Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Characteristics Of Successful Business People

Geoff Mavromatis


New Zealand


This workshop is divided into three parts.

·       A presentation on some observations made over 20 years

·       A worksheet to complete

·       A discussion and debate based on the experiences of the audience

            My views that are presented here have been shaped by 20 years of observing and working with farmers and growers as adviser and consultant, both here and overseas, as well as time spent consulting to non-agricultural businesses. I have also been influenced by some of the authors I mentioned earlier, especially Robert Kiyosaki and Stephen Covey.


Defining Success

            This is not a paper giving out secrets of success. For one thing, what is success? What criteria should we use in assessing whether we are successful? Who do we let define our success? Whose image of success do we carry inside our heads—ours, our families, our neighbours? Given that there will be a large range of definitions, the intention here is to examine other people’s experiences and perhaps find some that might be relevant to our own situation.

            There is a huge industry built up in recent years that plays on the modern imperative of being successful. We need wealth, personal power, fulfilling work and rewarding relationships to feel that our life is worthwhile. However, as this has grown, we see another philosophy emerging that focuses more on our spiritual well being.

            One essentially deals with the end result, the other the journey. One promises pots of gold at the end of the rainbow if only we follow their tapes. The other talks about the moments of fulfilment, of personal growth and of increasing self-knowledge.

            Thomas Moore in “Care of the Soul” (1992) asks us to give up the salvational fantasy that being richer, thinner, or whatever we believe will lead to success, so that we can be free for the self-knowledge that is shaped by success and failure, pain and pleasure. At the risk of interpreting Moore at too trite a level, there is the saying “Happiness is not the goal, it is the journey”.

            For the purposes of this workshop, we will acknowledge the need for balance in life—between business and personal, between family and self, between the material and the spiritual.


Farming Success

In 1990, scientist Gerald Scales (1990) undertook a survey of South Island East Coast farms to understand why some could farm through droughts, while others struggled.

            The most significant difference between the two groups was their description of successful farmers.


“Achieves a high net profit per hectare” (high income farmers—average profit $41,824)

“Achieves an average standard of living” (average income group—average profit $5,885)

Both achieved success.

How does this relate to dairy farmers? These differences are not confined to farming through drought and the gap is widening.

            The latest figures from the Farm Monitoring round show:


Table 1: Average of 136 dairy farms across New Zealand 1998/99. Rankings are on disposable profit (before principal, development and off-farm income)











Milking area (ha)





Cows in milk (15 Dec)





Kg MS per ha





Kg MS per cow





Cash farm surplus





Net cash surplus

(after drawings, tax, interest,

principal and development)






For the purpose of this presentation, I have grouped the characteristics of success under four headings—the 4 C’s.

·       Clarity

·       Communication

·       Commitment

·       Courage



            It is very rare today to be far away from someone talking about strategic planning. Schools have charters, businesses have mission statements, visions and value statements. In fact, sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the jargon that we forget what we are trying to achieve.

            I find that a large number of farmers are very cynical about strategic planning and feel much more comfortable about operational issues. Unfortunately, vague strategy and effective operations have lead to success in the past, but is unlikely to do so in the future.

            Successful business people have usually clarified a number of issues.

·       Their personal goals

·       What they want from their business to meet those personal goals

·       Their role in the business

            It is this last point that I believe is the greatest hindrance to farmers making the appropriate changes for the next century. This is not about skills and knowledge—it is about attitude.

            I find many farmers struggle to decide whether they are a farmer or a business person. On the one hand they feel they have to prove they work harder than anyone else, perform every job on the farm better than any of the staff and hate to be seen skiving off in the office. On the other hand, they know they need to spend more time planning, delegating and learning.

            If you do not believe this is an issues, think of your neighbours and ask yourself what criteria you use to form your opinions on them as farmers. This is where you will put your priorities on your own time.

            Clarity of purpose, by contrast, is relatively easy to determine. It should involve a deal of research and discussion so that we understand ourselves and have a picture of the future.

            The greatest impediment to developing an inspiring vision is again our own self-imposed restrictions. Too often we see ourselves doing much the same in the future as we are now. We have an array of excuses as to why we cannot change.

·       “No time.”

·       “No money.”

·       “No skills.”

            My recommendation is that you use your creativity to determine how you will realise your dreams. The other topics being covered in this conference—equity partnerships, delegating, off-farm investments, irrigation, more land, etc—all offer the means to achieve your end.

            Successful business people do not see the same constraints that the rest of us do. They see opportunities and challenges.



            Having a clear sense of purpose and goals without others knowing about them can lead to some interesting situations on the farm.

            The classic story on negotiation tells of two girls fighting over an orange. They finally agreed to cut it in two and have half each. One promptly grates the zest, puts it in a cake and throws the rest away. The other eats the orange and throws away the peel.

            The ability to select, build and hold a high performing team depends on communication skills.

            Entrepreneurs can be successful and are often lone operators. However, without them their business often falters. They have not learnt the value of the team. As long as they stay small and remain very hands-on, they are fine. If they want to grow their business or cope with a more complex business environment, they have to learn new ways.
















            This too is a challenge for farmers. Not used to working in teams, not confident in their communication skills and in fact sometimes thinking that using other people is a sign of weakness, farmers can fail to get full value from their management teams.

            In my annual management cycle, every year begins with a re-evaluation of the business plan, followed by the communication of those targets to everyone who is involved with the business.

            Everyone has to have the same information so that we are all focused in the same direction, with the same priorities.

            I have spent a lot of time trying to help individuals and companies develop strategic plans. I became very aware of “good” and “bad” planning.

            One of the most inspiring visits was to an Australian fertiliser co-op, Pivot. Everybody I met, from agronomist, sales rep, blender operator, lab technician to senior management, knew exactly where the company was going. It was a simple message—Prescription Farming—one they all understood but most importantly they could all understand what they had to do to make the company succeed. They could tell me where the business was headed and their role in that.

            If it can happen on that scale, why not on farm? Do you believe there are real benefits from such an approach, or is it easier to just get on and do things yourself?

            We could write books on communication. Not all of it needs to be verbal, nor does it need to be formal. A smile, a bit of praise, does wonders.

            For the purpose of this presentation, I would like to summarise the characteristics of successfully communicating business people as:

·       They know the value of effective communication.

·       They place high priority on the need for communication.

·       They constantly try to improve their skills in communicating.

            Again, I put more emphasis on attitude than on skills. This is not to say that skills are not important—they are—it is that I feel that we need to place greater significance on the value of good communication.



            The purpose of communication is to gain commitment. If the message lacks clarity, it will be difficult to gain commitment. If the message is open to several interpretations, it will be difficult to know what people have committed to.

            Commitment is linked to motivation. Like motivation it comes from within and therefore needs to be seen by the individual as adding to their life.

            Being part of a top performing business will be attractive to some. Being given the opportunity to learn new skills so as to achieve the business targets will be seen as a benefit to others.

            Somewhere in the management literature years ago, I read of the term “purposing”. The author was looking for a word that combined

·       The communication of the business goals

·       Communicating an understanding of why they were important

·       Achieving a response from the audience where they wanted to contribute to those goals

It should be relatively easy to communicate and gain commitment.

In less successful businesses, I have seen situations where

·       The boss tells everyone what is going to happen, doesn’t ask for input and doesn’t give the opportunity for feedback; or

·       The boss spends all the time telling everyone the goals and why they are important to the boss.

In successful businesses, we see the opposite.

·       Partners/staff/advisers have the opportunity to input into goals so that they feel some ownership

·       The message conveys both the benefits for the business and for the individuals

Throughout the year, these messages would be reinforced at the regular progress review and team meetings.



            The last of the 4 C’s I have labelled as courage. The term is meant to cover a range of characteristics.

·       Being proactive

·       Being prepared to step outside your comfort zone

·       Being prepared to give up what you’ve got

“Progress always involves risk:

you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.” - Frederick Wilcox

            Courage, in my observations, seems closely linked to confidence. When the business people were trying something new, it was based on the confidence in themselves and their ability to utilise their skills in new areas.

            Many farmers see themselves as farmers. When faced with disaster they respond by saying that

·       All they know if farming

·       They have no education

·       They have no training for anything else

            In other words, they cannot do anything else and there are no options open to them.

            When there is no disaster, we won’t talk about these limitations, but they are often still there preventing us from taking action.

            In fact many farming business skills are generic business skills and are transferable.

·       Financial management

·       Staff management

·       Broad skill base

·       Ability to work hard

            During the MRDC monitor farm programme, farmers made management changes they had never made before. They had the support of their community group and their farm adviser to help them through the change.

            At the end of the four years of the programme, they were asked to identify the benefits of having been the monitor farmer. All said “increased confidence”. At the start they needed lots of support to make changes. By the end, they felt they were capable of making almost any change they wanted.

            Observing them after four years, you would admire their courage. As confidence grows so does willingness to act.

            Other situations where courage is needed are

·       Dealing with uncertainty

·       Maintaining values and principles

·       Taking responsibility for our own actions



·       The intention here was to pull out the major characteristics of successful business people.

·       While they have been grouped under the four headings, the 4 C’s, there was one underlying message that ran through all four.

·       The most important aspect is attitude. This means recognising that you are the most important asset on the farm and well worth continued maintenance and investment.

·       Understanding your role will determine how and where you spend your time. It means that you will understand which of your possible activities provide you with best returns.

·       Having written goals, linking the business to personal goals, greatly increases your chance of success.

·       Constant communication by you as role model to reinforce the verbal communication ensures there is a common focus.

·       Communicating with a win:win message for others contributing to the business will build commitment and lead to shared success.

·       In the end though all this is for nothing much unless you are prepared to act whenever necessary.

·       Success will not automatically happen every time. We need failures to learn and grow.

·       Perhaps for some, the fact that “we gave it our best shot”, “we had a go”, meant that our journey was a success. 


Moore, Thomas Care of the Soul HarperCollins Publishers (1992) 

Scales, Gerald Dryland Farm Survey 1990 MAF Rural Policy Unit


Traits of Successful People Video with Donald Van de Mark

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