Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Lessons in Management, Learned in the Garden

I'm no gardener.  I'm a guy with a yard and a wife who likes it to look nice.  I'm also currently a manager of a small sales team of professionals, but in my career I've led teams of 100+.

If you remember "The Karate Kid", Mr. Miyagi tended to his Bonsai tree while he taught Daniel-san the lessons of karate, and of life.  I have often thought it was a powerful metaphor that largely went unnoticed in the plot.

My mind wanders when I work in the yard, and I'm of the mind that when your mind wanders to the same subject constantly, it's probably best to let it.  Maybe a freedom trek of the imagination will help solve a problem.  Lately my mind finds itself pondering the challenges of being the best possible manager to the benefit of my organization, and for the others I serve - my team.

Here are some lessons from my humble backyard:

Plants need water and sunshine, but too much or too little will kill them.  The same is true of the people who report to you.  They need constant attention, some less than others, and it's up to the gardener to know his garden, and the needs of each individual plant, and to give them just the right amount of attention that each requires.  You learn that by getting into the garden and getting your hands dirty.

Weeds don't belong.  Some weeds masquerade as attractive or complimentary plants.  Right now I have a problem with some sort of clover growing slowly over the yard.  It's tempting to keep it.  It doesn't need any attention, and it's always a green carpet no matter how dry the rest of the yard gets, but it doesn't belong.  I didn't plant it, and it wasn't part of the plan.  So I pull it out every time I'm out there tending the yard.

The weeds in our organization can be people with bad attitudes, and yes, their attitude IS our business.  Weeds in the organization can be bad practices that creep in over time.  A business that closes a few minutes early becomes a business more focused on closing early than serving every client up to and well past the last minute.  An office team can walk out the door promptly every day at 5:00, but that weed-like behaviour creeps into other practices, like not answering late afternoon emails or phone calls, and putting off late afternoon requests for proposals until tomorrow morning (while the competition stays late and gets their proposal in front of the customer's eyes first).

The whole yard needs attention.  From time to time we have to focus on the individual components, but only in context of the whole.  Too much attention on one part of the garden creates an imbalance and the other parts suffer.  The same is true of our team.  Individuals get the attention they need, when they need it, but ignoring the rest of the team will lead to bigger problems brought on by imbalance.

Prune, prune, prune.  You're not doing the bush any favours by letting it grow wild.  It isn't cruel to the bush to prune it back, it's actually helpful to it's growth.  So why are some managers afraid to reel in their subordinates?  Prune too much or at the wrong time and you'll kill the plant, prune too little and it will die unhealthy and unkempt.  We owe it to our reports' careers to prune and let grow, alternately and at the right times.

Sometimes you just have to hire a landscaper.  You're not expected to know everything, but it's your job to maintain the garden after he's gone.  Management landscapers come as consultants, in your HR department, and in recruiting firms, but the role they play doesn't abdicate the manager of her responsibility after they're gone.  Hire a good one, share your vision of the end goal, and be prepared to speak up when he's headed in the wrong direction.  You are the manager - it's your garden.

Most of all, enjoy your work!  You don't pull out the shears or the lawn-mower every time you go out into the yard.  Sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labours.  The same is true of your team - sometimes you just have to kick back and enjoy their company.

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