Take the Lead!

Matt Bristol, CTSP, right, a crew leader with Whitney Tree Service, LLC, a 15-year TCIA member based in Waitsfield, Vermont, leads a job briefing prior to COVID-19 and social distancing. His crew members are Jake Petrasch, far left, and Jason Dunbar. Photo courtesy of Adam Whitney, Whitney Tree Service.

Leadership – the action of leading a group of people or an organization.

Have you had the opportunity to be in a position of leadership? I bet you have, no matter your position in a group. There are so many situations in our lives where we can or must lead others. We have to take the opportunity to recognize them.

I am not a leadership expert. I actually still have so much to learn. One thing I do have, however, is unique experience that has afforded me the opportunity to be led by strong and poor leaders – both of whom have provided learning opportunities. I am currently a captain with the Columbus Division of Fire, which is the 12thlargest fire department in the country, with a uniform strength of 1,600 members. I also am a co-owner of Joseph Tree, a TCIA-accredited company. Both of these opportunities have given me a unique perspective on effective management through effective leadership.

The foundation of any organization is effective leadership; without it, failure is inevitable. People don’t follow titles, they follow leaders. Your position or title may put you in charge, but it does not make you a leader. If you don’t take the lead, someone else will, for better or worse. As the leader, you must figure out a way to get other people with different roles and responsibilities to work toward a common objective. The goal of this article is to share what I have learned – mostly through my own mistakes and lessons learned from mentors – about what makes an effective leader. Hopefully you will be able to take something from it to apply at your own company, whether you are the owner or the newest employee.

If you haven’t read the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink, do it! I am going to touch on some of his primary points. In addition, we are going to explore the long-term effectiveness of leading by example, the idea that delegation is not a bad word, the concept of never lowering your standards but always lowering your expectations and, lastly, what makes an effective leader.

The main principle of Extreme Ownership is just that, ownership – but in the sense that you own everything. Most important, you own everything that goes wrong. When a mistake happens, look in the mirror first. For example, from a sales perspective, you sell a job and it is taking longer than expected. Whose fault is it? How do you approach the crew? Same thing from the production side. You pull up to a job and look at the tree and then at the number and realize it is low. How do you approach the salesperson? How do you speak to your crew?

The very first response must be focused on your role in this problem and what you can do, could do, should do or will do. If you are talking negatively, especially from a management position, that spreads fast, like cancer, and will eventually pull down the company’s culture. Instead, when people take ownership and stay positive, frustration subsides and the focus is shifted to how things can be improved. Are you struggling to hold onto employees? Don’t assume it is the workforce – it isn’t. Employee retention is ownership responsibility. Own it, take the appropriate steps to improve and watch your company grow as a result.

In his book, Willink writes, “There is no such thing as a bad team, just bad leaders.” You can replace the word “team” with “crew.” It is important to remember that most under-performers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led. If issues haven’t been directly addressed, you are telling them that their performance is OK.

When addressing an issue, you must remain calm – this is critical. If you are frustrated, calm down first, but don’t let that calmness then be a reason not to address the issue because you now feel it isn’t a big deal. This doesn’t mean you won’t have employees who make poor choices or are poor performers, that does happen. It simply means you need to own your role in the crew member’s performance first. After all efforts for training have been made and proper documentation of efforts has been completed, you must terminate.

Lea ding by example is extremely effective. However, is it the only way? Is it the most effective for long-term leadership? Father Time alone forces us to find other ways to lead. Also, responsibilities and roles change, forcing you to ask other people to perform work you used to do yourself. In the fire service, incident commanders are in charge of and responsible for all aspects of an emergency scene. They are not physically doing any of the hard work that needs to be done, so leading by example is not possible. But some of them you want to follow while others you have to follow. What is the difference? In our industry, think about going from production work to sales or management. Are you hiring employees for the first time? In any case, with each of these examples, we are wanting others to perform work we no longer can do. How do we do that? What works? How do we get people to want to perform?

If you are part of a business that is made up of more than one person, then you need to learn the art of proper delegation. Remember, delegation is not a bad word. It is a critical pillar to any successful company, and effective leaders are good at it.

First, you need to ensure expectations are known. Sounds simple, but people need to know what their job is. They need to know what is expected of them. When we used to hire new employees, we would sit down with each of them to welcome them to the team and lay out what we thought at the time were clear expectations. However, those expectations revolved broadly around good moral and ethical decisions; they weren’t specific. While this is good advice, it does nothing to help new people have something simple to fall back on when they aren’t sure what to do at a job site.

We eventually included in our introductions the simple instructions that, if they ever felt confused or unsure of what to do, they should simply grab a rake and start raking. The rake was their safe place, their binky! It was effective. It provided a very specific task to fall back on, and they knew the expectation was that they were to start cleaning the yard if they didn’t have another task or didn’t know what that other task was.

In addition to clear expectations, you also must hold people accountable. How you do that is most important. Effective accountability comes from asking, not accusing. If an employee makes a decision or has a performance that doesn’t meet your expectations, start with questions, without anger but from a genuine place of wanting to know what they were thinking. Don’t assume they made a mistake; maybe they had a perfectly good reason for the actions they took. If not, and it was a mistake, own your part of it because clearly you didn’t make the expectations clear enough.

Also, when making a decision within the business or on a job and you sense pushback, don’t ignore it! Ask yourself if you have effectively explained the “why” behind the decision you have made. Too often people do not take the time to explain their rationale for a decision. In addition, effective leaders ask if those around them agree with or at least understand that way of thinking. This helps to generate buy in or at least willingness to try the plan. It helps people feel they have a real part in the process, which they should.

Last and most important, say thank you! Let your people know you appreciate their efforts and appreciate them as people. We all want to feel appreciated, and a simple thank you goes a long way.

If you are part of a business that is made up of more than one person, then you need to learn the art of proper delegation. Remember, delegation is not a bad word. It is a critical pillar to any successful company, and effective leaders are good at it. In the fire service, when good or respected incident commanders delegate a responsibility, people want to perform for them. It is deeply important to them to do well by the commander. People will rise to the level of responsibility that is given to them. The same is true of a good manager or owner of a company. Delegation also allows a leader to empower others.

People perform better when they feel they have control, but they won’t take control if they don’t feel they will be supported. If a wrong decision was made, learn from it, share it with the group and then move on. Be hard on the process, not the people. If your people are not empowered to make decisions on their own, this breeds indecision and uncertainty – the kryptonite of success. In addition, empowerment produces feelings of ownership within the company – this breeds success. You can test this. Pay attention to how your employees talk about the business. Do they refer to the customer and equipment as “theirs”? If they do, that is a good sign!

The result of effective leadership is positive peer pressure or employees holding other employees accountable. This is dramatically more powerful than when it comes from the top. The owner’s or leader’s responsibility is to create a culture where this happens.

I want to take the time to dive into the topic of mistakes a little deeper. Ask yourself honestly, how do you handle them? Do you create an environment where people want to report their mistakes? In order to create this atmosphere, you must remain calm in all situations as the leader. It is important to remember that you can be firm while remaining calm; it is more effective and gives the appearance of always being in control. Losing your temper is a sign of weakness. It takes more strength to keep your cool while frustrated versus exploding in anger. Again, be hard on the process, not the people.

Personally or in business, one should never lower one’s standards, but always lower one’s expectations. The standards for your company should be high, and never lowered for anyone or anything. However, the timeline for your employees to meet that standard must be lowered. During this growth phase, you are responsible for the performance standard of your employees. It’s very important for you to stay positive in all interactions. Expect to repeat yourself, over and over and over again! Be careful not to confuse failure with inexperience. Is effort there? Is there any improvement? If so, then your employee is most likely showing signs of inexperience. How is your training? Look in the mirror first and take responsibility.

The result of effective leadership is positive peer pressure or employees holding other employees accountable. This is dramatically more powerful than when it comes from the top. The owner’s or leader’s responsibility is to create a culture where this happens. Implementing the practices we have discussed will allow this to happen. Empower employees to make decisions and create the culture where they feel supported and confident to do it. Again, be hard on the process, not the people, with the result of those decisions. Ensure they understand the “why” when a decision has been made. Lastly, ensure the understanding that they do have an impact on the success of the company. Employees need to believe that what is good for the company is good for them as well. If your employees are policing themselves, it leaves more time for you to focus on other business needs.

We have touched on a lot of aspects of being an effective leader, and there is so much more to learn; it is a job that is never complete. However, I want to leave you with a take-away that is simple and can be applied to your business today. As we discussed in the beginning, an effective leader is someone who gets others to willingly complete the goals of a group. This is your responsibility as the leader; let this mindset guide all your decisions.

In closing, taking everything we have discussed, if I had to list a single trait or most important attribute of a highly effective leader, it would be humility. Stay humble, and people will want to follow you.

David Joseph is a Certified Arborist and co-owner and director of sales for Joseph Tree Service, LLC, an accredited, eight-year TCIA member company based in Dublin, Ohio. This article was based on his presentation on the same subject at TCI EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online, under the Publications tab, and click here.

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