Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on the value of middle managers and ways to develop their potential.

Dairies continue to grow in size and scale, and so does the workforce needed to manage the day-to-day operations. A key to successful growth is middle management.

“Owners can’t move up to the position of CEO if they don’t have someone to fill in where they were,” says Bob Milligan, senior consultant for Dairy Strategies, a dairy business consulting service.

The transition from working with cows to managing an organization of people that work with the cows can be a huge challenge, but one worth accepting for the good of your operation.

Here is why you need to develop and grow middle managers on your dairy.

Improved communication

As your pool of workers grows, the gap between owners and workers widens — often at the expense of communication.

Yet, middle managers can bridge that gap. They are the linchpins of your operation, communicating up, down and sideways.

You may argue that you have great communication with your employees, that your operation is not big enough for middle management, or you do just fine managing your employees.

Nevertheless, to argue that middle management is not important is to argue that management is not important, says Bernie Erven, professor emeritus of agricultural management at Ohio State University. “Maybe you’re pretending you don’t need middle management. Some dairy producers have all 25 employees reporting to them. That is not managing your operation effectively and efficiently.”

Middle managers drive the vision of what you’re trying to do as the owner, says Jorge Estrada, organizational development consultant, leadership coach and trainer with Leadership Coaching International. “They communicate that vision to the front line and translate it into tactics, actions and tasks.”

This is a critical point, because how you see your dairy and the vision you have for it is not necessarily the way employees see it, adds Tom Fuhrmann, veterinarian and owner of DairyWorks, a management-consulting firm in Arizona.

Manage work

Middle managers are the ones who take plans and make them happen on a daily basis — they manage, supervise and evaluate the work.

“As dairies get larger, you (as the owner) can’t be at cow-side influencing workers’ decisions,” says Fuhrmann. It is impossible to know and manage each cow and supervise the treatment they receive on a daily basis. Middle managers can oversee these decisions.

Middle managers do not remove you completely from production practices. However, they do give you the opportunity to devote the needed time toward major operational functions.

In addition, they can motivate employees, provide daily instruction, do performance reviews and handle discipline problems.

The milking parlor is an area where middle managers can be very effective. A head milker or middle manager can focus, organize, discipline and motivate the milkers. “This is virtually impossible to do unless you have a head milker,” notes Fuhrmann. As a result, you can improve  parlor throughput, qualify for milk-quality bonuses and retain milkers longer.

Retain employees

Competition for skilled labor will be brutal in the coming years. Baby boomers will be retiring and there will be more demand for workers than available supply.

Good middle managers are not for hire; they simply are not available. If they were available, dairymen would not be able to compete with other businesses for the skill-sets needed.

Great ones must be identified, grown and developed by owners, says Fuhrmann.

Make sure that you grow your middle managers correctly. Having good middle managers is important. “Two-thirds of people who leave a position leave because of his or her supervisor,” says Milligan.

Hispanics will play an even more important role in middle-management positions in the future. They can successfully lead and manage your workers.

Growing middle managers is not easy. It is not as simple as plugging an employee into a position and walking away. However, an investment in growing middle managers will provide invaluable returns.  

Manage change

Do you need to make changes to your operation? It does not matter how important these changes are if the front-line employees do not buy in to the changes. “Middle managers can help you manage these changes,” says Bernie Erven, professor emeritus of agricultural management at Ohio State University. They help employees adjust to changes. Middle managers can also help identify when there is a need for change.