The Farm-Gate Model: Where Should You Be Focusing Your Time?

As a team member’s role differs within an organization, so do their responsibilities; as responsibilities differ, so should the way that they spend their time. From individual contributors to upper-level management, the time spent during the workday is critical and should be focused on accomplishing specific goals and responsibilities related to each role within the organization.

Technical organizations hire specific team members for their technical skills. These individual contributors are typically considered “technical-folk” (i.e. engineers, machinists, designers, etc.). These team members should be spending the majority of their time focused on technical activities and sharpening their skills to address technical challenges; however, this does not mean that ALL of their time is to be spent at their desk or workbench. These individuals will also spend some amount of time communicating with low-to-mid-level managers, meaning the need for interpersonal skills is still a must. Engineers must be able to communicate their findings and machinists must be able to communicate their concerns. Although these individuals are technically-focused, the need for good communication skills is still there to ensure an effective line of communication up the ladder.

In many organizations, an individual who has held a technical role for some time and has demonstrated competency in their functional area will be given the opportunity to take on a leadership position (project leader, team leader, technical lead, etc.). It is at this time that a shift in the work patterns of the employee is necessary and this is not always something that is easy for the employee to manage. As an employee shifts into a leadership role, they are still expected to perform some of their own technical work while also coordinating the technical tasks of a team or project. This coordination requires a shift in mentality where interpersonal skills and resource utilization skills are more of a necessity. A leader needs to be spending less time on technical tasks/skills and more time on interpersonal and resource allocation tasks.

The Farm Gate Model illustrates this methodology in a simple and easily understood figure. If you look at the image below you can see that the use of one’s time differs with their functional level. As a member’s functional level increases (from individual contributor to upper management), their allocation of time should shift towards interpersonal skills and resource utilization skills rather than on the technical activities. The figure below helps to illustrate this principle. With the horizontal and diagonal bands, the figure holds a strong resemblance to a farm gate, hence the name.


In the figure, the bottom line represents an individual contributor focused primarily on using their technical skills to accomplish their daily tasks, the bottom horizontal band as low-level (first line) managers, the middle band as a mid-level manager, and the top band as upper management.

The lower-left triangle represents the technical skill requirements at each of the functional levels. As you can see, ALL of the functional levels require some amount of technical skills to effectively carryout the responsibilities of their role.   As previously mentioned, the amount of time spent utilizing these technical skills diminishes as a member of the team takes on higher and higher leadership responsibilities.

The upper-right triangle represents the amount of time required focusing on resource utilization/allocation activities for each functional level. As a member takes on higher leadership roles, the need to be able to coordinate resources and utilize them effectively is a necessity. A member of upper management should be spending significantly more time ensuring that his or her team has the appropriate resources that allows them to meet their organizational goals.

The middle diagonal band illustrates the interpersonal skills required regardless of the member’s functional level. As mentioned previously, the need for interpersonal skills—specifically communication skills—are crucial throughout the organization. Although the required skill-level is less complex and fairly focused for individual technical contributors, the need to be able to report effectively is paramount. On the contrary, as an upper-level leader is expected to spend a significant amount of time on resource allocation activities to direct efforts for the organization with a small amount of time required on technical tasks, the need to communicate downward to mid-level and first line managers is important.

The Farm Gate Model shows that the most even distribution of the three skills are within the middle-management functional level. These members are expected to be flexible and well-rounded on a day-to-day basis. They also spend the most amount of time communicating. Upper management expects middle management to report on project information, statuses, schedules, and worker productivity; middle-management is also responsible for providing information to the members who are “lower” on the organizational chart, which includes relaying goals, priorities, and group directives. It is my opinion that mid-level managers have the toughest task in terms of interpersonal skill utilization when compared to upper management and first line managers.

As you can see, good interpersonal skills and well-established means of communication up, down, and along an organizational structure is absolutely required. At certain levels, these skills should be tuned in specific ways to address the needs and responsibilities at each level; but, overall effective communication leads to an effective organization. The Farm Gate Model provides a framework for how time should be managed by members at each level and will hopefully help you better understand how these skills should be sharpened as roles change within your organization.


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