, these employees require high quality onboarding and excellent supervision. High quality supervision requires clear expectations and high-quality feedback. Development and retention requires an excellent performance improvement system, on- and off- farm learning opportunities, and career-oriented compensation systems.

Just as successful farm businesses start with excellent inputs, Farm A employee practices must start with hiring high quality employees. In the human resource vernacular, this is referred to as hiring top talent. What, then, does it take to attract and retain top talent? Leaders of businesses, including farms, of all sizes are asking this question.

A recent book, written as a story and based on extensive research, identifies the unique interests of top talent. The book is  Talent Magnet: How to Attract and Keep the Best People by Mark Miller. In this article I outline the ideas described in the book.


Before identifying the uniqueness of top talent, the book identifies where typical employees and top talent are similar. First, both are attracted by what the book calls "the basics." These include competitive compensation, training, responsibilities that fit their interests and strengths, and adequate resources to succeed. Both also seek a business - farm - culture where the workplace is friendly, supportive, healthy, etc. In the book they refer to the third similarity as "brand/reputation." All employees seek to work for businesses - farms - with good reputations in the community.

Top talent has additional items important to attracting and retaining them. The book refers to these as "better boss, brighter future, bigger vision." I discuss each below using ideas from the book and from my experience.

Better Boss

The book identifies three practices exhibited by a better boss that are important to attract top talent. The first is leaders and supervisors demonstrate care. One quote from the book: "My boss asked about my long-term goals. I've never been asked that before." Leaders and supervisors are interested in employees as people for who they are in addition to what they do for the business. Demonstrates care relates closely to our previous discussion of our human relationship psychological need.

The second better boss practice important to top talent is called stay engaged. One description from the book "Our supervisors are there for us - on the good days and the bad." I would state this as top talent looks for working managers that place a priority on the supervision part of their position.

The third practice is leads well. Having leaders and supervisors skilled in leadership and supervision is critical to attracting and retaining top talent. It is unlikely that farms using Farm B hiring, developing, and retaining practices will exhibit this practice and thus be able to attract top talent. Recognizing the differences between management and leadership and the two very different responsibilities of a working manager are important here.

Brighter Future

The second area critically important to top talent is described as brighter future. Top talent seeks, more likely expects, their employer to assist them in preparing for a brighter future. First, they expect their supervisors and leaders to champion their personal and professional growth. This means preparing them for future responsibilities, jobs, and even careers. Top talent also seeks supervisors, leaders, and businesses that provide opportunity - stretch assignments, coaching, quality feedback - and that promote opportunity - horizontal and vertical promotions and career ladders.

Bigger Vision

"Top talent wants a real connection with their employer - more than just a paycheck. They want to be part of something with their employer. That's why the mission and values matter to them" is the justification in the book for including bigger vision. The first leadership practice, ensure alignment, is described by one of the characters in the fable as: "Well, it seems to me the real power in a vision is harnessing the collective energy of an organization. If everyone is not in sync, you lose a lot of energy, productivity and impact. I think creating alignment is one of the most important things leaders do." The second practice is foster connection, meaning people must be personally connected to the vision. The third leadership practice in bigger vision is celebrate impact - share successes.

A Final Point

The Talent Magnet makes one final point; to attract top talent, candidates must know that your business is a better boss, provides a brighter future, and has a bigger vision. The author describes this need as the business - farms - must tell their story - create awareness. They describe this as

TM = B*B*B*A where

TM = Talent magnet

B = Better boss, Brighter future, Bigger vision

A = Awareness by top talent

Full steam ahead.

Bob Milligan is a dairy consultant focused on farm leadership and employee management.  This piece appears in his June newsletter, LearningEdge Monthly.  He may be contacted at [email protected] or by phone at 651 647-0495.