Crew Leaders Are More Than Soldiers – They Are Officers

Travis Vickerson, far left, is geared up as he leads a safety briefing about riding the ball during crane work. Photo courtesy of Travis Vickerson.

As a crew leader, you have the world pulling at you from all directions – sales-team members telling you this and that, crew members needing this or direct supervisors expecting that. Yet one thing that is completely your world to control is … the job site.

The job site is the primary focal point for crew leaders, but let’s look at what a crew leader truly is. Having had the honor of helping develop TCIA’s Crew Leader Qualification program, and as one of the instructors for the program, I can attest that defining what a crew leader is can be a challenge.

First off , a crew leader is the first line of management for a company. Though most companies don’t regard crew leaders as such, they are just that – lower management. Like their upper-management counterparts, they deal with personnel issues, customer relations, quality control, training and safety management. Yet most crew leaders don’t feel they’re seen as management, but instead feel they are viewed as just the point person for job sites. They are that point person, but without the understanding and appreciation for the management job they do, they cannot truly be successful in controlling the job sites in the manner they are expected to.

Crew leaders as managers

Let’s look at roles and how those translate to managing and then to controlling the job site. Crew leaders solve personnel issues. They are tasked with training and supervising the crew members, from new hires to seasoned veterans and all levels in between, in on-the-job training (OJT). OJT represents roughly 90% of the training performed in the tree care industry. Now, some companies have specific trainers for this, but after the trainer has left the job site, it’s the crew leader’s responsibility to supervise the tasks being performed and the skill level at which the crew members are performing. This to me sounds like performance evaluations at a basic level.

Crew leaders are a company’s first contact with customers in regard to operational tasks. Yes, you most likely had a sales-team member or someone else meet or speak with the client prior to sending the crew. But this interaction on the job site between the crew leader and customer is vital. The ability for the company to have a professional, well-articulated individual meet with a customer, explain the scope of work and troubleshoot problems on the fly ultimately leads to success or failure. All the best planning in the world goes out the window most days when the operations actually take shape. Cars are parked where they are not supposed to be, roofers or other contractors might be on the property and the always-present “add on” occurs with the crew leader. In these moments, the crew leader has to be empowered to find resolution, possibly amending the scope of work and, depending on company policy, adjusting prices as well. Sounds to me like a sales member, customer-relations expert and operations manager all in one, solving problems on a localized level.

This team member in the crew leader role also serves as the first line of quality control and auditing of work. They ensure work is done according to company policy, to the extent of the work order and in line with best standards of the industry. Quality control is something that most companies regard as an administrative function, yet our first-line managers should be doing this every single day on the job sites they control.

Just like an air traffic controller oversees and manages the flight line and airspace at an airport, our crew leaders oversee and manage their workspace. They are the jobsite controller; they grant and deny access. They source the proper tools and equipment to perform the work on the work order prior to leaving for the job site, and are entrusted with completion of the work as desired. So, given all they do and all the responsibility they have, why are they not seen as the front-line managers they are?

Are we choosing crew leaders based on any criteria, or just using the most seasoned person on the crew? Or is the climber made the crew leader, because for some reason that position is seen as superior to all others? I would challenge you to evaluate who you are choosing to be that front-line manager and why you are choosing them. I have heard it said time and time again, “We just cannot get and keep good workers.” Remember, employees do not leave bad companies, they leave bad managers! Your crew leader is your front-line manager, and it’s time we treat them as such. If you have a high turnover ratio, maybe the evaluation should be on the crew leader and not the employee leaving.

Just like an air traffic controller oversees and manages the flight line and airspace at an airport, our crew leaders oversee and manage their workspace. They are the job-site controller; they grant and deny access. They source the proper tools and equipment to perform the duties on the work order prior to leaving for the job site, and are entrusted with completion of the work as desired. Photo courtesy of Travis Vickerson.

You may see the crew leader as the front-line manager, realize all the responsibility they shoulder and value their contribution to the success of the company in operational aspects. But how often is it that when a crew leader voices a concern or a problem with a job or work order, they are pushed aside and vetoed by sales, operations managers, division managers or CEOs/owners? We cannot see our crew leaders as the managers they are, give them the responsibility they have and then, when they voice a concern or problem, just brush it away or pacify them in an appeasing response that says, “Do what I say and don’t worry about what you think.”

We have to trust those we put into the position of crew leader. We have to trust our managers to make good decisions for their people and the company, and every time we cut their legs out from under them, we lose that ability to have an employee and manager working with us toward the goal of success.

Sometimes crew leaders will make mistakes and poor decisions or, even worse, take the easy way out and claim something is uncomfortable to do in order to maybe avoid a “tough job.” This is an opportunity to coach and mentor the crew leader in the management role they have, and also to remind them that some days in tree work just aren’t easy or fun, that they have to “embrace the suck” and get after it. Use these moments to build them into the leader you want and need. But remember, the best leaders know they don’t have all the answers, and they listen to input from others and take that data and use it to make the team stronger.

Crew leaders are exactly that, leaders. Let’s stop treating them as just a glorified worker with some extra pay and responsibility. Let’s help them by investing in training for them on how to be a crew leader and ultimately a leader for the entire company.

Travis Vickerson, CTSP, QCL, is vice president of operations with Chippers, Inc., an accredited, 20-year TCIA member company with offices in Vermont and New Hampshire. He is also author of Leadership for Today, Leadership for Those Who Keep Life Civilized.

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