What Hops Taught Me about Exceptional Leadership

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorLeadershipLeave a Comment

My husband was recently asked by his organization (a mid-sized American brewery) to take a trip to Strasbourg, France to better understand the hop growing operation of a new partner who would be supplying hops for one of their bestselling beers. This new hop partner is a cooperative of 50 regional farmers that combine their crops to share equipment and enable them to sell to larger clients. Being the good wife that I am, I decided to tag along. Perhaps unexpectedly, I ended up learning a lot from our French hosts about exceptional leadership.

The most impactful experience happened during a morning excursion to the countryside. Our hosts took us to a local hop grower so that we could see the hop fields and his process for picking, sorting, and drying the hops. On our way to the farm, we learned that this particular farmer had reduced the amount of land he was dedicating to growing hops. Five years ago, a large buyer of their hops made the decision to stop buying through the Cooperative, and the farmer was left with a crop he could not sell. Naturally, this left a bitter taste in his mouth about hops (pun intended) and he reduced his involvement in the Cooperative around the hop program. The Cooperative hoped that our visit might motivate the grower to dedicate more acreage to hop growing.

When we arrived at the farm, we first spent time in the amazing fields, with lush green hops reaching 12 feet to the sky. Bright green cones, full of aroma, were only 2 weeks away from harvest. Upon entering the barn, we were greeted by the farmer, his son, and his father who, together, ran the farm as a family. In fact, their home had been built in the 1700s and the farm had been in their family at least that long. The three generations of growers walked us through their careful process of removing leaves and stems from the hops, drying them in a kiln, and then packaging them to deliver to the cooperative. They discussed the challenges of weather, pests, soil, and labor. Clearly they were experts of their craft and had built a great tradition of quality.

When our tour was done, the farmer invited us into his home for a beer and afternoon snack. The French typically only open their homes to very close friends and family, so we were touched by this invitation. While sitting around his dining room table, we had the pleasure of meeting the farmer’s wife and his daughter, who served us Kronenbourg beer and hot pretzels.

It was at this time that my husband and fellow brewers offered the family the beer that they had made with the hops that the farmer had grown. The beer was very different from traditional French beers, but they immediately recognized the flavor and aroma of their hop and loved it.

The head brewer explained that he felt it was important for the farmers to experience the end product of their hard work. He wanted them to know the faces of the people who loved their craft enough to only use the best ingredients. He wanted them to know that he viewed their relationship as a long-term partnership. He wanted them to understand what they viewed as a quality product. And most of all, he wanted them to know how much they respected and appreciated the hard job that they did.

As an observer to this conversation, I noted strong emotions of pride and appreciation both from the farmers and the brewers. Everyone at the table was clearly touched by the dialogue and the intimacy of the conversation. We left feeling a sense of connection between the earth, family, craftsmanship, and quality. As I reflected on what had transpired, I marveled at the brilliant leadership of our hosts from the Cooperative. By making a connection between this particular farmer (who was waning in engagement) and the brewers, he created a sense of pride, loyalty, and commitment all around. They demonstrated how a thoughtful meeting could inspire meaning in work and a connection to the big picture.

As I returned home I decided to share what I learned about employee engagement with the Newmeasures team. Here is a summary of my key take aways:

Good leaders:

Foster pride. Through their interaction, both the farmers and brewers developed a sense of pride. The farmers felt pride in contributing to a great end product and being able to show off the process they had built over generations to ensure quality. The brewers felt pride in understanding the care that went into their raw ingredients and how they were contributing to the livelihood of an amazing family. Not all businesses can generate pride in their employees by being the biggest or the market leader, but exceptional leaders find ways to highlight what is special about the organization and how it contributes to something bigger.

Communicate the end game. By getting to experience the final product that the hops were used in, the farmers were able to see more purpose in their work (in this case, to say that consistency matters because it impacts the beer). Exceptional leaders find personalized ways to connect employees to the importance of their work. This requires understanding what is important to each employee and helping them see how their work fits into those values.

Give employees exposure to your customers. Customer requests can often be frustrating or seem unnecessary. But when employees have the opportunity to interact directly with customers, they can better understand the challenges they are trying to solve and how their product is being used. In this example, the brewers came away with a better understanding of the challenges that are involved in growing hops consistently. The growers had a better understanding of the brewing process and why consistency is important. This type of dialogue helps each side do their jobs better. Exceptional leaders find ways for employees to have an intimate understanding of how their products/services are used and provide regular feedback.

Have a long-term view. As leaders we are tasked to work on the important, but are often side-tracked by the urgent. In the case of hops, it takes 15 years to develop a new type of hop that is well-enough established to bring to market. To be successful, the Cooperative must have a long-term view and understand what brewers will be looking for many years down the road. At the same time, this requires brewers to commit to hop growers that they will be long-term customers so that the investment in new types of hops pays off. Exceptional leaders balance the needs of today with the strategic thinking that will address the challenges of the future.

Allow others to influence. The Cooperative could have tried to rebuild trust in the hop industry by speaking directly with the disenchanted grower. Instead, they set up a meeting with enthusiastic brewers, who love the farmer’s crop and are passionate about the future of the beer industry. Their excitement was contagious and you could see it rub off on the grower. Exceptional leaders know that they are not always the best people to influence others. Rather, they find champions who can create passion and excitement for the cause at hand.