When did you learn to drive the tractor?

Photo of a tractor
© Copyright Dave Fergusson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I don’t know many farmers. But, when I meet someone who was raised on a farm, I like to ask how old they were when they learned to drive the tractor. Turns out it is a significant rite of passage—the day that they felt responsible for their family’s property and were expected to contribute to their family’s income.

Rites of passage take on many forms in different cultures: Bar and Bat Mitzvah rituals, quinceañera celebrations, religious confirmations, graduations, marriage ceremonies, drivers license tests, and so on. All of them mark a significant change, many come with increased responsibility, and they often include a celebration. We prepare our children for the rites of passage that are in keeping with our family’s values, religious traditions, and other cultural norms, and we are so very proud when they reach them.

In the workplace, rites of passage are often tied to promotions, increased responsibility, or changes in responsibility that come with lateral job moves. Just like parents, leaders play an important role in helping employees achieve these milestones. I love this quote by Jack Welch: Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.

However, growing others isn’t just making sure that employees can learn the skills and check off the accomplishments needed for promotion. In the companies I’ve worked for, there have always been more nuanced expectations. For example,

  • Does this person take initiative?
  • Do they take appropriate risks?
  • Do they mentor others?
  • Do they have what it takes to work with customers?
  • Do they care about the success of the company?

As leaders, we need to know about these unspoken qualifications and make sure our employees have opportunities to demonstrate them.  We need to coach them and ensure that they are prepared for the next steps in their careers. And, just like a proud parent, we should feel a sense of accomplishment when our employees achieve these corporate rites of passage.

I believe that all of us want to make a difference and feel that sense of responsibility that must come with learning to drive a tractor on a farm. What is the equivalent rite of passage in your family? In your organization?  What are you doing to help prepare your kids or your employees? I look forward to learning from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “When did you learn to drive the tractor?

  1. My equivalent of driving the tractor? When I was about 6, my grandmother sent me to the local grocery store, where she ran a weekly account, with a short shopping list. Money was always tight in our house, so this was a big responsibility and I knew it. However, I was so thrilled with the big-girl mission that I decided to exercise a little initiative: in addition to the things on my grandmother’s list, I bought a bag of cherries, a definite luxury. (I probably liked the color.)

    By the time I had walked the 2 blocks back home, the store owner had called my grandmother and had told her what I’d done, so she was waiting for me when I walked in the back door. She didn’t scold me or make me take the cherries back, she just quietly explained that being sent to the store meant that I was to purchase only what was on the list. Cherries were expensive, and we couldn’t really afford extras right then. So, my dignity intact and having had a valuable lesson in the value of money, I enjoyed the cherries for dessert with the rest of the family.

    1. This is a wonderful example of “driving the tractor.” Thank you for sharing your story. Your grandmother was clearly a smart, thoughtful woman.

  2. Perhaps equally as important is to *celebrate* driving the tractor, whether that is you driving it, your child driving it, or your employee driving it. As a parent and owner of my own business, I find myself focusing on all that needs doing or needs learning (which could be depressing, although I try not to think that hard). A wise business person reminded me that it is critically important to stop, and celebrate milestones. I must admit that I should probably celebrate more, but I’m much better at problem solving than celebration planning (and there always seems to be another hurdle ahead).

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