How Springtime Can Make Us Better Leaders
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
The sun is shining, a bird trills in the newly-leaved branches above your head. The last frost date is finally past, and it’s time to roll up your sleeves, head outside and…delegate?
As spring arrives and the world comes alive again, we’ve often noticed, over the years, that people who lead and manage others often focus with new energy on helping their teams grow and thrive. Leaders say things like, “You know, I’ve been thinking about George. He really has potential, but I need to help him get some broader experience…”
It seems we’re wired to respond in this way to nature’s upwelling of growth. In a simpler time, we would have been planting our crops right about now; perhaps it’s that same impulse, redirected. As managers and leaders of people. we want to start fresh when spring comes; to wake things up; to encourage growth.
I’m an executive coach and consultant, a manager of people, and an author. I’m also a gardener. Over the years, I’ve found that the process of supporting employees to grow is in many ways like the process of growing a garden. Here are my top five gardening lessons that apply equally well to management:
1. You can’t make plants grow.
In my early gardening years, I was very impatient. I used to check seedlings every day to see if they were sprouting, and I took it as a personal affront when a plant died. After a few seasons, I finally figured out that you can’t actually make a plant grow. You can prepare the soil, buy the right plant for the space, create the optimum conditions for it to thrive—and then see what happens.
As a manager, I came to the analogous conclusion: nothing I did would make employees grow. It became clear to me that, as in gardening, I could only establish a good environment, get the right “plant” for the workplace and the job, and create the optimum conditions for him or her to thrive—keep down the “weeds” of conflict and poor processes, and provide the “sun and water” of clear direction and consistent belief in the person’s potential.
2. You have to prepare the soil
When I first began gardening, I read articles about the importance of soil preparation, and they made a lot of sense to me. Also, I had a good example before me of what happens when you don’t prepare the soil: we lived in Colorado, and our next-door neighbor had planted some annuals, just plopping them into the thin mountain dirt, and they all quickly faded away. So I dug up the top layer of my soil, and mixed in lots of compost. My plants loved it. They put down roots and thrived.
For a manager, the analogue is listening. If you’ve ever worked for a manager who didn’t listen, you know what a thin, poor environment it creates. It’s hard to want to stay in a place—let alone put down roots and grow there—when nobody seems to care what you think, or wants to hear your ideas, or find out what would help you do your job better.
Listening to your employees (and your customers, colleagues and bosses) is a powerful way to loosen things up and allow the exchange of information, insight and concerns. For example, one executive I know well—the most effective and revered leader in my experience—spends much more time at meetings listening than talking. She really takes in what people say, asks great questions, summarizes people’s main points to make sure she has understood. And the environment this creates around her is wonderful: there’s a free flow of ideas; people work hard and laugh a lot; they make good decisions together. They also listen to each other quite well—listening tends to promote listening. It’s been amazing watching her team come together, flourish and achieve great results in the “good soil” of listening.
3. Get the right plants for your site
As a gardener in Colorado, I quickly discovered the importance of selecting plants that would thrive in a dry climate. I used to gaze longingly at pictures of lush English cottage gardens, full of roses and delphiniums, but I knew if I tried to plant them in my garden, they wouldn’t last long. So I learned about the kinds of plants that would do well in our sunny, high-altitude, semi-arid climate. Those were the kinds I planted…and they thrived.
In the same way, I’ve noticed over the years that really good leaders get very clear about the kind of workplace they have or are trying to create, so they’ll know what kinds of people will flourish there. For example, if you’re a manager in a company that makes life-saving medical devices, you need an environment that’s characterized by order, precision and a high degree of adherence to procedure. On the other hand, if you’re the CEO of a small company that invents children’s toys, you’ll want an environment that’s playful, flexible and creative. Being able to pinpoint the characteristics of the workplace you’re trying to create will help you choose people who have those characteristics—and who will thrive in your environment.
4. Pruning, though weird, is essential
I suspect that every gardener experiences a moment of standing before a plant with a pair of pruning shears in hand, thinking, “Am I actually supposed to cut into this living thing with these sharp blades?” And the answer, oddly enough, is—yes. Plants do better when you cut away the dead or overgrown parts: then they can put their energy into growing strongly and cleanly toward the sun.
The analogue for managers is giving corrective feedback. You know an employee is doing something that isn’t working, and you know you need to say something about it. But it seems strange that having this difficult conversation is going to help this person—it seems counterintuitive. But the situation mirrors pruning almost exactly: by helping to “remove” those parts of employees’ performance that aren’t working, you free them to put their energy into behaving in ways that will work—for them, for you, and for the company.
One simple and important way to make this process less painful and more useful for all concerned is to focus your feedback on the person’s behaviors and results, vs. your judgments about them. Here’s an example. Let’s say you have an employee you think has a “bad attitude.” If you say that to him, it won’t help. He’ll get defensive, and he won’t have any information about what you want him to do differently. Instead, focus on the behaviors that you label ‘bad attitude.’” Maybe you see him saying negative things about others, or refusing to help them with their work, or simply not coming to work on time. If you give him that feedback, it still won’t be a fun conversation, but it will be a lot easier for him to hear, and he’ll know exactly what you want him to do differently.
5. All gardeners have plants that don’t thrive
I remember very clearly the first time something in my garden didn’t grow well. I had planted three Shasta daisies: two of them were healthy and full of blooms, and one just didn’t thrive. It limped along for quite awhile, but I finally gave up and put it on the compost pile.
Even the best managers have employees who don’t work out. It may be that they’re not a good fit for the job or the workplace, or maybe the job changes so much that they can no longer succeed. The most problematic situation though, is the employee who is almost OK (like my daisy).
As a manager, how do you avoid getting “held hostage” to employees who aren’t terrible, but aren’t great, either? First, make sure that you’re managing them as well as you can: Are you making clear agreements with them about their responsibilities? Are you giving them regular, balanced feedback? Are you providing the skills, knowledge, and resources they need to succeed? If you can honestly say yes to all these questions, then you’re fulfilling your responsibilities as a manager.
Next, look to see if they’re fulfilling their responsibilities as an employee. In my experience, good employees do four things: they’re responsive to feedback; they keep their agreements; they manage their own growth and they’re ‘good corporate citizens.’ Here’s how it looks when people don’t do this: they generally get defensive about or ignore feedback; they’re inconsistent about doing what they say they’ll do; they expect you to “grow them” and blame you for setbacks and problems; and they make life difficult for those around them. If you’re consistently doing your part as a manager, and they’re consistently not doing their part as an employee, then it’s time to let them go.
Good gardeners, having done these five things, are rewarded with beautiful gardens full of life and color, gardens that continue to thrive and produce healthy flowers and new plants for years to come. Managers who follow their springtime instincts and turn their attention to growing their employees will also be rewarded—with teams of motivated, capable people who will produce great ideas and excellent results for years to come.