4 Skills That Business Leaders Can Learn From Master Gardeners
Creating a positive company culture that involves research, replication, re-working and re-imagining will lead to success.
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With a last name like Gardner, one might assume that I was born with a green-thumb. The sad truth is that for years I could barely keep any of our flowering friends alive. I may have even had a cactus or two die under my watch. In the last few years, however, I decided to do right by my good name.
A turning point for me was learning from a master tomato grower. Within just a few hours of time with him, I understood far more about why a tomato plant grows the way it does and several strategies for using those innate strengths to maximize the growth and output of the plant.
In the process, I observed some parallel skills with stablishing and maintaining incredible cultures within organizations, and I've designated these skills as the four Rs: research, replicate, re-work and re-imagine.
Those who become true masters at their craft start out as students, researching, reading and learning, especially from those who have already established themselves in the field. As I work towards becoming a master gardener, research has allowed me to know which plants, flowers and vegetables will thrive well in the conditions inherent in my garden. I've learned how much water, sun and space specific kinds of vegetables need if they are going to thrive and the key to increasing the variety and biodiversity of the soil for optimal growth.
Similarly, those sincerely interested in establishing a healthy culture within an organization would be wise to start as students, seeking wisdom from those who have a proven track record of success through their own research and practice. Research will help you to better understand the ecosystem you're working in, including what your customers, employees and shareholders actually need. You need to know what your unique advantage is in meeting their needs.
Another key to fostering a healthy culture is understanding that change is inevitable. That's why a key part to mastery is always keeping your mind open to new information as the environment shifts. Andy Grove, Intel's visionary CEO, once stated that much of his form of management came from reading Peter Drucker's Practice of Management decades after its publication. Even as a methodic practitioner of improving how work gets done, Grove was humble and hungry, always researching what works (and why).
Learnings are theoretical until you put them into practice. In gardening, the garden has become my lab for putting my knowledge into action. This has been both an incredible continuation of learning and a way to speed up the time in putting an ideal solution in place instead of having to create it from scratch.
Similarly, in business, your company becomes the lab where you can put all the knowledge you've learned into practice to establish a thriving and healthy culture. This application has both short and long-term benefits and can pay huge dividends. It also serves as a strong continued source of learning as you keep amassing and applying your learnings and knowledge to making improvements.
A great example of this is John Doerr's OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) that he introduced at Google and explained in his 2017 bestseller Measure What Matters. In the book, Doerr discusses how he got the ear of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, along with Marissa Mayer and others, to hear his new management methodology that helps to ensure that the company focuses efforts on the same important issues throughout the organization.
The introduction of OKRs was "an elastic, data-driven apparatus for a freewheeling, data-worshipping enterprise," Doerr wrote. They promised transparency and rewarded "good fails."
A goal-oriented process like OKRs can help you replicate success and ensure you're actively putting learnings into practice and staying focused on the right things as your organization evolves.
The job of replicating masterful approaches within a garden is dirty work. You have to roll up your sleeves and get up to your elbows in the dirt. It's also true that things learned in theory may not always turn out how you imagined. This makes for the dirty work of learning through failure and expecting some re-tooling along the way.
In the pursuit of establishing solid practices that enrich your culture and increase the productivity of your team, you will inevitably run into roadblocks and experience outcomes that underperform against your expectations. There is no reason to fret in these situations. The work of tweaking, iterating and re-working those things which you've put into practice will aid in the learnings and optimization of the practices that will help your company thrive and produce healthy harvests.
Start by embedding a design-thinking ethos into your organization at large, but particularly within your people experience teams. This will augment the way and the quality of the design and the development and implementation of programs, processes and tools. Teams will move more efficiently and autonomously in deploying new ideas, learn quickly and get greater buy-in as they invalidate some hypotheses and validate others, effectively iterating while expanding the scope and value.
After many seasons of gardening, a master at the craft will always recognize that there are better ways to achieve more fruitful outcomes. With this realization comes a drive to re-imagine better methods.
As mentioned earlier, I've had the great fortune of observing and learning from a real master. In pursuit of extending his yield of tomatoes, he had innovated way beyond the simple use of tomato cages by making use of a trellis and strings that allowed him to wind the tomato plant around the trellis as the plant grew, getting a much longer plant and far more fruit.
Likewise, true masters of leadership will constantly re-imagine how to foster a more meaningful culture that elevates the performance and execution of those within the company. Everything about a business is ever evolving — the competition, the customer and the people. Keeping the status quo is a recipe for obsolescence, especially during times of rapid disruption. Alternatively, periods of disruption are ideal for evaluating current practices and coming at the problem from a clean slate. This will open up divergent thought to form solutions that have the potential to unlock untold success.
Masters only become such from years of dedicated work, applying the principles and best practices that they've learned along the way. From my own experience, turning the corner on establishing a healthy and productive garden meant getting deliberate and intentional about doing so. I needed to make it a priority. I needed to dedicate and designate some space and, most importantly, commit time and resources to foster a thriving ecosystem that could eventually bear a productive harvest. In response, I built sturdy and beautiful garden boxes that demonstrated the level of my dedication to the endeavor and turned them into a flourishing garden.
It's the same when building a thriving company — it starts by fostering the right culture. As Peter Drucker puts it, "culture eats strategy for breakfast." In other words, the culture that has been fostered within a company will ultimately govern the strategy a company takes, as well as how and if the company can precisely execute the determined strategy.
A company that has not prioritized a healthy culture as the driving ethos of its strategy will ultimately find that the failure to do so can create a culture of noxious weeds that are hindering growth and depriving your organization from flourishing to its full potential.