Caught on culture

Posting a mission statement to the lobby wall or defining core values in a company brochure are one thing. But culture is living those words in the field, and employees are responsible for executing “who you are” as a landscape professional. Establishing a strong culture can be a challenge in a seasonal industry because employees regularly come and go. How can you ingrain your company spirit in workers that may only be with your firm for several months?

Meanwhile, growing companies are constantly integrating new employees into the mix, and “training culture” isn’t easy. You can’t roll out a manual and test new team members to make sure they’re “ingrained.” Creating culture takes time, dedicated leadership that sets an example and, above all, consistency.

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke to three firms about how they maintain a strong culture while integrating seasonal workers, interns and new employees.

Setting an example

A culture clash is ultimately the reason why Thomas Gear founded his business, T.R. Gear Landscaping, 35 years ago. He spent a year working for a large commercial landscape contracting company that focused more on quantity than quality. “They had no interest in doing anything unless it was the fastest, cheapest way,” Gear says.

“I started this company with the culture of doing things right, treating customers and employees right,” Gear says. “And I never looked back.”

Culture is an aspect of the working environment that employees “see and feel right away,” Gear says, and that’s because managers live the company mission and set the example for all workers at T.R. Gear, whether they’re working at the company for the summer season or full-time.

Employees who adopt these habits and mesh with the company culture are rewarded with incentives, including opportunities to advance and share in the company’s profits when financial goals are met.

One key component of T.R. Gear’s company mission is to “provide a corporate culture based on integrity and continuous improvement processes that enable employees to achieve personal and career goals.”

“When employees are at the technician level, we talk to them about what they need to do to become crew leaders, and from there we let them know how they can get to the supervisor level and then account manager,” Gear says.

Showing employees a career path is a big part of the culture at T.R. Gear because workers know their commitment to the company’s success will pay off personally and professionally. For example, during the snow season there are “add-ons” to pay for working at night, serving on a sidewalk crew, and managers can earn a commission based on the snow department’s gross margin.

“We share a percentage of our profit with people so we are all working for the same reasons: to give our customers excellent service and create a strong business,” Gear says. “All of that feeds back into the culture.”

These incentives help weed out the bad apples who are not focused on performance, Gear says. A common work ethic and aligned vision creates a stronger team. That includes seasonal workers, who are given uniforms and treated with the same respect as full-time employees.

“They are trained by our people who know our culture and when they come in, they are part of the team,” Gear says.

Contagious culture

The cult-like culture that Jim Collins describes in his book “Good to Great” is the type of environment you’ll find at Turfscape. “People want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, and culture is what grabs people. They want to be a part of it and they want to stay,” says George Hohman, who started the business 27 years ago while he was in college.

Today, Turfscape has three locations: North Canton, Twinsburg and Avon, Ohio. And, every year, Turfscape brings in about 35 H-2B workers, some of whom have been coming to work at the business for the last 14 years.

“They got in on a Saturday night, and we had a big welcome party for them. They had been traveling on a bus for two to three days to get back up to us,” Hohman says. “We include them in everything we do, from company meetings to the events we host during the year.”

The company even holds a Turfscape Olympics, where branch teams – full-time and seasonal employees – compete and have fun. H-2B employees who are bilingual help each other out by translating during events and meetings, Hohman says.

Integrating all employees into the culture is a matter of living the core values, which are the “DNA of the company,” Hohman says. The five core values are: to do the right thing, be humbly confident, compete in everything they do, have fun at work and have “Turfscape passion.”

“When we interview people we are gauging them against these core values, and we retain and promote people based on how they measure up to those five values,” Hohman adds.

At company meetings, managers and employees share “core values stories” that illustrate examples of how team members show Turfscape passion in the field.

“Turfscape passion is always willing to do what it takes and helping others out,” Hohman says, adding that this is often best demonstrated during winter when multiple-day snow events take a toll on the team.

“It’s about sleeping on the air mattress at the shop so you can get ready to go back (and plow) that night – and it’s about the person who takes the new Turfscape employee under his wing,” Hohman says.

Employees who join the team feel the dedication of other employees at Turfscape, and they follow suit. “We have a lot of people who come to us from other companies and maybe they were not as dedicated to providing emergency services like snow, but when they come to Turfscape and see how many people here are dedicated to it, that attitude becomes contagious,” Hohman says.

Hiring passionate players

Landscape design is more than a career – it’s a calling. And it’s hard work. That’s a message that’s illustrated to candidates seeking employment at Hidden Lane Landscaping & Design in Herndon, Va., where a strong work ethic and personal accountability contribute to a culture in which employees can make a difference at the company.

“When someone says, ‘This is what I always knew I wanted to do,’ we know they will fit in with everyone else here,” says Peter Murray, who started working at Hidden Lane in 1982 out of college and took ownership of the business in 1994.

When Murray interviews young professionals, whether for an open position or internship opportunity, he begins by sharing the company history. Then he talks about his own climb at the business. “I let them know that I started out just like them, as a graduate out of college doing design work, and I gradually learned more and more about the business and took care of my clients,” he says. “I want them to know that this wasn’t easy for me. I had to work to get where I am today.”

As a result, new employees know what to expect when they come to work at Hidden Lane – a rigorous schedule, many responsibilities and rewarding work. “Our average employee has been with us for 15 years, and that’s really important from a culture standpoint,” Murray says. Training and mentoring begins on the first day of employment.

New hires are partnered with seasoned employees and rotate throughout the company to different departments so they can learn the ropes. They see how staff serves clients and solves problems. “Employees are going to learn the culture by watching what you are doing, not hearing what you are saying,” Murray says.

Ultimately, culture is the living part of the company’s mission statement. The words inscribed on a sign in the lobby or posted on a website only mean something if employees make it real. “We are passionate about what we do and have that attitude that if you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work,” Murray says.


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