How I Do It: Hiring a Dream Manager - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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How I Do It: Hiring a Dream Manager

Photo: Ables Landscapes

Do you want to provide more for your team, but these initiatives often fall by the wayside as you focus on the priority tasks of running your lawn or landscape business?

This was a struggle as well for Mark Ables, president and CEO of Ables Landscapes, based in Hollywood, South Carolina, who wanted to build his company culture but kept getting caught up in his everyday whirlwind.

In October 2020, he hired Morgan Behrens to become his company’s dream manager. He encountered this concept in a business peer group and read Matthew Kelly’s book The Dream Manager that summer. After having a few other company leaders read the book, they agreed this was something they wanted to do.

“Hiring a dream manager was a somewhat scary decision for our small company because on paper it is all overhead – straight expense with nothing added to the bottom line, but our leadership team agreed this was a great way to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to our core values,” Ables says. “One of those core values is growth – we believe the number one job of a leader is to grow, because when you are growing you are adding value to yourself and to those around you – and a dream manager is someone who’s ‘A’ priority would be helping our employees grow – personally, financially, physically, spiritually, etc. – whatever their goals are.”

Ables says that it was his wife, who also read the book, who suggested they reach out to Behrens. They knew her from church, she was fluent in Spanish and had a heart for helping people.

“We invited her over for dinner and in a not-so-smooth way, started to explain the concept,” Ables says. “We sent her home with the book, and after she read it she was intrigued enough to come in for an interview.”

Benefits and Challenges of a Dream Manager

Since hiring Behrens, she has helped employees obtain citizenship, develop financial plans, buy cars, start new businesses and more. Behrens has been able to help a number of employees obtain their driver’s licenses as well.

“Whether it’s a language barrier or just confusing paperwork, Morgan has spent more time at the DMV than anyone should have to helping our people obtain their driving freedom,” Ables says.

Dream manager Morgan Behrens
Photo: Ables Landscapes

Ables says since adding the dream manager role, their employee retention has improved.

“When Morgan is consistently checking in on people, it creates space for them to share things about the job and that allows us to have a better pulse on where people are mentally and if there’s an issue, she can usually help facilitate a meeting to help get over that hurdle,” Ables says. “And now that people are seeing consistent wins throughout the company it has created a culture where they want to be a part of a company that is so invested in their growth.”

Since adding their dream manager, Ables has had to work through two main challenges. One was because many employees’ goals were financial, they expected Behrens to help them get a raise. Ables says they’ve had to make a clear distinction that while Behrens can help them grow in their position, she is not the person to come to for a pay discussion.

The other issue was their dream manager being the go-to person for people’s complaints regarding company issues.

“Some of this has been helpful and when she finds a common thread that is affecting our culture she brings it to me, but much of the complaints are issues that should be handled by other managers so Morgan has had to develop language that encourage them around resolving those conflicts and pointing them in the right direction,” Ables says.

Creating Buy In

Ables says, at the time, he only knew of one other company that was using a dream manager, but they had 300 employees compared to Ables Landscapes’s 50 team members. At the other organization, taking advantage of the dream manager was entirely voluntary.

Photo: Ables Landscapes

“We tried a different approach and said that we want every single employee to participate, knowing that we would have a mix of people excited about it, hesitant, and completely against it,” Ables says. “What we found is that this is such a relational transaction and it took some time for Morgan to build those relationships to a point where they could trust her.”

Ables said they’ve gone from having employees who went into their first meeting say they didn’t want to talk to now sharing very personal dreams and goals with Behrens.

Ables says they used two mantras to help with the adoption of their dream manager. These mantras were “The number one job of a leader at Ables Landscapes is to grow.” and “This is you vs. you.” 

“Those lines became a part of our vocabulary around the office and shop as we pushed our people to become better versions of themselves,” Ables says. “We also posted a bulletin board of my dreams in the shop where everyone could see that even I am participating and trying grow.”

Ables says that most of their team absolutely loves having someone serve as their personal life coach. He says there are some who still resist having someone push them, but they also understand this is because Ables Landscapes is invested in their growth.

Tips for Success

Because so many employees’ goals were related to financial issues, Behrens found an organization that teaches individual financial literacy. Ables says they partnered with them and they send someone to their offices once a week to talk to his team.

“So many have never been taught how to budget or how to understand their finances so this has been a great help and anytime someone comes to Morgan with financial issues she has a resource that she can connect them with,” Ables says.

While the company can’t fix everyone’s financial woes, they do have a Caring Committee that will give gifts throughout the year to employees for things like a new house or child or when something bad happens like a car breaking down or a home repair.

Currently, Behrens spends about 70% of her time working as a dream manager and the other 30% as a recruiter for the company. Ables says that as they grow she’ll be able to fully focus on being a dream manager, but he looks forward to having to hire a second dream manager one day.

After having a dream manager for the past three years, Ables says the addition of the role is a no-brainer.

“The question shouldn’t be ‘Is this something we should pursue with our company?’” Ables says. “Rather, it should be ‘Who can we find and when can they start?’ If you care about your people, but don’t have the time to serve them as you’d like, then this is something you should seriously consider. It will build instant morale, create a culture of growth, and as the wins begin to stack up it will help you create a legacy of stewarding your people so well that it changes the trajectory of entire family trees. And that is something that gets me excited every day.”

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.