Getting the right people on board is essential to a successful business. Anne Lee sees how Steve and Angela Reed recruited a farm manager for their Canterbury dairy conversion.
A YouTube video and a family photograph both played a part in bringing Canterbury farm owners and their soon-to-be farm managers together through the recruitment process but there was plenty of good old-fashioned planning, organisation and face-to-face interaction involved too.
Steve and Angela Reed are in the middle of converting a 219-hectare, 830-cow property, Waikirikiri Farm Partners, near Darfield.
It’s one of few conversions being carried out in Canterbury these days and has been made possible by stage two of the Central Plains Water scheme.
It all kicked off in November last year with the Reeds forming an equity partnership with the Taylor family.
“We knew we needed a complete farm team so right from the very early planning stages of the conversion we had the people aspect of it at the forefront.
“The process was very people-centric as is the farm because it’s been designed around people’s needs and ease of management,” Angela says.
The couple say 220ha is the sweet spot from a people management point of view.
The farm’s been laid out to optimise ease-of-farm management. Paddock sizes are even with a centrally located farm dairy and lanes, so staff can spend time on growing grass and optimising its utilisation.
‘We want to provide an environment that enables recruits to thrive and that continues to grow and develop their talent through their time with us.’
“We tried to get the fundamentals sorted out right up front, so the cow shed is a size that enables less time in the shed, more time outside doing the important stuff and allowing a good roster and time off,” Angela says.
They also did a lot of thinking at the outset about the number and structure of the farm team.
They’ve found three to four people in one farm team is optimal to create team performance.
More people can mean more-complicated team dynamics taking the focus off everyone reaching their potential, Steve believes.
Having a farm manager and two herd manager/dairy assistants gives a flatter structure that allows team members to be trained so they’re both able to step up if the manager isn’t there, which in turn helps reduce risk.
Steve says they take a long-term view with recruitment.
“We want to provide an environment that enables recruits to thrive and that continues to grow and develop their talent through their time with us,” Steve says.
Their first recruitment was for a farm manager and, with the help of their YouTube video introducing the farm, they began the process of advertising shortly after Christmas.
“We though post-Christmas was a good time to start, particularly for those key responsibility roles – after people had had a bit of a break and were thinking about their next step.
“But we got organised ahead of that and thought about what we’re good at and what we’re not so good at.
“With the conversion we’re pretty busy and we knew that to have a people-centred process we needed to process the applicants quickly and respond to people so we engaged recruitment company No.8HR to do the first part of the recruitment,” Angela says.
Angela organised the job description, the information pack, employment contract and tenancy agreements and put the video together so by the time the advertisement went out they were all ready to go.
“In hindsight we probably had the application period open for too long because we got most of the recruits very quickly. I think we’d cut it back to two weeks rather than three,” she says.
There were 80 applicants for the farm manager position which Kathryn Jack from No.8HR narrowed to 20, based on her brief from Steve and Angela.
“We’d been quite specific with the type of person and level of experience we wanted,” Steve says.
Despite that being conveyed in their ad they still had applicants from a wide spectrum.
They read every CV presented to them and were impressed by the skills, apparent capability and experience of many.
“That’s the hard thing with recruitment, you want to give so many talented people the opportunity – and there were some really great people – but at the end of the day you’re trying to select the best person for your business – the best fit for us and the best for them.”
What’s in a CV
A few things stood out to Steve and Angela on successful candidate Sarel and Nastassja Van der Merwe’s CV.
The first was a family photograph showing them with their two young children Sarina and Nickolas.
It was shot by a professional photographer in the great outdoors and immediately portrayed its own story.
“The photo was impressive – it was personal to them and showed them in a very personable way,” Angela says.
“It did help the CV stand out and it did give this strong family message,” Steve says.
That message was backed in the personal statement at the top of the CV.
“I think a personal statement is really quite important – it doesn’t have to be a whole cover letter. It tells us in a nutshell what you stand for, what your values are,” Angela says.
Steve says he immediately looked at the type of farming system the applicants had come from, what their level of experience was and how long they’d been at the more recent positions.
“That’s because we weren’t looking for someone who was already a manager but someone who was ready for us to take to that level,” Steve says.
From the 20 CVs Steve and Angela were able to get down to eight candidates.
Kathryn phoned each of the eight and went through some pre-interview questions aimed at cross-checking some of the points made on the CVs to ensure they were likely to be able to deliver and getting an overview of expectations.
“That cut out a few and in the end we went with four to interview,” Steve says.
Again, they wanted to make the turnaround time quick so carried out the interviews back-to-back over a three-day period.
Each candidate came to the farm and was interviewed in the house that goes with the position.
Chantal Taylor, one of the shareholders, sat on the interview panel with Steve and Angela and although not a farmer brought great insight through her background in psychology.
“She was able to delve a little deeper to find out a bit more about how they ticked.
“We didn’t get into technical farming things in the interview. We did talk about their farming experience more generally, why they were interested in the job, what their aspirations were and what was important to them,” Angela says.
Sarel says he’d come to the interview with Nastassja expecting a few more technical questions and was prepared for the quick maths type questions but he found the approach helped him relax and probably share more.
Nastassja, too, had an opportunity to participate and Steve and Angela could see where she sat in terms of participating and supporting.
“I think everyone needs to be clear upfront on that – you’re not necessarily hiring the partner and you can’t be expecting them to work or devote a lot of their time if it’s not agreed to at the outset,” Steve says.
The initial interview was also an opportunity for the candidates to ask questions and interview their prospective employers too.
Once through the “round the kitchen table” discussion Steve and the candidates headed out for a drive around the farm.
“Farm managers aren’t necessarily comfortable sitting around inside face-to-face and getting out in the truck gives you more of an opportunity to talk about farming, show them what we’re planning and talk about what they might do in certain situations,” Steve says.
Sarel agrees – having the discussion out on the farm in the truck feels a lot more natural.
Within the next day or two Steve also went to visit the candidates on their own farms to see for himself how they operated, take a walk in the paddock and look at the cows.
They were all open to that and again it gave a good level of insight into how they operated and their level of skill.
They could talk about what they’d do for instance to get condition on cows through the autumn and see how their eyes were calibrated in comparison to Steve’s on matters such as condition score.
“I did put them under a bit of pressure with some of the scenarios and questions and it was interesting to see how they reacted.”
He accepts that not all applicants might be in a position to have their prospective employer on their farm, but he urges farmers to try and do that, particularly if they’re filling leadership roles.
Reference checks were only carried out on the four preferred candidates and while the couple did put weight on them they were more of a cross-check to see that the views they were forming were correct.
“We did all the interviews on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and committed to tell them by the Sunday if they were successful, so it was pretty full on.
“I sat down and reflected on what each of us involved in the process was thinking – Kathryn, Angela, Chantal and me and all of us had different insights that were important to take into account when we made the final decision,” Steve says.
Sarel and Nastassja will start work at Waikirikiri early in May but are already working with Steve and Angela on their days off from their current position on plans for the new season.
They include doing a YouTube video of their own to help them recruit the staff who will report to Sarel.
He says it’s great to be involved in that process so he can be sure his team will gel and be effective from day one.
He’s not sure about getting in front of the camera but given the Reeds’ video caught their attention he’s willing to put his reservations aside and give it a go.
Just like Steve and Angela, who were advised to write down their top five must-have’s in an employee, Sarel and Nastassja have been putting their mind to that and putting them in order of importance.
“Chantal encouraged us to write those things down in priority order and then refer to them right the way through the process with each candidate and it really helped bring the right candidates into focus,” Angela says.
Making use of social media and online technologies can give you an edge when it comes to attracting candidates.
A YouTube video doesn’t have to be a highly polished production.
It should give a flavour of your values, showcase the farm and spell out what the opportunity is.
Make sure you’ve thought it through well, though, before you touch the start record button because it reflects your standards.
As Steve and Angela did, you could include your children and try and make it a bit different.
Older children can help you with the technical side of it if the online world is a bit of mystery to you.
Here is the Reeds’ video: https://youtu.be/x2x1p9rOIqA
- Consider attaching a good photo that tells a story about you.
- A quick selfie probably won’t help you stand out.
- Include a cover letter stating who you are, why you are applying for the position and why you’d be a good fit. No need for it to be a long-winded essay though.
- Have a succinct personal statement that portrays your values – make sure they can be backed up.
- Go online for a smart, well laid out CV template and tailor it to you and the position.
- Don’t write too much.
- Keep the skills mentioned to the ones that relate to the position.