First Business

August 10, 2010

Farms Grow More than Vegetables

I feel very lucky to live in Madison. One of my favorite hobbies is cycling. I especially enjoy biking this time of year, because within minutes of leaving my house, I am riding through lush farm fields. My wife loves the farmers’ market, and comes home every Saturday morning with all kinds of produce brimming from her basket (I never used to know that Sorrel, Rapini and Cardoons were even foods). Local farms are a great asset to our area — not just for their beauty and for pleasing our taste buds, but also for our businesses. That’s because farms don’t just grow vegetables — they grow great employees.

When you interview prospective employees, you can test for a lot of things — intelligence, personality traits, technical skills — but it’s difficult to test for something I think is the backbone of the employee, their work ethic. Will this employee be a dedicated member of the team? Will they work the hours and put in the effort necessary to get the job done?

I still interview the majority of the employees we hire at First Business. One question I always ask is, "Where did you grow up?" In the city? The country? If their answer is in the country, I’ll press further. They might admit they grew up on a farm. I’ve actually found some people are reluctant to state this, as if it doesn’t lend itself well to the business world, but that is the answer I’m looking for. In my experience, the work ethic associated with people who grew up on a farm is almost always excellent. From a young age, these people learned to be a contributing member of the family, getting up early and doing their chores. This is great training for any work environment. Many of these folks desire to grow up and leave the farm, but they carry that work ethic into the business world. These ex-farmers start their work day early. It’s what they’re used to. They embrace the concept that you work until the job is done, no matter how long it takes — you don’t quit when the clock says it’s time to leave.

When I joined First Business 17 years ago, there were only a handful of employees. A disproportionate number of those employees were farmers. And although we’ve grown to well over 100 employees, that background is still disproportionate in our company. Our founder and Chairman, Jerry Smith, grew up on a farm, as did our current head of human resources and our COO, to name a few. Many of these farm kids go on to the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern Business School, etc., and learn great things. But the work ethic gained from rising at the crack of dawn, milking the cows, feeding the animals ... before most kids rolled out of bed, drives them to be invaluable employees who set the example for commitment and dedication to the organization they work for.


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