With labor a persistent challenge, what can landscape companies do to make sure they’re the employer of choice in their area—not just for the coming season, but for the one after that and the one after that?
Ed Laflamme, co-founder of The Harvest Group, encourages business owners to “start with why,” referring to author and leadership expert Simon Sinek’s influential book.
“Why do you do what you do?” Laflamme asked.
He urges business owners to sit down and think about their vision for their company. “What they need to do is start with a clear vision of what they want and where they want their company to go,” he said.
For some, that might be to grow to a $10-million business. Others may have more altruistic or socially conscious visions. For example, Laflamme has worked with companies that recruit people from homeless shelters or drug and alcohol support centers.
Bill Arman, co-founder of The Harvest Group, noted that the work itself has a widespread impact. “Great landscaping has a positive effect on every single person who comes in touch with it,” he said.
Whatever their vision is, most business owners don’t do a good job of conveying it to their workforce, making it hard for them to help achieve it.
Understanding why they do what they do is the first step for landscapers who want to build a solid foundation for their business. Then they have to project that vision in their everyday interactions with workers and clients.
That extends to their fleet and facilities as well.
“Would you take your family, your kids, your spouse to your workplace and have them use the restroom and walk around and feel good about it?” Arman said. Poorly lit or maintained offices, unsafe conditions or dirty, broken-down trucks give potential workers and clients a bad impression of an owner who doesn’t care.
Leaders need to set an example that their employees can follow. Owners who aren’t present or who complain don’t have any standing to demand better of their employees.
“Clean up your act,” Arman said. “Take a good look at yourself: the language you use, … how you dress, how you act.”
Getting employees to buy in
To get workers on board with the company’s mission and vision, owners have to make sure they know what it is.
Arman and Laflamme described an owner who has the company’s core values literally written on the wall in the office. The owner starts each meeting with an example of how one of those values was illustrated recently.
A company’s vision, mission and core values should also be part of a new employee’s onboarding process.
“You have to inculcate these people; indoctrinate them,” Arman said. “Equally important is to make them feel good about making their choice to come work for you.”
That starts on day one, Laflamme said.
“At the end of the day, go talk to them and ask them how they did; show interest,” he said. When they go home after their first shift, the first thing people are going to ask them is “How’s your new job going?”
“If they have nobody to talk to and they just leave at the end of the day, it’s kind of an empty feeling,” Laflamme continued. “But if the manager or the owner comes up and says, ‘Hey, how did you do today? It was great having you here,’ then they’re charged up, and they go home and give a good report.”
Arman said that the onboarding process doesn’t just cover a new employee’s first day or week. “It goes on for the first 90 days to almost a year,” he said. He encourages owners to have current employees share why they came to the company and why they have stayed.
Laflamme suggested creating a “learning organization,” where continuing education doesn’t just mean maintaining certifications, but deeper professional development. Have managers meet every six months with their team to discuss the steps they’re taking toward professional growth.
“In the next six months, what books are you going to read? What certifications are you going to go after? In other words, how are you going to benefit yourself and how are you going to benefit the company?” he said.
Some owners may resist expending a lot of time or money on training, incentives or mentoring for workers who could eventually leave.
“We come across a lot of companies that say, ‘If I train them, they’ll just get hired by somebody else,’” Arman acknowledged. “Well, consider the other option—don’t train them and see what happens.”
Competing with other industries
With unemployment so low, landscape companies can’t just look for unemployed people to fill positions. They’re really competing for people who are already working at another company or even in a completely different industry.
For example, one owner Laflamme consulted with was having trouble finding a qualified account manager and eventually hired a property manager to fill the role.
“He knows the ropes from the other side,” Laflamme said. “So that’s what’s happening; they’re hiring salespeople who have nothing to do with landscaping but they know sales, and they are teaching them how to sell landscaping,” Laflamme said.
Arman and Laflamme suggested three things landscapers can do to bolster their argument when trying to sway potential workers away from their current positions.
First, make sure retention is “buttoned up.” Before they even begin looking for new talent, landscape companies need to look at their current turnover. If they’re losing employees for reasons that aren’t related to seasonal needs, there’s something deeper that needs to be addressed.
“Shut the back door,” Arman said, because it doesn’t help to bring in new people if trained and experienced workers are leaving at the same time.
Business owners should survey their current workforce regularly to get their feedback about what’s working and what isn’t in the business. Employees and laborers might have a completely different idea from the owner about potential issues.
He suggested thinking about “stay-on interviews” as opposed to exit interviews. “You should be surveying all employees at least once a year,” Arman said. “I get face-to-face with all my key employees. … ‘What are you working on? What are your goals? What can I do to help you?’”
These meetings provide valuable insight into the company, but they also make workers feel valued, and show that their hard work does not go unnoticed.
Incentive plans are another retention tool, Laflamme said. Well-designed incentive plans create loyalty because “then the employees feel they’re sharing in the profits of the owner and everybody’s working together.”
Incentive plans help retain qualified workers, but they also help attract workers in other jobs or industries who are looking for opportunities they aren’t getting in their current jobs.
Similarly, defining a career path for new hires helps them visualize where they can go in the company.
Laflamme described an employee who came to his company when he was 18. A subcontractor introduced him to Laflamme, noting his great attitude and strong work ethic, but warned that he couldn’t read or write.
“He knew the language of money,” Laflamme said. “He could see the advance of pay both vertically and horizontally. … He learned how to read and write. He got his GED, and before you knew it, he passed a supervisory test.”
Ten years later, that employee had moved up to assistant operations manager, Laflamme said. “He could see the path. It was very clear and it made all the difference in the world.”
Arman suggested breaking down a career path into three levels: apprentice, intermediate and advanced. That can be applied to any position, whether it’s a field position (from field lead to foreman and senior foreman) or an office position (associate manager, account manager and senior account manager). Each level should define the requisite skills, behaviors and responsibilities that will be expected, as well as additional benefits workers can expect.
“It inspires them to aspire to an upper-level position,” he said.
At that level, the culture of the company is going to be more important than to a lower-level employee, who will be more concerned about compensation.
“Here’s the problem—we’re spoiled rotten,” Arman said. “It’s been an employer’s market for ages. It switched about five years ago and became an employee’s market, and employers are not used to that.”
Nowadays, owners have to be adaptable and innovative, Laflamme added. “You have to just face it—your culture and your company have to be better than the competition’s, and then you have to trap [employees] in and keep them. That’s the only way they’re going to survive,” he said of today’s landscaping businesses.