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Life Lessons

December 1, 2013

Of all the decisions any of us make professionally, the two most important are whether to take a job, and then when to leave it. Sixteen years after deciding to become President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, I’ve chosen to retire at the end of the year…which means this is my last column for NMPF’s CEO Corner. So, all my big decisions have been made.

Rather than offer a recitation of memorable moments (there have been many cherished ones with people in this business) or a list of regrets (as that other singer from New Jersey famously said, I’ve had a few, but too few to mention), allow me to offer a few parting observations about the lessons I learned at NMPF, and how they shaped the past 16 years working for the organization’s members, and the dairy industry.

How you define consensus can give you everything or nothing. The tendency among most organizations, particularly trade associations led by a board of directors, is to define consensus as getting everyone to be in accord on a particular position. But if it’s a tough issue, waiting for 100% alignment can paralyze the organization and neutralize its effectiveness. That was the situation I found when I came to NMPF in 1997. One of the first things I said was that striving for consensus is incredibly necessary, but defining it as a situation where everyone has to be completely happy is a mistake. Hard choices never lead to complete harmony, but as long as people have input into the process and contribute their two cents, an organization then needs to move forward in order to be effective. This belief roiled the membership in my first few years at NMPF, but made my job easier in the long run.

Credibility is your credit. NMPF doesn’t sell products; rather, it offers ideas to our industry and to policymakers. Nevertheless, any marketing effort involves getting people to buy in to the ideas you’re selling. In order to gain traction in the world of ideas, they have to be credible. They must be based on sound science, and the economics have to be clearly understood. To the extent that we’ve had success in the past 16 years, it’s because we have not advocated positions that weren’t defensible and credible. The legislators and regulators we’ve worked with have appreciated that we have grounded our ideas in the facts, not in ideology or mythology. And we have gained greater traction over time, and gotten more credit, because we could back up our ideas with the facts. Making a convincing case – making the sale – the second, third, or 100th time is only possible if you have a reserve of credibility from delivering on your word the first time.

Proactivity uses less energy than reactivity. While there’s some value to the notion that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, it’s also true that it’s far easier to change things before they’re completely broken. One thing I did at NMPF is to identify areas where we needed to make changes, to learn and evolve, before we had our collective backs up against the wall. The National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program is an example of this dynamic. As consumer expectations change, we need to be out in front in developing a national industry standard for dairy cow care. We couldn’t wait until the consuming public thinks there’s a problem, and only then try to fix it. Yes, it’s been hard work, and that work continues. But one look at the challenges of other sectors of agriculture tells us that building a program like FARM will make our jobs as dairy marketers easier in the future.

Doing the right thing is harder in the short term but makes life easier in the long run. As I’ve said so many times in discussions with our members, doing the right thing is often very hard. It’s relatively easy to define the right thing, but much more difficult to push toward it. Again, with trade associations, it can be a chore in pulling the members together to work on controversial positions. But as I noted in my last column, the one discussing our position opposing the greater availability of raw milk, easier paths are usually not the right ones. And all of us, regardless of where we are in our careers, end up regretting the times when we chose the easy path over the right one.