Adding an apprentice or intern to your operation is a great way to add energy and new ideas to your operation while providing training to the next generation of graziers. But, like any new practice, there’s information to make it easier, and skills we must develop to be successful.
For the past 6 weeks, Leah Ricci of the Quivira Coalition has shared what has made the mentors in their New Agrarian Program successful. From questions we should ask ourselves before starting, to writing a job description and getting the word out, to how to evaluate applications to choose the person that best fits your operation, to setting expectations and balancing work and education, with this series, you have the information to start off on the right foot.
Big thanks to Leah for this series! For even more, don’t forget to register for the free July 22nd webinar. It’s co-hosted by Julie Sullivan, a Colorado rancher and long-time mentor who can give you more tips for incorporating apprentices into your operation.
With this final article, we learn how to give and receive feedback. Feedback is critical to helping an apprentice learn. It can also be one of the biggest challenges of being a mentor. Here’s how to build a culture where feedback is encouraged and even sought out.
Why Feedback is Important
After apprentices have been on site a month or two it becomes clear how critical it is to give good feedback. An apprenticeship is supposed to be educational, not just a work environment, so helping an apprentice learn how to improve on the job is part of being a mentor. Particularly if you’re working with an apprentice who is not from a ranching or farming background, you may be surprised which tasks they’ve picked up easily, and which tasks they’re still not getting right. The best way to help them through this (and get the performance that you need from them) is to give them feedback on what they’re doing, and ask for feedback on how the learning process has been for them.
Two months in, it can also become clear how hard it can be to fit it into the overly busy schedule of a farm or ranch. Despite its importance, it can be hard for some of us to figure out how to give useful feedback beyond “good job” or “not that way.” Sometimes, it can be hard to give feedback for fear of offending someone or making them feel bad. Waiting and not giving feedback is not the solution. The longer feedback is put off, the greater the opportunity is for things to go haywire, with everyone second-guessing each other. Taking the time to give and ask for feedback is investing in your team, and this ultimately saves time and aggravation down the line.
Create a Culture Where Feedback is Encouraged
Many of us don’t regularly engage in giving and receiving feedback, or may feel like it doesn’t “come naturally.” For most people, in fact, that’s the case. As a mentor, you must work to create an environment where it is easy to both give and receive feedback. Follow these tips:
Set up weekly check-ins where you and your apprentice have an opportunity to reflect on the week. Keeping them brief is ok, as long as they happen regularly. Building this into your routine helps to ensure that feedback actually happens, and avoids the risk of minor problems festering until they become unbearable or turn into much bigger issues. It’s much easier to bring an issue up if there is dedicated space for sharing feedback, and having regular check-ins is particularly important for those who struggle to give feedback “naturally.”
Fit feedback into the work day. In addition to regular check-ins, build the habit of asking apprentices about how things are going. After almost any task you can ask a question or two, such as, “What was fun or interesting about the work you/we did today? What was most challenging and why do you think that is? What do you think is a good next step for you with improving this skill? “
Share both positive and critical feedback. Make sure to point out when apprentices are doing things well. By sharing both critical and positive feedback, you apprentices will realize that your comments are in their best interests and are meant to help them achieve their goals. It also helps to build trust.
Seek feedback from your apprentice. It may be uncomfortable at first to listen to their feedback on how you are doing, but by asking for it and listening to it, you model how you want them to hear the feedback you give them. Ask them, “What did I as your mentor do this week that was most helpful for you? What’s one thing that I could do that would help you learn more?” As Wendell Berry said, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”
Tips for Making Feedback Useful
Not all feedback is created equally. The goal with feedback is to provide (and seek) information that helps both the mentor and apprentice understand where exactly things are going wrong, and where the opportunities are to improve. Useful feedback is:
Clear. Give an example, and then check to make sure they understand what you’re talking about. For example, “Yesterday when you built that fence it wasn’t made ‘hot’ – was there a problem that you couldn’t figure out or did you forget to double check it or was something else going on?”
Specific. “You did great today!” is a nice, vague comment, but “When you were moving cattle yesterday you did a great job working off the shoulder to get them to move forward.” gives them guidance that they can use.
Timely feedback ensures that nothing is lost, so that apprentices can apply what they’ve learned and correct mistakes before they become habit. Get in the habit of debriefing tasks right after they happen, not a week later. Even just a question or two to check for understanding shows that you’re tuned in to their learning, and offers a chance to address minor issues before they no longer seem important.
Affirming of Effort fosters motivation and builds trust. Even if the outcome isn’t what you were looking for, acknowledging their effort demonstrates that you appreciate their work. Learning is a process, and your job as a mentor is to help your apprentice get to their goal. If you see your apprentice struggling at something but continuing to put the work in, or trying something new (even if it’s a flop), acknowledge the work that it takes to learn something new.
Future Oriented. What can be done to improve? Ultimately you need to end up talking about strategies to create improvement. As a mentor you don’t always need to have the solution already figured out, but need to work with your apprentice to come up with the strategy or solution that will best help them. “this isn’t working well, so what strategies or action steps can we come up with together that will help?”
Giving and receiving feedback is a muscle that needs to be exercised. The more it’s practiced, the easier it will come and the more it will lead to stronger relationships with your apprentices. Check out some of these resources for more suggestions and ideas to put into practice:
Dare to Lead, by Brene Brown, and the associated audiobook and workbook offer great tips. The workbook is available for free online at her website. She also has several short webinars and blog posts highlighting sections of her book.
The Feedback Book: 50 ways to motivate and improve the performance of your people, by Dawn Sillet, is easy to read and packed with straightforward tips on how to provide feedback.
Harvard Business Review has several good articles on giving, receiving and asking for feedback, including How to ask for feedback that will actually help you and Three questions for effective feedback.
Interested in learning more? Join us for a free training!
This summer Quivira Coalition is offering free “Intro to Mentoring” workshops. These calls will be led by Julie Sullivan, one of the founding mentors of the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian apprenticeship program. Julie and her husband George Whitten run San Juan Land & Livestock and have been mentoring beginning ranchers on their operation in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for nearly 20 years.
The next and final one is on July 22nd (6:30-8:00pm MDT), and will provide an overview of the New Agrarian program and an opportunity to talk about what it means to become a mentor. Click here for more information and to register.
Although it may seem early to prepare for hiring an apprentice in 2021, now is exactly the right time to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases and are prepared to find someone who is a good fit for your operation. We look forward to helping you get started!