Power of rural leadership

Power of rural leadership

Young agriculture professionals from all walks of life are praising the positive value of the Marcus Oldham Rural Leadership Program for it success in developing skills and knowledge as relevant today as at its conception 23 years ago.

On the last Sunday of June each year around 35 participants make their way from across Australia to take part in the five day intensive residential program at the Marcus Oldham College in Geelong, Victoria.

Convener Fiona Chambers has worked with the program for since 2009, bringing together the speakers and presenters and ensuring continued improvement and innovation from year to year to keep up with the fluctuating face of agriculture.

“Leadership is not about management, leadership is about change, managing change, and helping other people through change,” Fiona says.

“It’s important because across all of the research and development bodies leadership and capacity building in people comes up as one of the number one priorities; they recognise the key to a successful future for all industries is having people well equipped to manage change.”

Fiona says attendees are commonly surprised by the power of the program.

“I walked away a different person,” Heidi Eldridge, Stakeholder Relations Officer with the Cattle Council of Australia, says. “I walked away understanding myself infinitely more. How I learn, how I manage myself and my daily tasks, what I want to achieve in the future, and also how to read and understand other people around me, their behaviours and their values as people.”

“Whether it’s out on the farm, in town doing business, working through a succession plan or on the footy field, it provides those pivotal learning skills and people skills that everyone needs to have in the world today,” says Ben Egan, a 6th generation farmer and cotton grower in the NSW Central West.

For 2015 program participants Heidi and Ben, attending the Marcus Oldham Rural Leadership Program had always been an aspiration. Ben’s dad had attended years ago and in 2015 he grabbed the opportunity to apply for sponsorship thanks to the Macquarie Cotton Growers Association. While Heidi had been looking for a way to get involved but didn’t know how, in 2015 she was one of four scholarship awardees from the Australian Beef Industry Foundation.

“I applied because I wanted to progress my career and learn a little bit more about leadership and how I can implement myself in the beef industry in different ways,” Heidi says. “It was a full on week. It was above and beyond what I was expecting.”

Heidi was impressed with the focus on building leaders who bring out the best in other people. “The highlight for me was working with a psychologist who helped us establish an understanding of how to read other people and embrace their qualities,” she says.

“So I was able to take away the skills to better understand my partner, my family, my employees and colleagues a lot better, so that we recognize each other’s values and work as a partnership. I hope to put that into practice in the future, so that when I become a manager one day or someone in a leadership role, that I read people’s weaknesses and strengths and manage them in a way that brings out the best in them.”

Australian Agriculture Company’s (AACo) Cassie Cox also attended 2015’s program thanks to sponsorship from the Australian Beef Industry Foundation. Cassie is one half of the senior station management team at Anthony Lagoon and Eva Downs stations in the Northern Territory, alongside her husband Anthony.

The stations usually employ 34 people from stock camp staff to mechanics, pilots, tuck and machinery drivers, cooks, gardeners and technical officers. Cassie is direct manager of four employees at Anthony Lagoon and also works closely with the operations manager’s assistant at Eva Downs to ensure both stations are run as one. On top of management and office work, Cassie’s role involves monitoring the general wellbeing of all staff.

“The Marcus Oldham Rural Leadership Program has helped me with the people management side of my job,” Cassie says.
“This is quite a large and challenging component of my job and the communication and negotiation techniques covered at the course have given me more confidence to better handle certain situations,” she says.

“The public speaking practice and learning how to run an effective meeting are also helpful in my current role but are skills I can apply in the future as well. The course also covered emotional intelligence, a concept I hadn’t given much thought to previously and I found is something I need to improve on.”

Ben Egan says he was “blown away” by the program’s components on emotional intelligence and learning and leadership styles.

“I really enjoyed the tips on using your emotional intelligence to not let pet peeves or annoying things, like somebody cutting you off in traffic, upset you. It’s about being a bit more resilient so you can focus on the things that you have influence over rather than things that you have no control over,” he says.

“I was blown away by the VAK and KOLB tests that we did to determine our own learning styles. I’ve definitely taken that on board and I got my girlfriend to do one and my farm employee, just to see their learning styles and get them to be involved as well, so it’s not just me going away to do a program but I’m bringing it back to benefit my farm and my employees too.”

Ashley Hobbins, Project Officer with RM Consulting Group in Tasmania, was also highly motivated to put her newfound knowledge and skills into practice back at work and beyond. Working with producers to improve on farm efficiency when connecting one on one, running workshops and giving presentations, communication is a huge part of Ashley’s day job.

Thanks to sponsorship from Tasmanian Women in Agriculture and Tasmanian Alkaloids, the Marcus Oldham Rural Leadership Program has improved both Ashley’s communication skills and her confidence in her own ability.

After completing the program Ashley was propelled to follow up new opportunities, which landed her the position of school liaison coordinator for next year’s AgFest Field Days in Tasmania.

“For me it was much for than the physical skills, I was driven by the motivation to step out of your comfort zone and do a bit more than what you normally would do,” she says.

“It was also really great to be with like-minded people, people from so many different industries, and people who were ready to take that next step. Among the group it was fantastic to hear other people’s stories and what they had to offer, as well as the presenters.”

Cassie agrees, “What stands out for me was being able to do the course with such a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds who each contribute something we can learn from.”

While a broad range of industry bodies and businesses sponsor the travel and program costs for attendees each year, Fiona says self-funded participants are welcome. The variety in ages, industries represented and life experiences is always a highlight, along with the opportunity for networking and new friendships.

Heidi says she would encourage anyone who’s looking to take the next step in their career, especially involved with leading or managing people, to consider applying for next year’s program.

“Anyone who believes they have the potential to be a leader – and that’s not necessarily a manager or a CEO, it could be someone that’s leading from the back or leading from the middle,” she says. “If you think that you could improve your knowledge of people and how to better work with people, it’s an awesome program.”

For more information on the Marcus Oldham Rural Leadership Program visit: marcusoldham.vic.edu.au

First published in Leading Agriculture Issue 11

Feature Image: Marcus Oldham leadership participant Ben Egan and Merial Howard Yelland Award winner Lynne Strong