'The 10 lessons I learnt on the farm that helped me reach the top of the corporate ladder'

Life has taken me to some pretty unexpected, wild, wonderful, scary, beautiful places in the world, but no matter how far away I get from that little farm in rural New Zealand, I will never forget where I came from. At the end of the day, I’m just a Kiwi farm girl.

Oprah Winfrey (gen X #girlpower) was born in rural Mississippi; Taylor Swift (gen Y #girlpower) grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Wyomissing and 12 US presidents were born on a farm, so I am in good company. When times get challenging, farm girl values serve me damn well. So I cherish coming from “the wop wops” aka Kiwi for the middle of nowhere.

I am not the first person to talk about the lessons farming has taught me about business life and the resilience learnt from getting up at 5am, mucking out sheds and herding sheep. There are studies on this breed of businessperson. University of Sydney Business School has done a study of the CEOs of Australia’s Top 100 Companies and 38 per cent of the leaders were born in regional towns. Not to say that as a MD I have ever felt like I was running an office filled with unruly livestock that I have to feed and fatten up, but the operations of a farm, the work cycles and the relationship between the land, its people and the wider world have taught me so, so much. I still say that my Dad, the farmer, and farm life have been my best teachers.

The 10 lessons I learned on the farm:

1.    You need good soil.

If you want anything to grow, you need that good soil. If the soil isn’t good, it doesn’t matter how good the seeds are or how much you work it, it’s hard to grow anything. My father took this analogy further and always used to tell me: “Find good soil for yourself.” By that I have interpreted picking good environments to grow in, where seeds can turn into something wonderful. If I look back at my career, Virgin was a place with damn good soil – that led to good things, it was a place that invested in me, where I could grow personally and the business could grow. (I was part of a team that set up Virgin Active.) I can’t say that Richard Branson was a good farmer (his dad was a barrister, his mother a flight attendant) but he knows how to look after the soil.


2.    Always have a growth mindset.

The rural growth mindset is different from the instant gratification city slicker concepts of growth. I understand that each growth scenario is different with its own unique set of circumstances. I realised early on in my career at McKinsey & Company that I loved leading people and strategy more than anything else, so for me growth has been about pursuing leadership roles and learning. Each step was a choice about growth. I have made deliberate choices that would move me closer to my ultimate job, which I have today, of running a business, being an MD. It’s not about having a goal and expecting it to magically happen. My growth path has been about gaining experience in a wide variety of functions and disciplines including sales, marketing, operations, product, strategy, finance and managing large P&Ls.

3.    Big leaps are easier in an organisation that knows you.

I worked at the Virgin Investment Group “farm” for seven years. I worked hard, showed I was up for challenges and they backed me. In this way, I had the opportunity to run different functions and acquire different skills that I would never have learned in my “job”. It meant I could take on diverse roles and gain experience in a far easier way.

I mean, no business you have just joined, is going to back you with $30 million to launch a gym business. But that is what happened to a few of us in 2008, after I’d been at Virign for four years. I had worked hard and they backed me.  This also worked for me at BT Financial Group too. I needed experience running large teams and P&Ls so I took on a role as Head of Customer Experience with a team of 30. I worked really hard, gained a profile and put my hand up for all my boss’s pet projects. It was 2011, early days in digital terms, and I was promoted to a brand new role as Head of Digital. I had a team of 70 and a steep learning curve ahead. Before the interview, I had to have a serious conversation with my most techie of friends that involved questions like ‘what the hell is a hashtag?’


4.    There ain’t no such thing as work/life balance on a farm.

It sucks but it’s true. When I was a kid, if I slept in, Dad would come into my room at 6am and pull off the sheets and say: “You missed the best part of the morning, get up.” There were even 2am starts if a mare was foaling. Those experiences have made me think a bit more laterally about time and let go of the fantasy that work only happens between 9am and 5pm. This doesn’t mean you have to work all hours of the day but hard slog is something to be embraced.

5.    Do the pain well.

My early career started at McKinsey & Company in 1999. Fresh out of law school, the hours were gruelling with regular 9am to midnight “days”. (Plus one stint was two months with no more than three hours sleep per night.) If I ever whinged to Dad about the long hours he would say to me: “Do the pain well kid.” That is hardwired into me now and it has been a blessing.

6.    Forget work and life separation – it’s just life.

If you have a peek at Richard Branson’s Twitter feed @RichardBranson you will see a man on top of mountains, talking about turtles, in flight, being LBGT-friendly, signing books, showing off his daughter Holly and walking through rocket factories. He has always said there is no such thing as work/life balance, it is just your life. And you have got to fit all your work, home, family, friends, fitness and kids into that and at different times you will have a different emphasis – but it’s all got to get bloody done so get cracking. That’s not saying you can’t achieve your goals if you won’t work past 5:30pm – some of the best leaders I know insist on leaving the office by 5:30pm and never work weekends, but when the extra work is required, they do the time and they do it large.


7.    In life, your work is paid for in more ways than money.

Extra projects are a really big deal to me. Like the kid on the farm that gets themselves some chooks and starts selling eggs on the side, extra projects grow your career because we get paid in two ways in life: with experience and money. So I always focus on the former, and put my hand up.

8.    You reap what you sow.

So as you read this, I want you to point at something around you that you think is a problem. As you point your index finger, three other fingers will be pointing back at you. That is a formula that I like to use. If you point out a problem, it is up to you to find three solutions. This is so key for my millennial staff: think about what YOU can do about the problem instead of just pointing it out. Because a few things I know to be true:

  • You reap what you sow.
  • You are accountable.
  • Your success will come from your own hands.

9.    Always check the weather forecast.

On the farm this might be rainfall predictions, extreme heat/cold, frosts and wind chills, in the office, it’s other indicators like sales forecasts, Google Analytics, talent retention, operating costs and intel from trusted colleagues who know the turf that will help with decision-making. Get the data folks.

10. If you fail to plan you plan to fail.

There is this infamous 1979 Harvard University study on goal setting that interviewed graduates of the Harvard MBA program 10 years after they graduated. (Look, there is a lot of argy bargy about whether the study is true but I think the percentage of people that actually set goals in the study is similar to if you surveyed most workplaces.)


In the Harvard Business School MBA study on goal setting, the graduating class was asked one questions:

Have you set written goals and created a plan for their attainment? 

Prior to graduation, it was determined that:

·      84 per cent of the entire class had set no goals at all

·      13 per cent of the class had set written goals but had no concrete plans

·      3 per cent of the class had both written goals and concrete plans

The results? Perfectly captured in Wanderlust Worker: “10 years later, the 13% of the class that had set written goals but had not created plans, were making twice as much money as the 84% of the class that had set no goals at all.

However, the apparent kicker is that the 3 per cent of the class that had both written goals and a plan, were making ten times as much as the rest of the 97 per cent of the class.

Every year I have six segments in life and I have one or two goals for each segment each year. So I always say, WRITE DOWN YOUR GOALS. Even if it is just on the back of an envelope or program them into your phone.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

—Masanobu Fukuoka

On that note, I’m off to call my Dad.

Katrina Barry is the Managing Director @Contiki Holidays and she is represented by Saxton Speakers Bureau. Find out more at Saxton.