How I Do It: Creating a Leadership Development Program - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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How I Do It: Creating a Leadership Development Program

Photo: Green Lawn Fertilizing

As your lawn care or landscape company grows, you’ll need leaders to step up and fill new roles. Naturally, you want to reward your team members who have been with you on the front lines, but some of them may need some fine-tuning before they’re ready for a management position.

Often you are faced with the choice of either slowing down to develop employees into leaders or hiring external leaders to keep up with the pace of your growth. For Green Lawn Fertilizing, based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, they created a Leadership Development Program in 2018 that allowed them to train leaders internally without having to slow their growth.

“Our industry is full of incredible people who are hungry to learn and grow,” says Josh Willey, senior vice president of operations for Green Lawn. “It was our No. 1 goal in launching this program to not only retain and develop our internal talent but also attract future team members with a defined path to their career goals.”

Willey says the other goals for the program were to provide consistency in leadership standards within the organization and prevent their culture and core values from fading as they rapidly scale the size of the business.

“Having all leaders go through the program while helping to select content in 2018 provided the alignment in how our organization defines leadership and what we believe it looks like,” Willey says. “As we continue to grow, new leaders come through the program. Each manager with a direct report in the program is also deeply involved in the majority of the program.”

Those who complete the program are prepared for a management position and are established as leaders within their department. Willey says promotion into a managerial role is dependent on positions being available, but because Green Lawn is in rapid growth mode, many team members see an opportunity for promotion immediately.

Photo: Green Lawn Fertilizing

“More than half of the 2021 team will be promoted immediately into management positions upon completion of the program,” he says.

Green Lawn does not plan to fill 100 percent of their leadership roles internally, but they will still bring on external leaders as needed.

“We don’t want to get so entrenched in what we do that we’re never learning new things from the outside,” Willey says. “We’re bringing in a new perspective that we can learn from.”

The external leaders have to go through the leadership development program as well once they’re hired. Every leader in Green Lawn is involved with putting team members through the program, and in order to do that, they have to go through the program themselves.

Aside from gaining new leaders, Willey says the benefits of this program have been increased retention and buy-in from their frontline workers and improved communication and alignment with their management staff.

“What this program has done as it gains credibility is it’s given us the ability to tap leaders who know our culture and plug them right into new leadership roles,” Willey says. “But more importantly, in my opinion, is it’s gained buy-in from all 225 team members and reinforces that we’re in this to grow together. The opportunity is truly there for those who want it.”

The Program

Willey says Green Lawn put the program together with the help of multiple leaders in the company who had previous experience in development programs and/or a strong track record of developing leaders. Their management then went through a series of content options together, reviewed and selected the final program content to add. 

The first full year of the program was 2019 and it’s evolved and become more structured each year. In 2021, external content providers and speakers were introduced.

Green Lawn employees are required to apply for the program and are interviewed by their manager, their business department head and Willey. These three compare notes before they allow someone into the program.

All team members are welcome to apply and acceptance is based on alignment with Green Lawn’s core values, experience and credentials with Green Lawn and prior, application and interview process and their current performance in their role.

Willey says they’ve seen roughly 40 percent of the applicants be accepted into the program. He says in the first year they accepted the vast majority of applicants and learned they needed to be more stringent in the selection process to get the most value out of the program.

“If we’re going to commit to anyone who finishes this program being truly ready to be a leader in our business, it’s got to start with a strong selection process,” Willey says.

Photo: Green Lawn Fertilizing

Once accepted, the program takes one year for each group to complete and graduate. The management training takes place during the workday while the leadership training is mostly on their own time. Green Lawn uses a roadmap that covers the nuts and bolts of a job they are working towards.

“If it’s a technician developing into a service manager role, for example, there is a clear roadmap on all of the things that they have to know,” Willey says. “Inventory, recruiting/interviewing, in-field audits, check-in, call logs, all of the mechanical parts of the management job. They slowly learn those and as they learn them, they start doing them and establishing themselves as leaders in their departments. When they are promoted, they are able to focus on making an impact with the team vs. trying to learn how to function in the day-to-day tasks of the role.”

Part of the self-study includes reading leadership books and answering five questions from each book that serves as the outline for a presentation each participant creates and delivers to the group each month. Some of the books they are required to read include:

  • 5 Levels of Leadership – John Maxwell
  • Why Leaders Fail – Peter B. Stark
  • Speed of Trust – Stephen Covey
  • 10 Must Reads for New Managers – Harvard Business Review
  • The New One Minute Manager – Ken Blanchard & Spencer Johnson
  • The Little Red Book of Selling – Jeffrey Gitomer

Green Lawn also partners with a vendor to do monthly training with the participants. Willey estimates they spend four to six hours a month doing self-study, along with meetings where they deliver the content. Once a quarter the candidate and the manager check in with Willey to discuss progress on their strengths and weaknesses.

Other Paths

For the team members who aren’t accepted into the program, they receive a ‘Candidate Feedback’ form that is filled out through the interview process and then reviewed with the candidate by their manager. The form highlights strengths and weaknesses identified in the application and interview process.

Willey says the hardest part of the program is when they have people who want to advance their careers and they have to discuss with the team member why they didn’t meet the criteria at the time. He says the key is it has to be genuine and it has to be real.

“You really have to connect with that person so that they understand why they’re not ready and that it’s not personal and then to give them a path forward,” Willey says.

The reasons why the team member was not accepted are on the form and are reviewed in detail. Willey says they list resources and next steps on the form to help provide a path for the candidate to be prepared to re-apply the following year. So far, they’ve had one employee reapply and make it into the program the second time.

Willey says one year they had 40 employees apply for the program and 28 didn’t get accepted. He says they were apprehensive they’d lose these team members, but that hasn’t happened because they were open and honest on why they weren’t accepted at the time and worked to support them.

“There are people that want to grow but don’t want to have responsibility for others,” Willey says. “They want to continue learning and be the best at what they do and want to earn more income. That’s why they’re applying. It’s one of the key questions is to understand why do you want to become a manager?”

He says if their answer is to make more money, Green Lawn has other ways for them to make more money without putting themselves through something they’re not going to be happy with.

In 2019, they realized they didn’t have a path for these types of employees who wanted to earn more but weren’t interested in leadership. They put together a tiered career progression track in 2020 that focuses on state licensure, increased technical knowledge in role and field training.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.