3 Leadership Lessons From Down on the Farm

“Brent Frei, left, with his father Ron and two sisters at R&G Frei Ranch in Idaho.”

Brent Frei built Smartsheet, a Seattle-based software-as-a-service company, by re-imagining the tired old spreadsheet, making it easier for members of an organization to collaborate and track their work. The nine-year-old company has generated more than $10 million in revenue, raised $67.4 million in funding, and landed clients including ESPN, Google, and Netflix.

To what does Frei attribute much of his success in the tech industry? His years living on a wheat and beef cattle farm in Idaho, naturally.

Frei, who was named an “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Ernst and Young in 1997,  learned how to lead under the tutelage of his father, Ron, at the R&G Frei Ranch. Brent co-founded Onyx Software in 1994, a customer relationship management software company before leaving to start Smartsheet. While he has come to understand how to run a company through experience, he says, the skill of being a great leader was something his father passed down to him. Here are three of the most important lessons he picked up.

1. Work alongside your employees

At 77, Ron still runs his farm by working the land and the animals himself. He has employees, but he won’t relax and watch while the work gets done. Ron practices what Brent calls “participatory leadership.”

“My dad is a guy who always works, is always focused, always finishes what he has to do before coming home, always picks the hardest jobs for himself, and works alongside his employees so they can learn while watching him,” Frei says. “I saw the impact he has on those who worked with him as a farmer. His approach is so effective. I’ve seen people repeatedly come back to him as an example of how to work with people the right way.”

2. Believe in people’s ability

Frei says his father has a great way of motivating people. “He believed that people could do more than they believed they could do themselves, and that had a big impact on the outcomes,” Frei says. “When someone you respect has an expectation for you and belief that you can accomplish more than you know you can, you typically do [accomplish more].”

3. Put people in the driver’s seat

Frei says the next step of tapping employees’ full potential is to give them more responsibility than their role outlines. Smartsheet hires people for two levels ahead of the position they interview for. Frei says employees at the company will be doing something completely different in six months, so he hires people who will be able to move up. He got his first lesson on how to scale employees at the age of five–his dad would put him in his old pickup truck, put it in first gear, and Frei would steer around the crops while Ron sprayed the field from a tank in the back. Then the next year, Ron gave him more responsibility.

“When I was six, he needed to get a pickup and a tractor back home from a field that was five miles away, so he put my five-year-old sister and me in the pickup and pointed it down the road, put it in gear, and I drove it for five miles through a canyon and to the shop,” Frei says. “Boy, did I feel important. I felt like I was doing something super-serious and useful and that little example is something I think about at work every day. It reminds me to give people things that are actually important, even if it’s not in their skill set, and a lot of people will surprise you. For me, it’s never a surprise [though] because I know people are capable of more than they think they are–so, give ’em a shot.”

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