March 1, 2011

Nurture yourself this spring


A busy spring approaches and across this land, there will be thousands of people in the green industry working hard — extra hard. So hard that while they nurture the plants in the greenhouse and the trees in the nursery, they will fail to nurture themselves, miserably.

One thing is for certain. For at least a few months of every year, you will abuse your body, almost to the breaking point.

Every spring, we put ourselves under this strain of long working hours, poor eating habits and little sleep. For some strange reason, we brag about what we do to ourselves. We rationalize the behaviour, because it is self-inflicted.

We never take an hour off, let alone a day, because the universe understands that our business empires would collapse without our continual vigilance.

We rarely sit down for a meal. Food is something we consume in transit from Point A to Point B. We forget there is such a thing as The Canada Food Guide, opting for whatever is convenient, which often translates into high carb/high fat consumables. Fresh fruit, veggies and salads are often forgotten while we ensure the proper nutrition of the impatiens and geraniums on our benches.

When it comes to sleep, we allow ourselves somewhere between four and six hours, which while short, would allow us to get by if it were a solid sleep. How many of us have shouted out instructions during the night to water in Number Three house? Or as one of the young men whom I mentor claims, he orders supplies in his sleep. There is nothing like getting up in the morning to begin a busy day, with the feeling that you have worked all night.

When I was a young man starting out in this trade, I spoke with the late Pat Maybin, who owned Central Plains Nursery in Saskatoon. Pat had 20 years' experience ahead of me at the time. I told him how exhausted I had been in my first three years in the business. That I felt I was always running from task to task, always trying to put a cap on the next explosion. I asked Pat if the day would come, when I would feel comfortable with the insanity of the spring. He was not of much solace. He made it clear that it would always be pandemonium, and that I would have to learn to live with it. His explanation was, and still is, a commonly-held viewpoint.

How many of us have tried to challenge this tradition, the way it has always been done? If you need a rationalization to make a few necessary changes, allow me to adopt the role of your surrogate mother. The bottom line is: The longer you abuse your body, the quicker it will wear out.

And in spite of your many claims that you are functioning just fine, you are not. You are over-tired, under-nourished and stress has built to the point where you do not always make the finest decisions. You are a prime candidate for a heart attack. God's way of telling you to slow down and take it easy.

Take three steps
Here are some of the things that you have to do in order to function at top level: First, arrange for some proper meals. Regardless of your situation, you must ensure that you eat three balanced meals, with lots of fresh fruit and veggie snacks included. You need to reduce your reliance on Seven Eleven snacks and visits to Tim Hortons. Neither of those places offers the fuel your body so desperately requires.

Second, learn to decompress at night, do not jump into bed 20 seconds after completing the last phone call. You need time to relax before you drift off to sleep. Bedtime is not the time to review your receivable and payable accounts.

Third, and this is the hard one, for all of us: we must learn that we cannot do it all, that we are neither the alpha nor the omega, and that we are simply a part of something that is larger than ourselves. This is a difficult task because it asks that we forfeit our role as the director of the universe. We need to rebalance our egos to match reality.

One of the best things I ever did was to hire people whose exclusive job it was to manage phone calls. These people would handle the incoming calls, sort out what was important and where the call should ultimately be directed. How many times has a call come in at your place that began, "I want to speak to the manager," and it turns out that the question is, "Which varieties of tomatoes do you have this year?" That call could have, and should have, been handled by other people. My telephone people were empowered to make decisions, and their catch phrase was, "I am authorized to assist you with that problem." I would check in every hour or two to see if there was anything that did require my attention. Perhaps three to five per cent  of calls at best, required my input. I have written this here before and it is still valid: we are usually not the right person to answer the phones in the chaos of the spring.

Take control of time
We need to learn to prioritize our time. Ask what is important today, to this season, and to the long-term growth of this company? In that priority process, I came to realize that while many items are important, not all important items required my input. One of the hardest tasks we have had to implement is to allow others to make decisions. A friend owned a very large greenhouse operation. He had a phone installed adjacent to his kitchen table, so that he could field incoming calls during meal times and after hours. This was before cell phones. It remained there until his wife, blessed with common sense, finally had it removed. The world had to learn to get along without him for an hour or two, every day.

Another myth in this trade has been the need for excessive amounts of overtime. I went along with this myth for close to 20 years, flogging staff to work 60- and 70-hour weeks. We used to joke that if you worked 40 hours a week, you were a part-time employee. Then one day, I announced that the next spring, there would be no more overtime. Senior staff would work eight-hour days, five-day weeks with two consecutive days off. My staff thought it was impossible. How would we survive? Each senior staff member began training a junior staffer to function in the job during their days off. We learned that we had several junior people who were very capable, who jumped at the chance to assume a supervisory role, albeit two days a week. Our staff members were better rested, better able to carry out their responsibilities and we learned that we could reduce overhead without sacrificing customer service. We learned that 60- to 70-hour work weeks were not required for profitability.

Another thing we learned to do was to rotate senior staff in the 'firefighter's spot' at customer service. It is too much to expect one person to deal with customer issues for a straight eight hours. After two hours, we rotated someone else into the role. While customer service must be your priority, there arrives a point where no staff member wants to hear another story of how a plant died, after the caregiver had done everything humanly possible to maintain it.

Nourish your spirit
As many readers are owners, those responsible for their companies, let me address this last issue. Find a spot, I don't care if it is at work or at home or somewhere in between, a spot where you can sit down by yourself to meditate, pray or just relax, for 20 minutes. You need to have those breaks. Rejuvenation of your spirit and soul are no longer optional. They are necessary, mandatory to the success of your enterprise. Without your regular time-outs to breathe and to regroup, you are not operating at full capacity.  Learning to nurture yourself will keep you on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.