There are many ways to learn the ropes (literally and figuratively) in the tree care industry. From trade schools and colleges to internships and apprenticeships to continuing education classes and weekend workshops, there are plenty of avenues to access knowledge. But perhaps the most personal, most enduring, most meaningful way to grow in this profession – or any other – is through mentorship. A good mentor is someone who combines the roles of teacher, role model, trusted confidante and friend. Someone who will take you under their wing and share their knowledge and experience directly with you, answering your questions, giving advice and providing guidance to help you best take advantage of opportunities and avoid some pitfalls as your business or career grows and advances.
Some tree care companies have formal mentoring programs, where employees are matched with senior members on the staff. But more often, it’s on the individual to identify and approach mentors as they look to grow their business or career.
Fortunately, says Peter Sortwell, CEO of Arborwell, there are plenty of opportunities within the industry to find potential mentors. “I tell people, ‘If you’re a member of TCIA and you’re not going to Winter Management Conference and you’re not going TCI EXPO, you’re really missing out on a lot,’” he emphasizes. “When I first started going to industry events, I was able to sit down with CEOs of some of the biggest tree care companies in the nation, and they told me anything I wanted to know. They were very open book, to the point where I could pick up the phone later and just call them any time with questions or to have a discussion. When I was young and first getting into this business, that was incredibly helpful.”
If you’re going to be a business owner and you want to identify a mentor or a company to learn from, “There is no better money spent than to go to Winter Management Conference,” agrees Cynthia Mills, former TCIA president and CEO and currently a consultant who founded The Leaders’ Haven. In addition to the meeting content, there’s the chance to introduce yourself to other business owners. “I can’t tell you how many of those introductions lead to the decision to make a trip to another part of the country to go and see someone else’s company in person,” she notes. “If you want to search out a mentor, you need to first make those kinds of connections.”
Whether it’s an intimate setting like Winter Management Conference or a larger industry or business gathering, Mills recommends identifying possible mentors from outside of your competitive/ service area. In part, that means looking for someone who’s already been through what you’re going through. “For example, if you’re starting out and your goal is to get to $500,000 in sales, go find a mentor who’s gotten to $3 million, because you want a mentor who’s gone through the process of growing their business through those early cycles. And then physically go and see their operations.”
What makes a good mentor?
“I think all of us in leadership positions have to have an attitude of, ‘If you need help, I’m here for you,’” says Alan Jones, vice president and division manager with Bartlett Tree Experts. “People need to know that and be able to trust that. Your credibility and interactions with those people are the most important things.”
When Jones is in a position to mentor someone, he recalls some of the hugely important mentors he’s had within his own life. “The thing about good mentors is that they never push you. They may persuade you in certain ways and hold you accountable. But their main goal is to help you be the best version of yourself,” he explains. “It’s more than advice. A mentor is someone you look up to and value as a person and respect. A mentor really has no interest in anything other than helping you. And if you’re smart enough, you’ll listen.”
There also has to be somewhat of a personal connection between mentor and mentee. “I don’t think there are a lot of successful mentors and mentees who don’t like each other,” says Jones. He points out that each party has to be committed. The mentor has to want to put in the effort to make the mentee better. And the mentee also has to have an attitude of wanting to improve themselves.
Sortwell says that when searching out mentors for the company leaders at Arborwell, he looks for people who have not only business acumen but also the ability to carefully analyze situations and logically solve problems. In that sense, depending on the circumstances, Sortwell says it’s not always critical that mentors have specific knowledge of the tree care industry. It might be someone who simply understands the service industry or management of people or interactions with customers, he notes.
Sortwell says he has benefited tremendously from his own mentor over the years, and he specifically sought out a mentor for his company president. “I think the benefit is that two brains are better than one. We all tend to get horse blinders, and we tend to think as we’re running our companies that we have things all figured out. But an outside source who can sit down, hear what’s going on and give their opinion, or give another view, is extremely important to the success of your business.”
Over the years, Arborwell also has had a formal mentoring program for managers within the company, pairing them with outside mentors. Sometimes managers in a company don’t want to be honest with their supervisors, reporting only the positive news, Sortwell notes. “They might be frustrated about something, but they don’t want to put that out there. So our board of directors all volunteered to be mentors for our managers. They would meet once a month for breakfast or lunch, one on one, and it was totally private,” Sortwell explains.
These relationships paid many dividends, he reports. The individual managers saw the investment the company was making in them, and they learned new skills that helped them move up in the company. At the same time, the company itself benefited from the improved communications and sharing of information.
Sortwell explains that a lot of thought went into which board member would be paired with which manager. “We really looked for where the best fits would be … there are personalities that you need to consider.” And in situations like that, the standardized personality testing that many companies – including Arborwell – take advantage of can be very helpful.
Peter Becker, senior vice president with Bartlett Tree Experts, thinks back to his division manager at the company when he was new to the industry. “He just took an interest in my development,” Becker recalls. While the idea of being a mentor may sound intimidating, it can be as simple as just that: investing the time to help someone else develop new skills and confidence. “For example, if you’re going to meet a prospective employee, you might invite one of your current employees to come along and participate in the interview. Or maybe you invite an employee to join you on a recruiting trip to a college,” he says. “I think those sorts of things are important.”
Mentors for everyone
Mentorships are not just for business leaders. All of those working in tree care can benefit, and for those who are just getting started in tree care but who don’t own a business, Mills recommends first sitting down and mapping out your career options and ambitions. That might mean reaching out to one of the industry’s larger companies, one that has people working in a wide array of different capacities. “They also send a lot of people to events like TCI EXPO, so you might be able to find someone who is doing the job you want to do,” she explains.
And you don’t want to just wander around looking for a mentor; you want to make the connections first with those who can put you in touch with the right people, says Mills. She recommends building relationships with TCIA staff and asking them if there’s someone they know who might be a good mentor. “And be very specific about what you’re looking for, because they know everyone,” she says.
Becker sees mentorship as intertwined with the important issues of employee recruitment, engagement, development and retention. “These are key areas in any industry, and perhaps even more so in the tree care industry,” he notes. In this sense, the benefits go well beyond the two individuals involved in any mentor relationship and extend to an entire company.
For starters, having a mentorship program in place can be a selling point to new employees, who see there is a system in place where they can develop relationships and learn from senior members within a company, and then move up within that company, says Becker.
At Bartlett, for example, new hires are assigned a mentor in field operations. “That’s a partner for them, someone who will be responsible for helping them to begin their skill development,” Becker explains. This includes all aspects of ground operations and safety training, and the model applies as the employee moves up to different roles in the company. And being paired with a specific person to help them learn each new role is an effective way – “see it, do it, demonstrate it” – for adults to learn, he states. While a new employee might be able to blend into the background at a large training session, being paired one-on-one with a mentor helps to personalize that training. The process is a cycle, Becker notes: “In three months, that new employee may be mentoring someone else.” Giving employees the responsibility to be mentors can help make them more invested in the company and their own careers, says Becker.
Sortwell has served as a business mentor through a program offered by TCIA for many years, and he encourages more members to take advantage of this valuable member benefit. Sometimes, he says, even those who seek out the help end up saying they’re too busy to spare the time for in-depth phone conversations. “But of the ones who do call, many end up calling again and again about different things. We might end up talking once a week. And you see the people who take advantage of that mentoring really use it to help grow their companies,” says Sortwell. “As a mentor, that’s fun to see.”
When there are mentors willing to help, it’s up to mentees to take advantage of that resource. Don’t be afraid to reach out, advises Jones. You may occasionally identify someone you think will be a great mentor who doesn’t reciprocate, but that’s life. Keep your eyes open for those you think you can really learn from, and keep asking. When a mentor sees a mentee who keeps coming back to them, eager to learn, that makes them all the more willing to put in the time and effort to help, says Jones.
“With all of my mentors, I wanted to be just like them. I wanted all of their knowledge. Most of all, I wanted all of those mentors to look at me as if I was doing the best I could,” says Jones. “I never wanted to disappoint any of my mentors.” Jones says he can just tell, through their interest and eye contact and body language, if someone really wants to learn and grow. “And then you help them with something, and they just blow you away with how they handle it,” he says.
He also stresses that you don’t need to identify just one mentor. “You can have all kinds of different mentors. You can have mentors who help you with your leadership; you can have mentors who help you with your life skills – and you may be blessed, as I have been, with mentors who can help you with both of those things,” he states.
For those looking for a mentor, Mills says that understanding how you work best will play a role in figuring out what mentor and what type of mentorship will work best for you. “If you’re somebody who doesn’t do well unless you have structure, then you might need a structured mentor relationship, or you’ll never take advantage of and grow from it. That means you’ll also need to find a mentor who is comfortable with making that level of commitment.”
It’s another example of how, for a mentor relationship to be successful, there needs to be a fit on a whole number of levels – both personal and professional – between the mentor and the mentee. “That doesn’t mean you have to become best friends, but there needs to be some chemistry,” states Mills. “You do have to have a comfort level, because there’s a vulnerability in seeking a mentor.”
Both parties need to communicate about what they expect out of the relationship, she advises. “If you’re going to do a formal mentoring relationship, you need to jointly identify what the boundaries are for that relationship. Are you going to meet once a month? Or is it going to be less regular, when you can just call when an issue comes up? If it’s going to be the latter, then you also need to be respectful of the other business owner’s time,” cautions Mills.
ARE THERE UNIQUE CHALLENGES FOR WOMEN SEEKING MENTORS?
Are there any unique challenges for women seeking mentors in what traditionally have been male-dominated industries? Anne Pfleger is an estimator with Charles Construction Services in Findlay, Ohio, and currently serves as president-elect of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). She says it’s especially important for women in heavily male industries – such as tree care and construction – to be in a safe environment where they feel comfortable asking questions. “That’s what will give them the confidence to learn and move up the ladder,” says Pfleger.
That doesn’t necessarily mean women need to be mentored by other women. In fact, Cynthia Mills with The Leaders’ Haven encourages women in arboriculture “to make sure you’re not limiting yourself by saying ‘I need a female mentor.’” When you’re hiring, you simply want the best employee. Mills advises taking that same approach when looking for a mentor.
Pfleger says that in the construction industry, she’s started seeing more and more men who are enthusiastically offering to mentor women, “because they see what an asset women can be to their companies on all levels. I think it’s been very educational for women to hear from these men that they really do want more women in the industry, and that they want to be there to help them.”
NAWIC recently introduced a mentorship program run through its local chapters to assist those who are new to the construction industry. It was specifically designed to provide benefits to all involved: “Both the mentor and the mentee will learn from each other, as each person has skills and experience to share.” Pfleger laughs that when she’s served as a mentor, she’s gotten just as much and maybe more out of the experiences than her mentees have. “You’re both learning, and it’s such a cool journey when you have that mentoring relationship with somebody.”
Mills says it’s important for women to remember that “there are women in the tree care industry – a lot of women.” While men still make up the majority of the industry, Mills emphasizes that women have been involved in the tree care industry for a long time, often helping to run family businesses. More recently, they’ve come to the forefront as business owners, climbers and workers out in the field, as well as filling sales, marketing, financial and other leadership roles at large companies. This knowledge may make it less intimidating to step forward and search out a mentor who can help advance your career. Or it might give you more confidence to offer your services as a mentor to others in the industry.
Check out TCIA’s Women in Tree Care video: