Cowboys are people too.

While you’re trying to wrap your mind around that concept, consider this: “Communication is the key word,” says Jen Livsey of Corpus Christi, TX. “Employees like to know what they are (supposed to be) doing, how well they are doing at it, and why they are doing it.”

And, remember, mind reading is not a form of communication.

Livsey, who works as a drought insurance specialist in the Farm Credit System, recently completed a master’s degree at the King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she analyzed employee management on large ranches. While that’s been exhaustively studied in other sectors, there was previously no information specific to large ranches.

In her study, Livsey surveyed 15 of the top 25 largest ranches in the country, all managed by a non-family member. The survey analyzed employee management from both the general manager’s and the cowboy’s perspective.

In broad terms, she learned that while monetary incentives are important, ranch employees value clarity and communication. And, in that regard, the size of the ranch or the number of employees doesn’t really matter.

“Humans want to be valued; they want to feel they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” she says. “Most people want to do a good job and they want to be clear on what it is they’re doing. I think those three points – what, how and why – translate to any size of business, including family ranches.”

Engaged employees

In short, communication means feedback from the manager or owner. Getting that feedback is part of making employees feel engaged, that they’re a part of something they can be proud of.

However, there were differences between general managers and cowboys on what “engagement” really means. “One thing that was surprising is that employees, on average, rated themselves as more engaged than the general managers rated their employees,” Livsey says.

In her mind, it’s communication. “For a general manager, an engaged employee ideally does XYZ. In an employee’s mind, unless he’s told differently, it’s showing up for work and completing his tasks for the day.”

However, true employee engagement goes beyond that. “It’s problem solving or offering a new solution or bringing something to attention that needs to be fixed,” Livsey says. Unless the manager communicates that expectation to employees, it’s not generally going to happen.

Mission accomplished?

Another surprising result was the higher rating from cowboys on knowing and understanding the mission statement. “I define knowing and understanding the mission statement with getting the big picture,” Livsey says. A mission statement can provide that big picture perspective if it helps employees understand what the ranch is trying to accomplish.

For operations without a mission statement, job descriptions and a strategic plan, “getting the big picture” and understanding where everyone fits in is hard to accomplish.

“I don’t think a lot of ranches have mission statements,” she says. “They’ve never sat down and done a strategic plan. So it might be difficult to articulate the mission or the big plan if the general manager himself isn’t quite clear on it.”

Engaging employees starts with making sure you hire the right person, says Bob Kilmer, general manager of the Matador Ranch at Matador, TX. “For us to do that, it starts with a job description. My time is valuable and so is everybody else’s time, so we want to define the job as best we can to get the right applicants.”

However, Livsey says, writing a job description isn’t as easy as it sounds. She’s had ranch managers tell her it’s among the most difficult things they do because it requires so much thought. “What do I want out of this person in relation to the broad goals for the ranch and in relation to other’s people’s jobs? That requires them to think about the bigger picture,” she says.

Once they’ve hired an employee, the Matador Ranch uses R, R and E – roles, responsibilities and expectations – to help the employee define where they fit into the bigger picture. “As an employee,” Kilmer says, “I need to know what it is you expect of me. What is my role on the ranch?”

The “C” word again

On the Matador Ranch, they communicate those expectations several ways, always with the overall goal of everyone doing their part to keep the ranch profitable.

“We’re constantly working with people and coaching them,” Kilmer says. “We have what we call tailgate meetings each morning to give people direction on what we’re doing today. The other thing we do is schedule a periodic review – and it’s not just the supervisor who provides input. Co-workers, people we work with, day workers, may all have the opportunity to provide feedback.”

In these discussions, Kilmer reviews the expectations the ranch has of the employee and continues the coaching to help the person know what’s necessary to achieve those goals. “They know what they are doing right and what they need to do to improve. That feedback is absolutely vital to the success of the business and more importantly, to the success of that employee.”

The Matador Ranch uses a variety of incentives including a pay-for-performance system, where employees can earn a bonus if the employee exceeds their performance expectations and the ranch is profitable.

But there are other incentives. “It’s not just money that keeps an employee here,” Kilmer says. The ranch encourages employees to attend meetings and conventions, and pays their expenses to go. The benefit is employees who understand that what they do on the ranch matters to everyone else down the beef marketing chain.

Beyond that, there are other “soft” incentives. “These guys like to ride good-looking horses and they like to ride a horse that can go do something,” he says. So the cowboys have a say in the breeding and culling decisions with the ranch’s brood mare herd.

In addition, Matador employees have input into other areas of the ranch’s operation.

“They may not make the final decision, but they’re part of the decision process,” Kilmer says. “We also encourage challenge – if you think a decision has been made without having all the best information, it’s your responsibility to speak up. Our approach is to try to understand all perspectives and utilize the best knowledge.”

However, he points out, being involved in the decision-making process is not an entitlement. “Just because your hired on doesn’t mean you necessarily have decision rights,” he says. “You earn those by your performance and your productivity.”

Once earned, though, they become an important part of the overall satisfaction and pride that employees take in their job.

“If I want to motivate somebody, then I want them fully engaged as a team member,” Kilmer says. “They’re incentivized financially, they’re incentivized by those soft incentives.”

But he says perhaps the biggest incentive is that Matador employees feel they have some ownership in how the ranch is operated and are an important part of helping it be profitable. “If you feel like you’re an owner of something, then you become motivated to make sure it’s successful.”

In Livsey’s mind, it comes down running the ranch like a business, because that’s how the operation will be sustainable.

“Implementing modern employee management practices shouldn’t threaten the fact that you have family history or a ranch culture or traditions, which are all part of what makes our business really great and something unique, something special and something worthwhile. But I see in agriculture that we tend to focus on building a really great fence and not on building really great employees.”