The Ghost of Christmas Future

It was late spring 1986. I was excited to have a job working with a great mentor at a small tree company. At just 19, I knew less than nothing. I loved what I was doing and was eager to learn. There were only three full-time employees and a few subcontractors, sole proprietors who would run the tree crew when the owners were out selling. The new company owners helped each other taking turns selling, running the business and working in the field.

One of the subcontractors, we’ll call him “Tim,” was a wonderful guy who was previously a senior supervisor for a great company. He was a super-hard worker, an excellent teacher and just a nice man, someone my mom would call “salt of the earth.”

Tim had left the fabled tree company to start his own business. When my boss had bucket work, he would rent an aerial lift and have Tim come in for a few days. Although Tim never complained and his work never suffered, he was, obviously, an older gentleman, and his physical abilities were not what they had once been. Tim had a good business and managed to stay busy, but he had no health insurance. He needed a night job to provide his family with benefits. So he would grind it out all day getting a ton of high-quality work done, then go to his night job. He would work 5-11 p.m., five days a week, plus the occasional Saturday tree job.

What made it even more worrisome was that Tim had almost no retirement savings. I was too young to truly understand what that meant.

Young and wise

One of my co-workers, Ed, who is really the star of this story, was a year older than me but way more worldly and mature. Even at a very young age, he was smart, thoughtful and had a plan beyond going out that night.

After working with Tim for several weeks, Ed became very aware and concerned about where Tim’s life had led him. One day, after Tim had struggled physically more than usual, Ed came up to me after work and said, “Come with me, we are going to open an IRA.”

To which I responded, “What’s that?”

Then came the phrase I will never forget, not only for its wit, but more important, for how prescient it was. “I love Tim, but I don’t want to end up like him some day. He is the Ghost of Christmas Future.”

That evening, Ed took me to a friend of his family and we opened an IRA, which I still have today. Thank you, Ed. More important than the IRA, that experience changed the way I looked at myself, my profession, my career and how I try to manage people today.

Familiar people

We all know these people. Images of co-workers past or present are probably popping into your head as you read this. You know, that super-smart, talented, formerly young guy whose body is now struggling to keep up with the demands of the job. Unfortunately, time catches up with all of us.

Some of these people went to college and some didn’t. Let’s face it, not many of us gave up med school to become an arborist. We love to be outside, to work with our hands and feel like we have accomplished something tangible at the end of the day. Many of these people avoid the book side of the business because it’s outside their comfort zone. And, unlike Tim, often these people are not happy. Regrettably, too many morph from happy young workers into old curmudgeons, being envious of the people who pass them by.

Double-edged sword

It’s a double-edged sword watching the intern who worked on this person’s crew become a sales rep and have to tell the crew leader what to do. It’s great to see the younger person progress, but it’s truly heart wrenching to see an older person who gave everything to the company resent the younger person’s success. This not healthy for anyone, nor for the long-term health of your organization.

I am exaggerating a bit to make a point, but I have personally witnessed this a few times. So now it is a priority of mine to make sure everyone has a plan. That plan should be specific for each person. You need to have this candid conversation with every one of your employees. Especially the young guns who make fun of the curmudgeon. They may hate being on the curmudgeon’s crew, but they should realize that that person was the same as them 15 years ago. Unless you help them develop a strategy, they could end up in the same position 15 years down the road.

The future is now

The time for your employees to set goals for their future is now. It’s easier when they are young, before they have a family or a mortgage. The longer they wait, the more likely they are to become the guy they are making fun of.

Some people want to work in the field for their entire career, which is great. There are plenty of great arborists who don’t have all the certifications, but you need to make sure they stay happy and always have a place in your company. It’s in your best interest to help all your employees with their career paths.

Even if some people don’t listen or want to change, you need to create opportunities. Set up training programs and study groups, have reviews to set goals, have a mentor program and be strategic with personal development. Create a specific career path for each of your people, because no one plans to become the Ghost of Christmas Future.

David M. Anderson, CTSP and Massachusetts certified arborist, is a manager with Mayer Tree Service Inc., a 29-year TCIA member company based in Essex, Massachusetts, and is a member of the TCI Magazine
Editorial Advisory Committee.

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