September 1, 2012

No shortcuts on the road to success


Everyone wants to be on the fast track for the quickest route to success. I get that. I am as impatient as any of my readers. I also raised three sons and I am quite familiar with the question, “are we there yet?” This is perhaps the shortest intro I have ever written, as I am known for six-hundred-word starts. Don’t expect brevity every month, after all, I have an Irish grandfather.

To be succinct or blunt, there is no shortcut to success. That is the bottom line. Success is an obtainable goal that can only be reached through layers of repetitive, ethical behaviour. There must also be quality workmanship and products to support the ethical behavior, but the two are often linked, arm in arm.
STORY TIME: I mentor a few young people within the trade and a couple of others call on me, now and again, for advice. One young man, just starting out, called me regarding a new lawn he was to install to replace an old one. The problem was that the old lawn was filled with couch grass, which is often incorrectly called quack grass in our area. It is an invasive perennial, wide-bladed grass that, once rooted, is difficult to control in a lawn. The only way to carry out the job, as a true professional, is to spray the existing lawn with Roundup or another non-selective herbicide. Then give it a week to ensure there is an effective kill. The prep work can begin for the new lawn only after it is certain the couch grass is dead.

The young man did not want to wait the week. He had promised the customer he would have it finished by the weekend. “Can’t I just rototill it extra deep?” I explained to him that rototilling divides the roots of the couch grass, and that within six weeks he would have it growing through his new turf. “What should I do?” It was almost the bleating of a lamb.

I explained to him what I am telling you. There are no shortcuts to success. “You have to tell your customer that in order to give her the best job possible, you will have to change her completion date by a week to ten days. Most people do not want a continuing problem with couch grass or any other weed, so you need to sell her on the benefits of slowing it down.”

As young men and women, we are often in too much of a hurry to finish a job. I know. I qualified as one of those people in my twenties and thirties. I had a mentor a few years before I met my wife. One day when we were visiting him in Langham (northwest of Saskatoon), my wife asked my mentor what I was like before she had met me. Dieter said, “He was always in a hurry. He ran everywhere. When I would tell him to slow down and walk, he would walk quickly. He had to get everywhere right away.”

Thirty-five years have passed. My desire to get everywhere quickly has sublimated itself due to maturity. Also, having a bum left knee has really helped to slow me down, as well.

What I did not understand in my twenties was the importance of layering. Layering is my favourite word for landscaping, cooking and life itself. I have observed that the best gardens, friendships and soups are built by a layering process. Starting with good foundations in a landscaping project, which includes plenty of topsoil and the right granular bases for the brick work, we then begin to add on. When we are approaching the finish of a project, I often use the word ‘polish’ with my staff. “We need to polish up the front yard and make it shine.”

When we work in layers, and it is more time consuming, then the end result is always better than when we rush. Rushing a job is rarely the right answer.
STORY TIME: When I was in my twenties, there was a landscaper in my area who did really fine work. He would prep his beds, installing a close to final grade for the turf. Then he would turn on the sprinklers, giving the prepped soil a good soaking. He would wait four or five days for the bed to dry out and then, do one final raking and levelling before the sod was installed. I asked him why he did this extra step that no one else did. He explained that nothing showed your low and high spots quicker than water. He went on to tell me that by soaking the subsoil, the sod itself took off much quicker than if it were laid over a dry bed. From my perspective, being young and knowing everything, I thought he was just adding in an extra five to seven days to his jobs. As I got older, I saw the wisdom of his methodology.

Today, and for many years now, that is how I prep for a sod bed. I always allow for an extra week to get some water down and it is amazing how he was ever so right. When your eye tells you that you have a perfect grade, the water lets you know that you have a slight rise over here and over there, there is a small dip.

One of the young men who I mentor asked me to inspect his jobs in progress when he was first starting out. He wanted to ensure that he was getting things right, and a quick site visit would often head off potential problems. In the middle of his second season, he was up to his proverbial butt in alligators. He had just about everything finished on a high-end job. The shrubs, trees, perennials and brick work were all in place, as was the sod bed. All he had left to do was to install the turf. It rained the night before, soaking everything. The sod bed did not have its final grade and due to the rain, laying the sod would have left major footprints as the crew worked. His sod was sitting there on the pallets, waiting for installation. He was anxious to get it down, before it deteriorated. I told him that there was absolutely no way he could carry on with the job. He would have to wait three, perhaps four days before resuming work. He was concerned that he would have to write off the sod. I told him that he was at a turning point in his career. “Do you want to be just another hack, or do you want to do it right? That is your choice. This is one of those defining moments in your career.” It turned out for the best. He called the sod farm and they had someone else who wanted his order, so he was able to get fresh turf, five days later. The customer got a better job and he passed one of those tests that we are presented with in life.

Every now and again, I will spot an ad in a magazine or a newspaper that has a headline that reads ‘The Lazy Man’s Way to Easy Riches’ or some such nonsense. The ad will be for some course or business whereby the purchaser will be able to get rich by doing virtually nothing. Fortunately for the world, there are not too many people who buy into that program one hundred per cent. Sadly, there are several people who buy into that attitude to some degree. They believe that there are opportunities to succeed with very little effort. They often tell stories of someone they know who started a business, did very little work and “now he just shows up to collect the profits.” A very interesting story.

I have been well ensconced within the business community for close to forty years, and I have not met anyone who did very little work and reaped major benefits. The successful ones I have met paid attention to the details, morning, noon and night. Perhaps, after several years, their businesses had a momentum, that churned the dollars, but without hands-on management, that progression usually faltered.

Shortcuts should never be confused with efficiency. They are two totally separate words and concepts. One will benefit you, the other will not. Shortcuts should be avoided in all aspects of your business, from hiring, to bookwork and installation. Over the years, I can write with absolute confidence, short cuts to success cost me money.

For my epilogue, I leave you with this: I wrote earlier in this column that my beloved mentor noted that I moved too fast for his liking when I was young. I was in too much of a hurry. Time passes. I am now a mentor. An established business person watched with keen interest, my interactions with one of my young mentees. When we were by ourselves, the businessman spoke. He said, “I think your main job, as a mentor, is to keep him in check, otherwise he goes off in too many directions. Am I right?” He was right. A good mentor takes that youthful enthusiasm that says, “I can do anything,” and channels it in the right direction. Avoid shortcuts, embrace efficiency, learn the difference, and stay 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.