Tick, Tock – Building a Dairy Clock

Posted: September 5, 2004

There is need for building more "clocks" - dairies where management and business succession go hand in hand with the transfer of assets and land.

In the book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors Collins and Porras describe the concept of "telling time" versus "building a clock." The person who can look at the sun or the stars and tell the time is like the charismatic and visionary leader. The person who builds a clock so that others can continue to tell time long after they are gone is the kind of leader who helps to create the visionary company that outlasts the others.

When we look at some of our dairy businesses today, we see the results of those early "time tellers" who were or are great with cows, have healthy baby calves, hit that 30,000 pound herd average or achieve a higher than average rate of return year in and year out. Often those "time tellers" have a strong drive for success and we hold them up in our industry as examples of how to get things done. We look at their vision and can appreciate all of the hard work and dedication that goes into making that vision a reality. We do and should recognize their accomplishments.

In the book, the authors studied companies that were founded from 1812 to 1945, that had undergone multiple change of leaders and were at the top of their industries. One of the common characteristics of company leaders was not just the ability to "tell time," but also the ability to build a clock - a model for a lasting business. Many of these "clock building" leaders are recognized not just for the products or services of the company, but rather for the lasting nature of the company itself. Their greatest achievement was the organization and the people that carry on that business, not the products that they make.

When we look at some of our dairy businesses today, we see evidence of "clock builders" with the younger generations and new employees overcoming current challenges and reaching new heights in performance. Building a dairy business where others can succeed is truly a great accomplishment. There is need for building more "clocks" - dairies where management and business succession go hand in hand with the transfer of assets and land.


Here are some ideas to start building your "dairy clock."


  1. Begin with a plan. When do dairy owners, managers and key employees need to be replaced by successors? Draw up a timeline for management succession. When and how should assets be transferred or sold? Work with a qualified professional to develop a formal business succession plan.
  2. Identify the core values that have made the dairy business successful and communicate about decision making based on those core values to everyone at the dairy.
  3. Implement a formal training plan to develop tomorrow's managers and help employees accept new responsibilities. Spend at least as much time and effort working on replacing people as you do on replacing cows in your herd!
  4. Recognize that your dairy business is much more than milk in a tanker or forage in a silo. It is the collection of people and process that when combined result in outstanding performance. It is the unique operational environment that helps people succeed. When visitors arrive they receive a tour of "our" rather than "their" dairy.
  5. Create opportunities for employees to contribute ideas to the operation that allow them to feel more committed to the dairy as a whole, not just their little slice.
  6. Don't sacrifice long term goals for short term gains. Work to do well in day to day operations and the short-run while still being aware (and having others aware) of where the dairy is headed in the future.
  7. Make progress as well as profits.
  8. Recruit, hire and retain people who continually improve your dairy business. Relocate those who are only interested in status quo.

Finally, ask yourself this simple question - "Where will this dairy be without me?" If you are satisfied with the answer, then you have probably been a great clock builder. If you are not, then time is ticking so get busy today.

Reference: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. 2002. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras Harper Business Essentials.

Lisa Holden
Dairy & Animal Science Extension
and Penn State Dairy Alliance