How Do You Choose Your Next Crew Leader?

Due to its size and the environmental conditions, painting the Golden Gate Bridge is an ongoing process. Similarly, due to advancement and attrition, grooming new crew leaders is also a perpetual process. Photo by Frank Schulenburg.

As children growing up living just 10 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, my friends and I all heard how the painting of the bridge would be a perpetual project. The painters began their work starting at the southern end and painted their way across a two-mile expanse to the northern end of the bridge. Once reaching the northern end, they would immediately need to start over. This was not due to poor workmanship or poor-quality paint, but because, due to the harsh environmental exposure, the paint began to quickly fade. Maintaining the bright red color of the Golden Gate Bridge would be an ongoing process.

In my 33 years as the owner of a tree business, I have recognized a similar cycle in our industry when it comes to crew leadership – it is a perpetual process. As companies grow and time passes, existing crew leaders are promoted and new crew leaders are needed in their place. So the question becomes, how do we choose the next crew leaders? Do we promote the individual with the most seniority, or the best climber or the individual with the greatest communication skills? While these skills are commonly used as a basis for promotion in our industry – and I have often used them myself – there are some individuals who either have a natural leadership quality or express a willingness to have leadership developed within them.

In this article, I will share some of my experiences in regard to leadership. First, I would like to thank Todd Kramer of Kramer Tree Specialists for being an amazing speaker and educator who has taught me more about leadership in one 90-minute presentation than I ever thought was possible.

Crew leaders really have two roles; they need to serve the client and serve the crew.

In my humble opinion, it is important that a crew leader does not let the client run the project. The crew leader is the professional who understands what needs to be done on the project, and as such, should communicate to the client what they are going to do for the client, not necessarily ask what the client wants. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, such as the height of a hedge, view corridors and other similar subjective needs. But generally, clients truly appreciate when a strong crew leader is taking full charge of their project.

At the same time, the crew leader also needs to lead their crew in three primary ways: evaluating the work to develop a clear end goal, managing their assets/resources and successfully communicating their goal with crew members to bring a project to its proper completion.

Possessing the ability to consistently train crew members on new tasks or reinforcing previous training, while also keeping the team productive, is a great test of a good crew leader. I have always felt it best to lead by emulating the characteristics you would want to follow, and I share this with my crew leaders as well. As a crew leader, you are seeking to be the coach of your team, not a policeman. Additionally, it is important for a crew leader to be friendly with the crew, but not be concerned with becoming friends with the crew. The crew leader should always prioritize everyone’s safety and that the job at hand is completed correctly over making friends at work.

John Maxwell, author, business coach and speaker, talks about the five different levels of leadership. The first three I am not a big fan of: The Positional Leader, The Production Leader and The People Development Leader.

The Positional Leader is followed out of obligation. If the crew was not required to follow this leader, they would not. I consider this to be the weakest form of leadership. The Production Leader is followed for what assets they can bring to the organization. To me, this is not a very valuable leadership role. The People Development Leader is followed for what incentives they can give to crew members. There is a lack of strength in this type of leadership because, if a prize is not provided for the crew, they are not going to follow their crew leader’s direction.

However, the last two levels of leadership really resonate with me.

The Permission Leader begins to influence people with relationship, not just position. People have a desire to follow this person, and I find this to be a strong form of leadership.

Finally, there is the Pinnacle Leader, who is followed for who they are as a person and what they represent. I find this to be the most powerful form of leadership.

I love the meme of the boss sitting on the desk on top of a heavy block, yelling at his team to pull them along. The team leader then gets in front and helps the team move the heavy block forward. That team leader is motivating and influencing their team toward a common goal of moving that heavy block. When you get out and lead from the front with a positive attitude, others with similar positivity will follow.

The boss sits on the desk yelling at his team to pull them along. The team leader gets in front and helps the team move the heavy block forward. That team leader is motivating and influencing his team toward a common goal. Graphic courtesy of the author and

Zig Zigler, author, salesperson and motivational speaker, has an analogy about the importance of building people and allowing them to build the business, rather than building the business itself. The same principle can be applied on a job site for a crew leader. It is not the sole responsibility of the crew leader to get the job done; rather, it’s up to the crew leader to help build the skills within the crew and allow the crew members to execute the project. The crew leader’s primary function is to get everyone else moving in the same direction, which I have found crews will happily comply with under great leadership. This allows the crew leader to jump in and help lead from the front.

In my experience, the more successful companies in our industry are the ones that have crew leaders out motivating their people instead of delegating behind clipboards on the job site. Successful crew leaders prioritize influencing workers to do a good job from the front. Those with a “boss mentality” like to drive their workers with the power of authority or fear, with their primary focus being on themselves, and tend to focus on where to put the blame for a problem.

Conversely, the leader uses inspiration and enthusiasm to coach as a team, and the crew follows out of respect. A good leader enjoys fixing the problem as opposed to assigning blame.

So, what are the qualities of that strong leader? To me it is an organized individual who likes to build a team, embraces change and understands people. A good leader realizes that results only come when decisions are made, either by choice or by consequence. If no decision is made, the leader realizes that ultimately a decision will be made by default. Good leaders create the common goal that a team can get excited about accomplishing as a unit. They communicate verbally, with the proper tone, and realize body language is more important than their words.

Testing the competency of a crew leader is also important. Being the owner of the company and not working with the crews, this can be challenging for me. I delegate several projects and then focus on the executive needs of the company.

A crew leader needs to lead their crew in three primary ways: evaluating the work to develop a clear end goal, managing their assets/resources and successfully communicating their goal with crew members to bring a project to its proper completion. Photo courtesy of Adam Whitney, Whitney Tree Service.

The litmus test I like to use consists of several filters, the first and foremost of which, I have found, is crew morale. Look at how the crew members respond when they realize which crew leader they are going out with for that day. Is there any excitement and eagerness to work with that crew leader? What are their attitudes when they return to the shop?

Additionally, a great crew leader can be identified by the client’s level of satisfaction with the finished project, the number of callbacks on their projects and if damages or injuries have been avoided. Having trucks and equipment clean and organized is important to me as well.

These are some great telltale signs of a crew leader’s ability. However, I find the most important aspect is consistency. Crew leaders can have a good day or a good week, but what is really important is having a good month consistently, month in and month out.

Good luck! I have been in the game since 1987, and I am still learning more every day. And, like the painters of the Golden Gate Bridge, just when I think I am done, it is time to start all over again, and that is what I love about the tree industry.

Tad Jacobs, CTSP, QCL and a Certified Arborist, is president of Treemasters, an accredited, 12-year TCIA member company based in San Rafael, California. He is also a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors.

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