From Toxic to Thriving: Transforming Your Organization’s Culture from Within - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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From Toxic to Thriving: Transforming Your Organization’s Culture from Within

It’s never a spot you want to be in, but coming to terms with the fact you may have a toxic company culture is the first step to the path to improving it.


“First thing would be to look in the mirror,” says Dean DeSantis, owner of DeSantis Landscapes, based in Portland, Oregon. “Ask yourself are my actions and my behavior consistent with the culture that I aspire to have at my company? If the culture at your company isn’t what you’d like it to be it’s got to start at the top to change it.”

In 2016-2017, Ideal Landscape Group, based in St. Louis, Missouri, realized they had a cancer leaking in their walls. Office gossip, pettiness and an attitude of that’s not my problem prevailed. Dave Buckel, president of Ideal Landscape Group, says he connected with Gary Oswald and his wife and started their journey to improving their culture.

“We focused on leadership training and reading books by great leaders,” Buckel says. “Patrick Lencioni and his Ideal Team Player, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which helped me home in on our weaknesses. I also listened to the next generation and allowed them to give feedback, specifically my two children. This was invaluable and has really helped us move forward. Keeping an open mind is very important.”   

In other cases, your culture just might need some more fine-tuning. This was the case for Joshua Tree Experts, based in Stockertown, Pennsylvania. Matthew Spiece, general manager of Joshua Tree Experts, says that culture has always been a focus, but a defined culture was implemented about five years ago, with a revision and re-defining about two years ago. 

He says while the company was participating in an exercise with a consultant, they found their previous values were not serving them to the potential they could be.

“We were not able to utilize them as a tool to make the right decisions for the company,” Spiece says. “It was a bit frustrating for those of us who were part of developing the first set of values, as we had put time & effort into it and thought we were doing the right thing, but after consideration, we realized it was true that those values were not benefitting us.”  

Shaping Your Culture

If you’re looking to improve your company culture, or shape it intentionally for the first time, Paul Fraynd, co-owner of Sun Valley Landscaping, based in Omaha, Nebraska, says the most effective method is to go talk to your employees, understand their story and why they’re working for you.

“Just get out in the business and observe,” Fraynd says. “If you have a deficit of trust, you might have to build it back up a little bit, but show up intentionally that you want to make their life better. That’s the whole point of having a company is all of us just want to succeed personally. We do this as a team through our business, so getting to know the people on a personal level would be what I would say is the most important.”

Fraynd also advises formalizing your values and principles you live by. He says you should institutionalize intentionally from the clients you serve to how service is delivered. Everything, including how you hire and train, incentivize team members, and make decisions, is a reflection of your culture. Fraynd says people are always watching as culture is not written, it’s a verb.

“Find out what’s working, what is not working,” says Leanna Buckel, vice president of Ideal Landscape Group. “Talk to your management team, sit them down and be intentional in your discussions. First and foremost, you have to be honest, open and be able to communicate, and have buy in. If not, it will not go far. The negative Nellies will sabotage, the people that don’t want to change will not, and if they don’t see the benefit they will not help.”

Build the Right Team

Once you have defined your company’s values, then you can go about making sure you have the right people on staff.

Spiece advises considering yourself and the positive traits that have gotten you to where you are today. List and define these traits with your team. When it comes time to make a tough decision about an employee, ask yourself if this person matches your culture, and if they are the right fit for your company.

DeSantis says if you have leaders who are not behaving in a manner that is consistent with the culture you want, you’ll need to make changes. Buckel says that after working with Oswald, they removed employees who were toxic and hired team players with great attitudes.

“I keep it very simple,” says Silas Dill, general manager of Ideal Landscape Group. “Keep the good attitudes; fire the bad ones. Keep the good work ethics, fire the bad ones. Don’t wait to do either one of these steps. Do it now. Your team morale will improve more than you ever thought possible.”

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.