A new Red Meat Profit Partnership Action Group in Hawke's Bay that focuses on personal development has already helped one farming couple make positive changes to their business after only two meetings.

"It's been a real game-changer for our business, it's been wonderful," says Gretchen King, of Wallingford, between Waipukurau and Porangahau. "It's all about growing yourself so you can grow your team and grow your business — that's how I think about it."

Gretchen, husband Leyton and fellow Wallingford farmer Ben Tosswill worked with Rachel Joblin of Summit Consulting to set the group up with a focus on developing their people skills so they could better attract and retain staff.

"There are lots of workshops on production-based topics — like clover on hill country, plantain, fattening lambs or whatever — but there's nothing on personal development," King says.

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"If you work in a corporate industry, you get a lot of that but in farming, where we're running multimillion-dollar businesses and we're very good at growing lambs and cattle, we've had no topics to do with people or ourselves."

Tosswill came back to his family farm with wife Libby in 2010, from careers in banking in UK.

They had experienced personal development courses there but, like King, they'd had no training that really prepared them as employers of farm staff.

"You look around and there are some successful farm businesses that have had the same manager for 20 years but they're few and far between. It makes you think, 'What are they doing differently to everyone else to have that continuity'?", Tosswill says.

Joblin says there weren't courses or workshops available locally to teach those skills, so it made sense to set up a RMPP Action Group with "soft skills" as a focus. The group takes advantage of the seed-funding available through RMPP to pay for Joblin as a facilitator as well as to bring in experts to their meetings.

"We've got a plan to work through several areas. The first one is understanding ourselves, then understanding others, building a plan we can engage our team in and then it will be around culture and performance."

King admits she and her husband have had trouble finding good staff and keeping them, something she puts down to the remoteness of their property. "We're 40 minutes from a small town and there're just not many people in our industry today. Gone are the days of advertising a job and getting a massive queue of applicants."

More confident

But, she says, thanks to what they learnt in the first two action group meetings, they're far more confident they've got things right with a new staff member they've just employed.

"We've got the most fantastic person and we actually know from the course we've done that we are a really good match.

"On the farm, some of their strengths are Leyton's weaknesses and vice versa. So when we were going through that process of employing someone, we were going on a lot more than just what is their experience and what have their references said about them. We were able go with a broader approach. There were a lot more factors we were able to bring into it."

The key was understanding what the new staff member, who is married with one child and another on the way, was looking for.

"They'd been working for a corporate farm where kids aren't allowed on-farm, so having his family involved in the business for us is a massive positive so we tried to do everything we could to encourage that."

Tosswill says one of the strengths of the group is the mix of people who comprise it.
"I was keen to try to get the right people in the group, who were open-minded, willing to learn and take on new ideas. So we kind of drove the process ourselves, rather than being put into a group with people not of our choosing. I think that's actually been, from my point of view, really good."

At their first meeting, the group heard from dairy farmers Ben and Nikki Allomes about the flexible way they handle staff. Next, they had life coach Corene Walker talk.

"Everybody who was there was just like, 'Oh wow, this is great, this is fantastic stuff'," says Tosswill.

"It's been brilliant and there have been lots of 'Aha' moments and people going 'This is great, we need to bed this stuff down and make it part of our daily life'."

When they came back to the farm from the UK, the Tosswills put a lot of work into drawing up a business strategy and they thought they'd done a pretty good job of that, setting out their goals and how they planned to get there.

"But Corene said, 'Well, it's all good to have that there, but can you actually go out and sell the 'what you do and why you do it' to your staff or people coming into your business?'," Tosswill recalls.

"There was a light bulb moment, 'No we can't.' So, we needed to rewrite the strategy in a way that does that and for us, that's been huge, actually. Even though we've got quite a stable team, we know in the future that's going to change and so we need to be able to relay the what and the why to new staff members and anyone else who's involved with our business as well."

Tosswill is aware this could sound a bit airy-fairy and that's possibly why they were careful who they invited to join the group, but he sees tangible business advantages to knowing more about themselves and how they relate to others.

"We're really quite aware that before we go changing our world, we need to change ourselves. The message is if you actually do this, you'll improve not just your business but also personal relationships in your life."

Gretchen King owns a farm software business called AgRecord with clients all over New Zealand and she's spreading the word about how valuable she's finding the new action group.