April 1, 2012

Spring pruning – removing the dead wood from your landscape crews


In the landscape business, you need to prune often. But the spring pruning I am referring to is the type that isn’t always easy for many business owners and managers. After speaking with many landscapers in our management workshops and operating my own landscape company, I realize that, for a number of reasons, most companies and managers tend to hang on too long to the dead wood within their companies.

As a company grows and expands or improves, I believe some longer term employees find their way to the top and crave the entrepreneurial roles. Others simply don’t cut the mustard and slowly (or sometimes quickly) find themselves behind the pace of the company’s progress. When there are people on your team who are not performing to the company’s standard and who do not have the interest to advance their knowledge or make the effort to effectively complete their work-related tasks, the options are really quite simple. You as the owner or manager can make one of three choices:
  1. Put up with it — not recommended
  2. Change it — works in some situations
  3. End it — when you have exhausted efforts to “change it.”
Putting up with it
My experience has been that the longer I put up with a situation involving an underperformer in my company, the more damage it causes to the culture I have worked so hard to create. Bad attitudes are cancerous — they can spread quickly and I believe they can cause a terminal illness within your company. You cannot build or maintain a culture of professionalism and efficiency with obvious dead wood on the team. If you are recognized as a leader that “puts up with it,” you can be sure the rest of the team is quickly losing faith in you as leader. And respect is much harder to recapture than it is to keep by acting swiftly and confidently. Remember that putting up with it comes at an enormous cost. One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel, and it can take years to recover. Crew supervisors need to be trained on crew management, and they need to realize that it is up to them to cut the dead wood on their own crews. One of the most frustrating things to happen in my company over the years was to have a crew supervisor advise me in late fall how one of his team members had been underperforming all year. That is like telling me the whole crew underperformed all year — and worse yet, the supervisor clearly underperformed as well by not dealing with the issue immediately.

Changing it
I have been astounded at how people tend to burn out in this industry over a period of a few years. Some true superstars have left my company for other industries where they can “live a more balanced lifestyle.” I have come to accept that this will continue to happen. I believe a career in the landscape industry is a lifestyle—and after a few years, in this as in any profession, people come to realize they have either found a fulfilling career or not. When I start to see people wane after being high performers in their role, I generally do one of two things:
  • Create some challenge for them by adding more responsibility to their role, to keep them engaged; and I keep doing so until they show signs of burn out.
  • Quietly remove some responsibility, to reduce the possibility of burn out if they seem overwhelmed or in over their head.
  • I have tried to “change it,” both successfully and not so successfully, when people in my company are not working to our standards. Many companies have success stories of waiting and trying out some form of change, and I find myself becoming more skilled at doing this—perhaps I am more patient now than I have been in the past. Still, don’t over compensate by trying to create the perfect position for somebody. Landscape companies, like most other businesses, are most successful when they employ highly-motivated people who are capable of multi-tasking and doing many different types of work.
Ending it
As a business owner, I try to keep my long-time employees engaged by taking the steps mentioned above. But with new employees, I have what I believe is a simple and effective management style. My company has a two-week working interview, followed by a three-month probation period. If the new worker is not actively engaged in learning and is not adjusting to our culture, we simply “end it.” I believe that the sooner we move people out who are not the right fit with our culture, the sooner we will find ones who are. My philosophy is, don’t be afraid of some turnover — you cannot find superstars without it.

Consider the spring hire like a sports draft, or try-outs. At my company, we hire more workers than we plan to keep, since we know from experience that many will meet the requirements of the job posting, but simply will not fit our company culture.

Remember, when preparing your business for the busy season, don’t be afraid to do your spring pruning!
Mark Bradley is president of The Beach Gardener and the Landscape Management Network (LMN), based in Ontario.