"Soft skills aren’t a typical priority, but they matter the most if you want to attract, train and retain the best team."
NAME: Hamish Murray
ROLE: General Manager and co-director, Bluff Station
SECTOR: Sheep & Beef
TEAM SIZE: 10
Hamish Murray is a high-country sheep and beef farmer in Marlborough. He shares how investing in 1:1 coaching, a mentor and a series of facilitated conversations with his team, have improved his wellbeing, grown his staff’s self-awareness and made his family’s business a better place to work.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your business.
Alongside my wife Jess, our three children and my parents, I’m a co-director and the General Manager of Bluff Station. We run 20,000 stock units, employ seven full-time and three casual staff. We’re also home to 750 beehives.
What inspired you to change and improve your workplace?
The changes were motivated by my own health and personal wellbeing. Our farm suffered from one of Marlborough’s toughest droughts in 2014/2015. My cup was empty; I had nothing left to give. When I reached emotional breaking point, it was obvious that to be successful at leading others, I needed to look at myself first.
Which initiatives or courses helped you improve your workplace?
The first coaching course I did helped me understand my own needs and values, how to ask questions and how to listen to others. I was then supported by a mentor for about six months. I also spent a year as a Nuffield scholar. This involved international travel and time studying businesses with high-performance team cultures.
Empowered by my new-found skills and knowledge, I wanted to share what I’d learnt with my team - for their benefit and ultimately for the good of our business.
Over a couple of sessions with an external facilitator, our team looked at their own values and characters.
Were there any challenges or obstacles?
Change isn’t always easy because it often requires more than one change.
It was hard at the start because I like solving problems – my own and others’. In some situations, giving directions is necessary but by thinking like a coach rather than a boss, our team can solve more problems on their own.
There were a few sideways looks from some people early on. One of our older staff didn’t say anything for the first day but on day two he read a poem he’d written about what the first session had meant to him.
Asking people to talk about themselves and their values can sound a bit flowery. It’s also confronting but everyone trusted each other and quite quickly the process felt very natural. It was an amazing opportunity for us to share our experiences, enjoy each other and grow.
What changes have you and your team made?
Operationally, nothing has changed, but our focus is different. We’ve put people and our team’s values at the centre of our business. Now when a challenge comes along, we ask ourselves ‘Does the solution meet our values – our guiding principles’? I see my job as helping our team realise their dreams.
How have the changes benefited your workplace?
As farmers, we learn about and invest in technology, and things like how to grow grass efficiently. Soft skills aren’t a typical priority, but they matter the most if you want to attract, train and retain the best team.
Investing in soft skills takes time, money and effort. But productive teams working well together are so simple and have the best results.
Developing new skills together has created strong connections and mutual trust between everyone. We know the investment has been worth it because our staff stay with us for a long time. Our team feels like a family in which everyone is valued.
Trusting our staff to have the ‘final sign off’ releases me from compliance so I can concentrate on other things. Our staff have a lot of pride in their work, and they feel accountable to each other, not just to me.
Working with a mentor outside our business added a layer of accountability. It kept things real. Growing our team’s self-awareness has helped us set goals and ways to reach them.
Six years on, our team tactics are engrained but constantly evolving. Our older staff help our new recruits understand themselves and how we can make the most of each other’s strengths. My upskilling has had a ripple effect. Our staff are now doing coaching courses too.
How easy was it access the resources / initiatives you needed?
Rural coaching services are easy to find but we decided to work with a coach outside the agricultural sector. We wanted the focus to be on our people rather than the farm. I learnt about my first coaching course through our local Chamber of Commerce. A subsidy was available through NZ Trade and Enterprise.
What advice would you give to other employers wanting to create a great workplace?
It’s hard to look at yourself but it’s the best thing anyone can do. Get your own ego out of the way so your team can flourish. Think about what your employees want and how you can you make them feel valued beyond what’s required of their job. Soft skills are an element on their own don’t always come naturally to everyone. Break them down so you know what they are.
More farmers need to engage coaches so they can work out when to direct their staff and when to coach them. Coaches come in different forms – they might be a professional coach or a farm advisor. A true coach doesn’t have an agenda of their own. They’re experts at asking questions to empower people so they can make and own their decisions.