How I Do It: Creating an Engaging Employee Growth Track - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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How I Do It: Creating an Engaging Employee Growth Track

Photo: Landscaping Ninjas

Career ladders can encourage and compel your team members to pursue a future with your landscape company. At Landscaping Ninjas, based in College Station, Texas, they took this concept a little bit further with a belt ranking system.

Daniel Thompson, owner of Landscaping Ninjas, says the belt ranking is just another aspect of their company culture.

“We try to make sure that work isn’t just a place you dread all day and then go home,” Thompson says. “That was my vision from the very, very beginning because I hated the job I had before this. I was changing oil. I was a lube tech and it was absolutely miserable.”

The company rebranded to Landscaping Ninjas two years ago. Previously, they were Thompson and Sons and as they went into year five, Thompson realized the name didn’t fit their culture and who they were.

“It was a very bland, boring name to be honest,” Thompson says. “I created that name in 30 seconds on my couch when I decided I was going to start the business. We had a job ad a long time ago and we were just trying to stand out a little bit in the sea of Indeed ads. Our hook was ‘become a landscaping ninja.’ It had nothing to do with us at the time. That just slowly evolved and just snowballed.”

Leveling Up

New hires have a 30-day probationary period during which they get set up with the company. After the probationary period, they receive their white belt and a raise. Thompson says this is their only raise based on time with the company.

Photo: Landscaping Ninjas

To reach the next belt level, employees have certain training programs they have to complete through Greenius, and after a certain amount of time with the company they are able to move up to the next rank.

Landscaping Ninjas have six belt levels: white, yellow, green, blue, red, and black. After six months, an employee earns their yellow belt. Those who have been with the company for a year move up to a green belt. Blue belts are for one and half years with the business. Employees receive a red belt for two years and at the three-year mark, employees are eligible to become a black belt.

“In order to be here for a year, there are Greenius training programs that you have to get done and in-house training things we have to get done,” Thompson says. “The project manager has got to see that you don’t know the exact same things you did day one as you do year one.”

Thompson says while an employee can attain all the belts within three years, but they also have six core value patches. An employee cannot become a black belt until they have become proficient enough to have earned a patch for each core value.

“One of them is ‘Be a Defender’ so if we see an employee who’s always like, ‘Hey, that’s not quite right, we need to fix this. We can’t leave this like this,’” Thompson says. “We’re like, ‘Man, you’re really being a defender for that client.’ We have a patch for that.”

The company’s core values include:  

  • Don’t Kill My Vibe
  • Be a Defender
  • Dreamcatcher, Memory Maker
  • You Don’t Know It All
  • You Can’t Pay Someone to Care
  • Everybody’s a Friend

In another instance, an entire crew received their ‘Dreamcatcher, Memory Maker’ patch for creating a project that brought a client’s vision to life. Once an employee earns a core value patch, they carry it with them as they move up in belt ranks.

Photo: Landscaping Ninjas

When an employee moves into a new position, they go back down to a white belt. Thompson explains that because while they might be a blue belt in their current position, when they get promoted, they need continue to grow and level up the skills for their new role.

Thompson says not even he has earned a black belt yet. He’s a red belt currently.

“I jokingly said, ‘I need to be a black belt,’ and then my CFO said, ‘No, you might be a black belt in production and installing stuff, because that’s how it started,’” Thompson says. “She said you’re not a black belt in CEO. You still have some learning to do.”

Thompson says his team likes the ranking system and they ask about their belts if they’ve gotten busy and forgotten to present one. He says it’s also impacted their retention as seeing their peers move up often motivates others to strive for the next belt rank as well.

“We have better retention than a lot of service companies,” Thompson says. “A lot of our people have been with us a year plus, which in-home services is difficult. Before we had all this, we didn’t have anybody that with us for a year or more for two or three years.”

Keys to Success

Thompson says they are still progressing and doesn’t consider their belt system perfect by any means.

“What I’ve noticed through all this is that it needs to be a visual for everybody because human nature is if you do good, you want people to know you’ve done good,” Thompson says.

He says recognizing employees when they earn a new core value patch helps make things more real and fun for the team.

When creating your own program that incentivizes employees to stay long-term, Thompson advises developing a climbable ladder with reachable, attainable goals. He stresses you need to spell out how your employees can reach the next level.

Photo: Landscaping Ninjas

“We’re not giving out any belts if you haven’t completed the necessary steps to earn that because then the whole system falls apart,” Thompson says. “It’s got to be very black and white.”

Landscaping Ninjas presents the different belts on a wall in the main shop with the employees’ pictures grouped by crews.

Each time an employee ranks up, they recognize them during their Tuesday morning meeting. Employee anniversaries are also recognized during the Tuesday meeting with a commemorative throwing star on a wooden dais.

“I think definitely something that’s a little more fun,” Thompson says. “It’s a little more engaging. It’s a little more like different.”

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.