The Triathlon of Agri-Business

It’s closing in on 30 years now that I’ve heard the same argument or should I say “pointed discussion” going on in the offices, feed mills, grain elevators and Ag Retail facilities.  It goes something like this:

The Salesperson says – “I am the eyes and ears of this business and nothing happens until something is sold”

The Operations manager replies – “Good luck eyes and ears getting anything sold without someone to make it”

The Administrative Manager says – “Good luck to both of you getting anything done if my team is not here to buy inventory, enter orders and approve credit!”

For many years, we referred to this debate as the three-legged stool.  The fact that without one of the legs, the stool would fall over.  However, as someone who enjoys participating in triathlons, I often saw the comparison between a triathlon and these three components of a business:  Admin, Ops & Sales

This debate came to mind recently as I sat in the early light of an October morning in Austin, TX waiting for the fog to lift so me and the rest of the thousands of athletes could begin the Half Ironman race.  While waiting, I struck up a conversation with my neighbor across from me in the waiting area.  It seems that they had us sorted in rows by age.  I could tell he was a bit older.  So, I assumed he must have been in his 60’s or 70’s.  Realizing that, yes, I too will someday be this age, I felt compelled to learn about what allowed him to accomplish a race like this.  He began to tell me about all the half and full ironman races he participated in.  It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to how long we expected it to take us to complete the race.  I was shooting for 6 hours and he informed me that he just enjoyed completing them.  I asked about his individual events – swimming times, biking times and expected run times.  After some discussion, he said, “You know it doesn’t matter which event your stronger at.”  Not understanding, he explained the importance of being competent in all three.  As there are many who are great at biking but can’t swim so well or swimmers who can’t run, etc.  They never do as well as those that are well rounded in all three.  Then he made the comment that really struck me and seemed to fit with this age-old discussion in Agri-business as to which is more important.  He said, “You know, the 4th event is the most important”.  With another hour to wait until the swim began, we had all kinds of time to discuss what he meant by the 4th event in a TRIathlon.  He said “It’s nutrition”.  In a 6-hour half ironman or a 12-14-hour full ironman, you simply can’t push through the lack of hydration or electrolytes like you might do in a marathon or other endurance event.  Especially as the temperature in Austin was expected to climb into the mid-80’s.

Since they don’t allow you to wear headphones during an Ironman event, I had a lot of time to simply think – something we don’t often do in the digital age.  I reflected on that conversation and the analogy between agribusiness and a triathlon.  I have been a part of businesses that were run primarily by the sales team.  As a sales person, you might think I was happier to be a part of that type business.  While it was nice, I realized we did things that made our production very inefficient, possibly to the point of losing profitability and definitely disengaged a large part of the team.  Often this sales-sided orientation would also put a large burden on the administrative team.  They had to keep up with all the customization and special handling of orders, inventory, etc.

I have also been a part of organizations that were run primarily by the operations team.  While this was efficient, we often lost out on sales all together because we simply weren’t flexible enough to explore other products & markets.  New products and new ventures were scrutinized so rigorously that we simply quit trying to bring them to the table.  Again, not an ideal environment.

I have also run across that rarer case where the administrative part of the organization calls the shots more so than the other two functions.  While this was efficient from a credit application, accounting and standardized processes standpoint, it often had a negative impact on sales.  Customers could feel like the company wasn’t working with them to help their business.

Just as in the discussion with my new friend in Austin, it takes a healthy balance of all three of these components to make a stronger team.  Businesses can function in any of the three formats mentioned above.  Just like you can complete an ironman with an imbalance in your athletic skills.  However, to be more effective, healthy and engaging, a business needs balance.

As I rode through the streets of Austin and then out into the country side to complete the 56 miles of the bike ride, I kept trying to come up with the 4th event in Agri-business.  Then it hit me as did the lack of hydration.  Leadership – the 4th event in Agri-business.  In every one of those businesses I mentioned above, it was leadership that either directed or allowed the environment to develop into an imbalance.  No finger pointing as I was a part of that leadership at times that directed the focus of our business.  But I do know that the best businesses that I was a part of had one of two characteristics.  They either had a healthy balance between all three departments: sales, operations, administrative or they had a leadership culture that fostered healthy debate between the three departments.  I found that things didn’t have to be completely balanced as long as each department was heard, understood and given respect in making the business decision.  This was the fourth event that made teams stronger and more engaged.  It made them externally focused on capturing market share and not internally focused on protecting their turf.

As the race progressed and the heat rose, I found myself hitting that nutritional wall I had discussed earlier in the morning.  While I had plenty of hydration and several packs of Goo, the electrolyte balance was simply running out inside the cells of my muscles and cramps were building.  Luckily a friendly race participant saw what was going on as I struggled to complete the 13.1-mile run.  I’ve never been a fan of salt tablets but I do know they worked wonders on me as I was able to uncramp and finish the race (at least I hope she gave me salt tablets).  I trained for months and was strong in all three disciplines, but it was the leadership of managing my nutrition on race day that just about ended my race.

So, take a look around your organization today and ask yourself if you are balanced in the different departments of your business.  Ask department managers, ask key employees in different departments.  If you don’t get effective feedback, then use an anonymous survey process to get the answers.

Good luck and I’ll send out part 2 of this article when I complete a full ironman!

To Find out how I can work with you or your team, contact me directly at

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