Seed World

Leadership Development in the U.S. Seed Industry

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Leadership comes in many different flavors, packages, and abilities. Our $22.4 B U.S. seed industry is facing many challenges, but also many opportunities that require different talents today. We expect to have ~8-9 B mouths to feed in the next 20 years globally shaped by different demographics by country. Let’s look at how leadership may need to adjust.

Leaders (vs managers) should be focused on driving the value creation phase of a commercial or public entity innovation with particular emphasis on the main contributor to productivity… People. This is why economists focus on productivity per person as an indication of doing more with less. Sound familiar?  

From an economic standpoint, economics is the allocation of scare resources. People with great ideas allow companies to create a proportionately larger increase in value compared to adding a marginal headcount to do low valued work.

ELOY CORONA is the executive director of the Seed Innovation and Protection Alliance (SIPA).

Our seed industry is being challenged to do more with less to the point it has been labelled a national security matter recently by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at the Salinas Biological Summit in June. U.S. Agriculture’s rate of innovation and specifically seed innovations are speeding up due to many factors such as brighter minds, economic incentives to create value due to a strong U.S. intellectual property system and, quite frankly, just the need to solve “on the farm” problems that reduce yield, increase costs, limited resources and an aging farming population. People need to eat, and they have finicky tastes.

Leadership development is happening at all levels from large companies, mid and small size seed companies, industry and commodity groups as well as family farms (many of which have complex legal structures). Continuity and succession planning are on everyone’s minds to ensure the ag innovation engine keeps humming.

Todays and future leaders will require more “soft skills” in order to deal with the future.

  1. Desire to never stop learning.
  2. Listening: clearly hearing and understanding of employee, team, customer and management needs.
  3. Empathy: understanding multi-generational team needs and thinking.
  4. Trust:  ability to trust others to gain one’s trust.
  5. Critical thinking: deeply understand underlying problems and paths for solving.
  6. Vision: ability to provide a long-term vision of success for employees to buy-in to.
  7. Action orientation: motivation to act when others hesitate.
  8. Negotiation: ability to see beyond what one hears to understand the underlying motivations and manage conflict resolutions.
  9. Decision-making: involving as many in decisions but having the courage to make tough decisions when all are wavering.

The speed of today’s learning and knowledge base in the seed industry is very similar to the computer sector. In fact, re-investment in new seed innovations is higher at 15-30% of revenue.   New plant breeding techniques, deeper knowledge of the plant genomespredictive analytics, harnessing robotics and sensor data collectionROI decision making tools are all speeding up the commercialization of seed and ag innovations.  

I follow a couple of simple guidelines in my everyday interactions with people:

  1. Create a trusting environment… beginning with yourself.
  2. Involve all team members, even the reserved members.
  3. Don’t listen to what people say… watch what they do.
  4. Take calculated risks for large potential gains.
  5. Make mistakes, admit fault and learn from them so you don’t do it again.
  6. Lead with your actions… co-workers will see what you do.
  7. Develop the “company’s silent leaders” who people trust when things get tough.
  8. Promote those who “create value”.
  9. Celebrate other’s successes while staying humble.
  10. Always do the right thing…even when it might be unpopular.

“People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” —John C. Maxwell