In 1992, CCA began giving its CEO Outstanding Communicator Award. The award recognizes the commitment of a cooperative chief executive officer to open communications as an integral part of an effective management style.
Ash to receive CCA’s CEO Outstanding Communicator Award
By Karen Blatter-Schieler, Chair, CEO Award Committee
Wearing a fake mustache and using brown coloring spray on your hair might sound like something you do around Halloween, but for 1st Farm Credit Services President/CEO Gary J. Ash, it was part of a larger communication plan.
Chip Nelson, CEO at Cobb EMC in Georgia, is the recipient of CCA’s CEO Outstanding Communicator Award for 2016.
Ash donned the mustache and colored his hair to communicate with his cooperative about a five year plan to increase business earnings, capital and crop insurance acres.
The mustache and hair helped him create an alter ego, taking on the image of legendary Chicago Bears coach and player Mike Ditka. He added the famous Bears sweater vest, sunglasses and gum chewing to drive home points about success, focus and determination — what it takes to make it to the “big game.”
After a few years, Ash totally embraced the Ditka impersonation and started growing his own mustache months before his presentations and videos. His role imitating Ditka is just one of the ways he has excelled as a communicator. Quarterly updates to cooperative clients and team members, outreach to both the agriculture and local communities, and general leadership by example, are also reasons why Ash is this year’s recipient of CCA’s CEO Outstanding Communicator Award.
Making communication a priority
In choosing the award winner, the selection committee said this about Ash: “He’s the CEO every communicator wishes they had. He sees how vital communication is to the success of his cooperative and works to make sure members and employees understand the importance of quality communication. He really gets it.”
Ash, who plans to retire this year, has focused on communication to drive the rural lending association to its current level of success.
After becoming CEO in 2006, he drove a cultural change at 1st Farm Credit Services that focused on more communication about all aspects of the business, both internally and externally. Though he originally worked on the credit side of the business, as CEO Ash has embraced his creative side and used communication to impact the association. He communicates with clients via a quarterly column in the association’s publication, Country Spirit. He also pens his own message for the co-op’s annual report. He reaches out to team members by creating a quarterly newsletter with a motivational message and quote.
Asked to make presentations to a variety of groups, including the Illinois Farm Bureau, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and Prairie Farmer Master Farmers, Ash uses his relaxed style to connect and interact with those listening.
Leading by example
Ash has prioritized connecting with team members on a personal level. He makes time weekly to send
personal messages to team members, offering praise, support or care for their lives.
He works closely with the communication and marketing team to promote the cooperative, and offers notes of accommodation after their work is completed. The words “good job” and “thank you” are part of his daily communication.
He also drove a program for team members to praise each other for “living the culture” of the cooperative. Quarterly, he reviews the submissions and picks several to acknowledge.
Ash fully embraces leading by example and encourages the association and team members to give back to the community. He has led the organization in support of local food banks, farmers markets, FFA and 4-H groups. His personal roles in the local Red Cross organization and community college show team members the ability to give back is in all of us. He encourages team members to be active in both professional and personal organizations, including CCA.
Ash’s focus on communication has changed 1st Farm Credit Services for the better. His leadership has made an impact on the organization, making it a great place to work and do business with.
Communicating in a fun way can be a challenge for those heading a company, but Ash makes it look easy and makes it part of the daily work at 1st Farm Credit Services.