Agriculture leader sees opportunity to invest in the world
for The Fence Post
In high school, Leslie McCuiston’s psychology teacher told her something she would never forget. “It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.” Of course, the teacher was only referring to the never-ending excuses students had for missed assignments or the inability to take a test, but to McCuiston, it means much more.
“I’ve thought of that saying often,” she told a room of women during a Nebraska Women in Agriculture conference. “It is the things we deal with as managers, as businesses, as parents, as families and as farms. We have to figure out how to deal with issues in front of us.”
McCuiston grew up on a southwestern Oklahoma cattle ranch, that is still operated by her parents and two younger brothers. She went to college in eastern Oklahoma to initially study psychology, but later she attended Oklahoma State University and switched her major to agricultural economics. “I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher or major in animal science, so ag economics it was,” she said. “I always thought I’d work in the cattle industry, since I grew up with cattle. I thought I was going to be a female cattle buyer coming out of college,” she said.
Instead, an internship in the swine industry jump-started her career with Cargill Pork. “I’ve been associated with the swine industry most of my career. I have worked with the plants, cell farms, contractors and start-up farms,” she said.
McCuiston was also selected as America’s Pig Farmer of the Year, which allowed her to speak on behalf of the pork industry and gave her name and face recognition. It was a title she is quite proud of. “Since I now work for Pharmgate Animal Health as a senior accounts manager, and no longer touch a pig on a regular basis, they asked for someone else to step into that role. However, I still do some speaking on behalf of the pork industry. It just changes my role somewhat,” she said.
During her climb into management, McCuiston was once a senior production manager for the Maschhoffs. “The interesting thing about the swine industry is if you are willing to raise your hand, they will help you do it. I went from managing people to managing HR (human resources). It was a fun transition, and I think it fits into psychology. I like figuring out what makes people tick, what makes them do something, what makes them change, and why they do the things they do,” she said.
What McCuiston has found is it takes a lot of skill to work with a diversified group of people. Statistics show that in 2016, only 19.3 percent of the population is still living in rural America. Nebraska has a low unemployment rate, and in some areas, there were less than 50 people looking for jobs. She found that at times, she had to work with families, people with no agricultural experience and unskilled workers. “The rate of pay is always an issue because we work with such slim margins in agriculture,” she said.
As senior production manager at Maschhoffs, McCuiston used an employee development program that allowed her to not only train the employees for the job they were given, but to provide them with something longer-term. “I could train my 5-year-old niece to breed a sow. Pigs, cows and tractors are easy, but how do you get someone to care and treat it like it’s theirs? That’s the tricky part,” she said.
“The goal of employee development is to leave someone better than we found them. We need to invest in our employees a little more. We all need to become an encourager of potential versus a destroyer of confidence,” she said, reciting a quote by Robin Sharma.
To make her point, McCuiston shared a case study about Jane, one of the employees she once managed. “Jane was a learning process for me,” she said. “The great thing about managing people is wherever you are at, I think if you are investing in them, you gain even more. That’s what I got out of this case.”
Jane was an extremely bright woman in the industry, who had worked for several companies and across the world. She was a good manager, and came with a lot of knowledge about the business. “When I took over managing her, the previous manager clued me in about some of her habits. I am a green person, and make decisions pretty quick about people, and I think I’m right,” she said. “She lived up to what I expected, and we put her in an elevated position where she started to struggle.” It was to the point that McCuiston had consulted with management, and they had agreed to fire Jane.
But two things happened. “In business, especially management, it is not that simple, and I like a challenge. I wanted to prove we could figure this out. Jane assumed I didn’t like her, and I assumed she was a pain. So, I started thinking what I could do, what I could have done differently, and how I could get us back on the right track. She had a lot of knowledge, she just needed a way to use it without running people off from the farm,” she said.
McCuiston offered some tips on how she formed a better relationship with Jane.
1. Get better acquainted.
2. Invest in yourself. Be a leader on your home and farm to grow and learn how to handle situations. Learn how to interact with different personalities.
3. The truth to yourself and them.
4. Realize everyone is different.
5. Use feedback often.
6. Have the hard conversations.
7. Be happy for them when they leave you. Leave them better than when you found them.
McCuiston said she learned how to become a better listener. “Get to know your employees and what makes them tick. Listen to their conversations,” she said. She also learned to ask questions and not make any assumptions. If they are late, make sure something didn’t happen to their kids or there aren’t problems at home before you reprimand them for being late, she said.
“The employees need to trust you, and to do that you need to have honest conversations with them. They need to know you have their best interests at heart. The truth is important. Be honest with them about who you are and who you aren’t,” she said.
“Look at it as a way to develop a person that has exposure to those things. Just remember, it might not be your fault, but it might be an amazing opportunity. We’re not only feeding the world, but investing in the world as ag people,” she said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.