Great Managers are People Farmers

Great Managers are People Farmers


If you are not a people farmer, then you are not a manager. If you are a manager you are in the people farming profession.

As a manager you might check Excel spreadsheets, monitor process and put systems in place, but that’s not the subject of your management. People is the stuff your management is made of. If you are a potato farmer, you should know potatoes. If you are pig farmer you should know pigs. A dairy farmer should understand cows. And if you are a manager, you better know people. If you don’t, poor harvests and bankruptcy lead to the final unhappy end. So, how well do you understand what makes human beings tick?

Learning to put people first

Very few entrepreneurs and SME owners I know began their ventures one bright morning, drawing the curtains aside with: “Oh, I want to work with people, what business can I start so that I can fulfil my lifelong ambition to work with people?”  No, we usually begin because we have no other option than working for ourselves – or because we have a bright idea that we believe will change the world.

In the first case, we usually fall back on a skill we have and for a very long time we must keep on practicing that skill in our SME, while doing a host of other things, invoicing, chasing debtors, marketing, managing the people we acquire along the way to help us with the work load… Managing is a struggle to create some order from the day to day chaos. Thinking about people, what they are, what makes them tick, comes as an after thought, if at all. To get people to do what we want, we mostly fall back on anecdotes, fragments of our own experience, how people treated us, what we want and don’t want. If you wanted do potato farming with such little anecdotal knowledge you would have been doomed to subsistence farming at best.

Those entrepreneurs that begin with an idea are no different from those that had to jump the ship and begin their own business. They too are not primarily interested in people and what makes them tick. It’s the idea that drives them, not the love of people. “People” is an after thought. Those business owners/managers with a formal education in business will have a smattering of “Maslow,” often the only bit of knowledge I find among them.

Of course, our book shops are awash with books on the status term for management, “leadership,” mostly purely motivational and with no real substance. It’s about as good as if you want to do potato farming believing that talking to the plants will help them grow better!

So, now what do you really think about the people and about the human race as such?

Understanding people

Let me give you four options and then you choose (these were originally prepared by Matthew Stewart in an article in Strategy + Business).

  1. Do you believe human beings are self-cantered, not innovative and lazy; left to their own devices they will do the minimum and be prone to theft?
  2. Do you believe that human beings are like machines, they don’t know what they want, and you must lead them to achieve goals through a scientifically designed system of rewards and punishments?
  3. Do you believe that all people are creative by nature, love to work and will perform to the best of their abilities – if only management would get out of the way?
  4. Human beings thrive on freedom, however, they are also power hungry and they need a system of checks and balances to prevent rogue individuals from seizing absolute power?

Let’s do a quick check.

If you chose option A: People by nature stupid? Have you given thought to the ingenuity of prisoners? Want to know about innovation, go to prisons and get wise!  Now these guys are not known for their high educational achievements, but hey, if it is in their self-interest they are on a par with top class engineers.  The operative word is of course self-interest. If it is in our own interest, we are all hugely innovative.  The question is how to harness self-interest in the workplace to bring innovation to the business.

If you chose option B: If this were true about humanity, it is inconceivable how the species could have survived for close on 200,000 years.  And if you wanted to see this fail big way, just think Stalin and Mao. That was what communists really believed. But, oh, I think you forgot about freedom. Human beings want freedom, and if you imprison them, they will use their ingenuity to sabotage you – exactly what happened in communists countries! Same holds true for business.

If you chose option C: You have read far too many syrupy books by New Age management gurus. Probably you have a whole library of Tom Peters books.  Sorry I can’t help you. We are freedom loving, ingenious when it serves our self-interest, but if management were so bad, why don’t you try and win the next soccer or rugby world cup without a management team. After all, we call an outfit without management amateurs!

If you chose option D: Pity you couldn’t travel back in time. You would have made great friends with the authors of the American Constitution, Thomas Jefferson and his friends.  Now, we are close to the truth, freedom is important, so we are optimistic about human nature, but we are also pessimists enough to understand that you can’t win the World Cup in whatever sport without a management team to nudge self-interest and group interest to converge.

Farming with people needs both pruning and fertilising!

In my next article I will look in more detail at what we can really know about human nature, the stuff our management is made of.

Bertie du Plessis
Bertie du Plessis founded his successful consultancy firm, MindPilot, 17 years ago. He names several of South Africa’s blue chip corporations among his client list and has taught as a lecturer and guest lecturer in six different disciplines at tertiary institutions. His blog is the most read business blog on the domain. Visit Bertie Du Plessis's website for more information.