You are not having a good day. as you’re driving around inspecting your landscape maintenance properties, you see weeds in beds, trimming not properly performed; overall, the properties look like a C+ at best.
You’re frustrated, because time and time again you’ve instructed your crews to focus on the details, but for some reason they just don’t get it. They are turning out work that is less than exceptional; you feel like they just don’t care.
All those who lead and manage landscape maintenance operations have been in this position at one time or another. So, how do you get your crews to buy in; how can you make them care?
I founded my company 15 years ago, growing it into a 100- plus man organization; ultimately navigating the organization through a successful transition and acquisition by a national company.
Throughout this journey, I have made every mistake a leader in the landscape industry can make. For years, I managed my employees by holding them accountable through fear. If they did not perform quality work, they would be terminated.
It took me years to figure out that my men would only perform quality work when I placed the heat on them. As soon as I ceased to admonish them, they would revert to average quality work.
What I found was sobering: was that no one liked to work for me or my organization; they didn’t care because I didn’t care about them.
Everyone worked for the company for a paycheck and nothing more. It was this mentality that perpetuated the endless cycle of poor work, scolding, then quality work, and later reverting back to poor quality output once again.
I had to make a change in myself and in the organization. I began to focus on our company and why we do what we do. Was it for money? Was it just for the paycheck? Perhaps yes, but there had to be more to life than that, for all of us in the company.
I began to focus on why I had gotten into landscaping in the first place. I had really enjoyed taking a poor-looking piece of property and turning it into something beautiful. I always liked to think that the work my company performed made the world a little prettier place and lives just a little more delightful.
After some further brainstorming, I began to realize that the primary purpose of our organization was to create opportunity. Because our company existed, 100 men had jobs, livelihoods, and a means to provide for their families. I made up my mind; I was committed to instill this value into the core of our company. I declared to myself that our sole purpose was to execute great work as a means to create opportunity for ourselves, our family, and our fellow teammates.
Changing the way I looked at the business was difficult; even more challenging was reconditioning 100 men to see things differently. It required a focused commitment over months and years. Our team held weekly meetings to discuss safety, service-related issues and opportunities for improvement. I began to allot the final 10 minutes of each meeting to discuss with everyone the question of, “Why do we do what we do?” At the first meeting where I gave this a try, the feedback was less than inspiring. Guys looked at me like I had lost my mind, and for good reason. For years, the meetings basically consisted of my complaining about what we were doing wrong and what would happen if issues were not resolved. The change in culture required dozens of meetings to undo years of my poor leadership. I began to focus on the reasons why we all came to work every day; it was for our families and for each other.
Many of my men were immigrant workers from Central America. We began to celebrate victories, such as a new house being constructed back in their homeland by money earned at our company. We took pictures of these victories and showcased them in beautiful frames in the shop. So every day, everyone passed by a visual reinforcement of why we do what we do.
In addition to the first element of the “why”—for our families and for each other—the second element is that we deliver excellence in our work for one another. Everyone showed up each day and worked hard for the guy next to him because if we are all successful, that means more customers, more crews, and more jobs for family members, more promotions, and more opportunities for everyone.
Each week, we would take a picture of exceptional work. I would show this picture off in front of everyone and say, “Whose property is this?”, at which point one crew foremen got the recognition in front of everyone for his excellence. Next, I would say, “Who did you do this for?” and the foreman would pick a man out of the 100, and then the two would hug it out in front of everyone. The first few times we did this, I’ll admit, it was a little silly. However, after a few weeks, it became something—a process, a practice we all looked forward to. It was fun and humorous seeing two grown men hug, with a serious element that this is why we do what we do.
In time, these efforts culminated into putting a real sense of purpose into the hard work we performed each day. I would conclude meetings by reinforcing ideology: “The work we do here is important, as it creates more jobs for family members. We are professionals in our craft; we are respected by our competition, and families are provided for because of what we do. There are houses back home because of our efforts here. We make the world a little prettier and a little better place for people. Most importantly, we create opportunity—for ourselves and our families.”
After momentum was established behind the company’s new outlook on our work, I began to observe several things. We did not have the recurring quality issues that had plagued our operation for years. Our men had a more serious attitude about our profession. Overall, the atmosphere in the organization became more pleasant and, at times, actually fun. The men began to look me in the eye and shake my hand more often. I began to observe that the team was rallied and unified around these values; our entire organization believed in the same things. We began to trust each other more; turnover dropped to zero. Attendance went up, and quality of work became reliably exceptional.
While it was the enduring commitment of time and effort, instilling these unifying values into my organization became the most fulfilling experience of my business career. My only regret was not having led my people in this fashion from day one. Giving my last speech to my company, I realized in the final moments how meaningful an impact my transformative leadership style had had on the organization’s people. Many men thanked me with tears in their eyes, and admittedly, I had tears in mine as well. They knew that I had cared about them; my authentic leadership style had earned their respect and their trust.
I would encourage green industry leaders to “start with why.” What are the reasons behind why your organization does what it does? Focus on those, and rally your team around those values, to lead them to excellence in the green industry.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bryan Clayton is a green industry entrepreneur and co-founder of Green- Pal.