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Spring Pruning – Are You Hanging on to Poor Employees Too Long?

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Business Advice

The spring pruning I am referring to here is the type that often isn’t so easy for many business owners and managers. It’s pruning the “dead wood” from your business – the employees who aren’t growing, contributing, or adding enough value to your company. I have come to realize after speaking personally with many landscapers in our management workshops and operating my own landscape company that most companies and managers tend to hang on to the dead wood too long for a number of reasons.

Don’t be afraid of some turnover.  You can’t find superstar employees without it.

I personally feel that as a company grows and expands or improves some of the longer term employees find their way to the top and crave the entrepreneurial roles, and others simply don’t cut the mustard and slowly (or quickly) find themselves behind the pace of the company’s improvement pace. The way I see it, the options are really quite simple when you have people on your team that are not performing at the standard of the company and do not have the personal interest to advance their knowledge and efforts to effectively complete the tasks associated with their role in the company. There are three choices you as the owner or manager can make in this situation:

  • Put up with it – not recommended
  • Change it – works in some situations
  • End it – when you have exhausted options to “change it”

Putting Up With Underpeforming Employees

My experience has been that the longer I put up with a situation that involves an underperformer in my company, the more damage it causes to the culture that I have worked so hard to create. Bad attitudes are cancerous – they can spread quickly and I believe they can cause a terminal illness to 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 the leader…..this 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 take down the whole team very quickly and I believe it can take years to recover. 

You also need the eyes, ears, and minds of your key managers, supervisors and foremen. Crew Supervisors or foremen need to be trained on crew management, and they need to realize that it is up to them to help cut the dead wood on their own crews. One of the most frustrating things that I have had happen in my company over the years has been when a crew supervisor (a foreman) comes along in late fall and talks about how one of his team members were “underperforming all year”. To me, that’s like him or her telling me that their crew underperformed all year – and worse yet, the Supervisor clearly underperformed all year too since they didn’t deal with the issue immediately. 

Changing the Work Environment

Over the years I have been astounded at how over a period of a few years, people tend to burn out in this industry. I have had some true Superstars leave my company to head to other industries “where they can live a more balanced lifestyle”. This I have come to accept that this will continue to happen, I believe that a career in the landscape industry is a lifestyle – I believe that anybody who wants to serve a career in this or any other industry for that matter needs to realize that their career is a huge part of their lifestyle and after a few years in any profession, people come to realize that they have either found a fulfilling career – or not. When I start to see people wane after being high performers in their role I tend to do one of two things:

  1. Add some challenge to their role by adding more responsibility to their role to keep them engaged, and keep doing so until they show signs of burn out.
  2. Remove some responsibility silently to reduce the possibility of burn out if they seem overwhelmed or in over their head.

I have tried both successfully and not so successfully to “change it” when people in my company are not working to our standards. There have been many success stories around waiting and trying out some form of change, and I find myself becoming more skilled at doing this and perhaps more patient than I have been in the past. That said, don’t try to over compensate by trying to create the “perfect” position for somebody. You need to remember that landscape companies are most successful when filled with multi-tasking highly motivated people that are capable of many different types of work.

Terminating Poor Performers

With people that have been around for a while we take the steps mention above, to try to keep them engaged, but with new employees we have a simple and I believe effective management style. We have 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 starting to adjust to our culture – we swiftly end the working relationship. I believe that the faster we move out the staff that are not the right fit for our culture, the sooner we’ll find a new employee who is.

If you follow the Landscape Management Network  hiring process to find and hire better staff, then you’re halfway way there, but remember to prune often and continue to work the hiring process year round. Your team will evolve, don’t be afraid of some turnover, you cannot find superstars without it. Consider the spring hire like a sports draft – or team try outs. We hire more than we plan to keep, since we know from experience that many employees will meet the requirements of the job posting but simply will not fit the company culture.  Don’t be afraid to do your spring pruning… the future health of your company depends on it!

Mark Bradley is the founder and president of TBG Landscape (www.tbglandscape.com), a full service landscape contracting firm from Toronto, ON. Mark has grown his business from grassroots startup to annual sales of over $17 million while designing and installing Ontario’s most prestigious residential design build projects. Recently, Mark released the systems that grew his company by founding the Landscape Management Network, (www.landscapemanagementnetwork.com) an online collection of tools, software, and education to help landscape contractors improve the way they see and manage their businesses.

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