Management style helps get, retain good ranch employees
January 19, 2018
The Four Three Ranch, near Lusk, Wyoming, doesn't have to "recruit" employees. "I usually have a waiting list," said ranch manager JD Williams.
Most employees spend an average of 10-15 years at the ranch, in an industry that typically sees high turnover, indicating the Four Three is doing something right. Most of the time, when someone leaves the Four Three it's because they get the opportunity to return to a family ranch in a management position.
Williams attributes the success they have with employees to several factors. First, he says the way they run the ranch tends to attract a certain type of employee. "It's a cowboy deal here. Everybody doesn't have that to offer," he said. The ranch hands are encouraged to start horses and use horses in all aspects of ranch work. Advancing their horsemanship skills is part of the job.
That was a major factor that attracted Boe Simmons to the job. After working on some ranches where he felt like just a "warm body," he pledged to never work for another ranch again, but the Four Three was an exception. He'd always wanted to work there, because of the ranch's great reputation. About three and a half years ago he met Williams at a ranch rodeo and they both decided it was a good fit.
"I like getting horseback most every day. It's a good location, the weather isn't too bad year, year-round. We work with a real decent crew," Simmons said.
Beyond that, it's the corporation's approach and his own management style that seems to attract and retain quality employees. "People are our most valuable asset here. We try to treat them as such," Williams said. "The people here know our employees are our biggest expense, and our biggest asset."
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The Four Three is owned by a corporation. "We're very accountable in this corporation. We're very profit-driven," Williams said. "If I was not an effective manager, they would replace me, pronto." He's worked for the Four Three for nearly 20 years. "I've tried to take my responsibilities here seriously and develop a management style that's very effective for those below and those above me in our organization. I always tell the boys—if there's a problem here, it's my fault, because above me in the food chain, there are no weak links."
Williams worked all over the country under a lot of different management styles, and he said somehow he was often quickly promoted to a management position, regardless of his age or inexperience. "When your employees are older and more experienced and know more than you, you have to develop an effective management style. I did have the opportunity to learn from many managers; sometimes all you learn are the things you probably won't do again."
The humility he learned while managing more experienced employees sticks with him today.
He says he hires "men of character," but he also looks for experience and accountability. "People here know one of their responsibilities is to think, but that's also a liberty, really. We have a lot of people here who could be running a ranch somewhere else. They're qualified to do that. But this organization is structured such that it's pretty good top to bottom, so there's no rotten apples to make what should be a dream job into a chore."
He also lets them be independent enough do the job their own way, which includes making mistakes. More often, though, he says they come up with better ideas.
"Seems like the best ideas come from the bottom up in this organization," Williams said. "The people on the ground have a lot of ideas. Some of them you wouldn't use at this particular time, but are certainly good to file away for when it will be applicable. The best ideas come from the guys who are doing the work."
Simmons agrees. "JD is always open to new ideas and isn't afraid to try them. That means a lot to a guy, knowing that they appreciate you thinking and wanting a place to be better."
"I never try to discourage them, and if they go have a dumb spell, that's fine," Williams said. "That's education. That costs money, but education costs money. I don't mind them getting experience at my expense to a certain degree. While they're learning they come up with a better idea than I've had so far. I don't mind that at all."
He realizes that not everyone is cut out for that kind of management style, and when necessary does offer guidance, but for the most part, the employees he hires are able to handle the privilege and responsibility of making their own decisions. He also believes that if they aren't that way when he hires them, they develop into that kind of person when he gives them that trust.
"I'd rather a man did the wrong thing than did nothing at all. An intelligent human being will figure it out by doing the wrong thing."
In addition to the tuition at the school of hard knocks, Williams pays for his employees to pursue more formal education, like seminars, clinics and conferences. "I'll send them just to broaden their horizons or refocus a little bit," he says.
It also helps that Williams tells his employees that their job is number four on their list of priorities. He says that God, family and country—in that order—should take precedence over their jobs. He tries to make sure everyone has a chance to go to church on Sunday, if they choose, and other than the chores that have to be done, they don't usually work at all on Sundays.
"As much as we'd like to think that a man working seven days a week, 10 hours a day can get more done than a man working five days a week, eight hours a day, it's not necessarily true. You're more effective if you're rested up."
As Simmons puts it, "If you don't treat employees like rented mules that always helps."
Seven Truths from the Four Three
A few points for ranch employers to consider from JD Williams, Four Three Ranch manager.
1. If there's a problem with the employees, it's not necessarily the employees' fault. If there's high turnover it's not an employee problem. It's an employer problem.
2. Riding for the brand goes both ways. Sure, you expect a certain level of performance from an employee, but they should also expect an equal level of compensation and respect.
3. It's not just about money. Money only motivates people until the point where they have enough. One of the greatest motivators is just respect.
4. A policy is sometimes ineffective. Even though we'd like to make a rule that applies to everybody, sometimes if there are issues we just have to sit down and talk about. Find out what people want and need. Usually, they're not different, not unique goals—they're goals we share. It's just a matter of coming together that way. Everybody's different and you have to honor that.
5. I have never, ever refused request for a day off. I try to make sure and tell everyone far in advance the critical dates. Men of character who understand our operation are there when the chips are down.
6. Help your employees keep their priorities straight by encouraging them to take the time they need for their families.
7. You can't always get more work done by working more. Time off is vital for keeping employees effective and motivated.