Sowing the Seeds: What Gardening Teaches About Leadership
A garden is an ecosystem and so is your business. Designing, experimenting and prioritizing lead to a bountiful harvest.
Spring is in the air. Can you feel it? Every year when spring rolls around and my garden’s growing season crops up, my family comes together to look at what worked last year, what didn’t, and how we can improve for the upcoming season.
During this time I always reflect on how this process relates to my work as CEO of Toast; there are many parallels to draw from making something grow into something beautiful from just a small seed. I’ve found many similarities between my job and my work in the garden, but three stand out.
1. Design for scale and specific end-goals.
Maintaining a dynamic garden requires a sound understanding of how each plant’s estimated production will affect overall production. You need to design for sustainable scale. Going into it with the simple goal of producing vegetables usually won’t cut it. You need to know what you will want throughout the summer and fall to decide what to plant in the spring.
This process of identifying end-goals at the beginning to influence your design ties directly to starting and growing a business. At the outset you need to think about the potential growth patterns for each area of the business and how each growth pattern will affect your overall yields, or revenue. There are many different ways to design for scale, but almost all center around proactively anticipating future growth patterns and learning from past patterns.
A great way to do this is to think about your key goals and the top objectives and initiatives to get there (e.g. objectives and key results, or OKRs). Some company goals may focus on products, markets, and pace of growth. Some garden goals may focus on specific plants, location, and (again) pace of growth. Whatever the goals, identifying them early and iterating on the paths to get there is important. Don't be afraid to make changes as you go, but always be sure to map back to your overall goals. In my garden, nature and weather always have a fun way of throwing curveballs into our plans, but we continue to improvise to help our plants grow.
2. Make space for experimentation.
We maintain a few staples every year -- tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and broccoli to name a few. We know what to expect from these plant’s growth and production and we can plan around them. These plants produce incrementally year over year -- call it 99 percent improvements with pretty guaranteed outcomes.
But every year we also try something new as an experiment -- call this the 1 percent where we take risks. This year it was corn and brussel sprouts. The corn came out like rubber but the brussel sprouts were great and will be a new addition for seasons to come. Ultimately we lost out on a couple of dollars in corn seeds but gained a new addition in the brussel sprouts. Most importantly, the experiment didn’t harm my overall yields and expanded the horizons for the future.
Building space for experimentation is what will help keep your business on the cutting edge and your employees happy and productive. At Toast we host hackathons, where our technology team gets together for a night of unrestrained creation. Through these events we have discovered incredible new ways of doing things and most importantly have fostered a creative space for team members to try new approaches without the fear of negatively impacting flagship services. Our hackathons are our 1 percent where we take risks and may succeed or fail.
With hackathons, we’re not only discovering new, exciting ways of doing things, but also conveying to the team that Toast is a company where exploration and discovery are rewarded. It can be tough to build these spaces, especially at the beginning, but hackathons can be low-cost. By ordering and enjoying our customers’ food, including raffles and games, and encouraging an environment where people can collaborate on project teams all day and night, we foster a culture of innovation within our company.
3. Know when to pull and when to feed.
Gardening requires constant monitoring of what’s working and what’s not. For example this summer we had to harvest spaghetti squash several times per month or they would overshadow my cucumbers, stunting their growth. Although we would have loved to let the spaghetti squash grow and produce to their potential, we needed the cucumbers to produce as well: Every plant has a specific growth pattern and lifecycle that needs to be tended to specifically. But these growth patterns also need to fit harmoniously within the rest of the garden.
In business, you need to look at the growth patterns of your products and businesses and think about how they affect the development of others, constantly prioritizing. Each area of the business may require different levels of “feeding” and “pulling” -- and failing to do so with one can impose harm on others.
A good example may be that your growth on sales and marketing can put more pressure on customer success. Evaluating how the two can grow in concert with each other without overwhelming different teams is key. Similarly if you serve multiple markets, you need to balance how you push and pull on product.No different than a garden, understanding the dynamic nature between areas of the company is key. Ultimately, what is important is that you hit your overall goals: the output of vegetables produced from your entire garden, not just from a single plant.