By Michael “House” Tain
If any of the insects present during a tree crew’s lunch break ever gain the ability to speak and share the conversations they have overheard, the amount of time spent by tree personnel discussing their leaders is likely to be quite impressive. Although there is a wide variety of classes, training, and education available for the myriad tasks that make up a modern tree worker’s day, opportunities for training and education in workforce management and leadership are few and far between — particularly specific to the tree industry. Although reading a column in a magazine is certainly not going to transform Johnny B. O’Doughnuts the brush hauler into a stellar crew foreman or operations manager, an introduction to, and explanation of, some of the basic principles, skills, and even techniques of workforce management can help begin the process of expanding Johnny’s mental toolbox with some tools that may help his career, and crews, down the road.
Few tree workers would disagree that being reprimanded or disciplined for no apparent purpose or reason is frustrating and damaging to their morale. Providing a basic structure, protocols, and/or standard operational procedures can go a long way toward avoiding this leadership error. Obviously, every tree job is not going to fit inside the parameters of the company or crew’s standard procedure, but many will; and not only will safety and efficiency be well served by the existence of these protocols, crew members will perform better knowing what is expected of them in a given job or situation. These structures or protocols should not be “written in stone” though, as the one of the few things that can be depended upon in tree work is change — whether it be changes in gear, equipment, or regulations — and no one is helped by a standard procedure that is outdated, ill designed, or frustrating. Simple, straightforward, standard operating procedures regarding common crew tasks such as takedowns, clean-up, truck/chipper placement, etc., will go a long way toward helping crew members know their tasks, and crew leaders recognize where they might need to “step in.”
Document, document, document…and share
Few things are more disorienting or disheartening to a well intentioned crew member than feeling “blindsided” by a criticism, poor work review, or even disciplinary action. Leaders, regardless of their feelings about paperwork/forms, must document both negative and positive impressions about their crew members/employees. If it is not documented, who is to say it truly happened; and nothing carries more weight when confronting someone about an issue than specific dates, times and locations; just as an employee being lauded for their good work is impressed with the time, date and location of their success. However, documentation is not enough; feedback is imperative, both of a positive and negative nature. If an employee has a tardiness problem, the first time it is mentioned to them should not be when they are being “let go” for being late all the time. The majority of people want to do well at their job and succeed, and they should be offered the opportunity to do so. Letting them know when they need to make changes, as well as when they’ve “done a gooder” will help them succeed. Celebrate successful achievements; otherwise folks will start to think they can’t do anything right due to only hearing criticism.
Praise and punishment
As mentioned, both positive and negative aspects of a crew member’s work habits should be documented and shared, in a timely fashion, with the worker/employee, but how that information is shared must be handled correctly. A simple rule, and one that most are probably familiar with is “praise in public and punish in private.” While perhaps overly simplistic, this does cover the basics of correctly sharing positive or negative information. After all, few people enjoy being “dressed down” in front of their peers, which can lead to resentment and embarrassment instead of the positive urge to do better. Although some tree folks may be shy, or a bit uncomfortable in being praised in front of others, in most cases they will gain pride from their job well done, while the leader reinforces the fact that good work is recognized.
Being a leader is not easy
Making it to crew leader, operations manager, or company owner does not mean nirvana has been achieved and the rest of the career is spent talking on the cell phone, carrying a clipboard, or updating Facebook status. In fact, a person put in a position of leadership with that kind of attitude will quickly find themselves with a more mutinous crew than Captain Bligh, if they have any crew left at all. Leadership roles demand more from the person holding them than any role they have held before; and although the toll may be more emotional and intellectual than physical, it is still a toll felt every night when the head hits the pillow. Perhaps Johnny can grab the backpack blower toward the end of the job and cruise around aimlessly “taking some time off,” but a crew/company leader is on stage at all times; and the slightest hint of laziness, poor work ethics, or unsafe practices will be noted and discussed by crew members. Although it may seem unfair at times, leaders must expect and demand as much, or more, from themselves as they do from their crew regarding safety, attendance, timeliness, efficiency, and the other components of a good worker.
Obey and set the standard
Any standard a company or crew has — whether it applies to safety, efficiency, or even something as relatively minor as record keeping — has to be a standard that the leader keeps at all times. How hypocritical is it for the company owner to show up criticizing a crew’s lack of PPE when they are absent PPE themselves? A leader is always setting the example; and sooner or later will have to talk to someone about a negative action. The conversation will go a lot smoother and be better received if the leader has done their best to uphold the crew’s or company’s standards at all times.
Justice is blind
Rules, regulations, company policies, whatever the standard may be, a leader must apply them equally to all crew members or employees. Few things are a poorer example of leadership, or more harmful to employee morale, than the recognition that “certain people” don’t get in trouble for actions that “other people” do. Simply being the best climber in the company does not excuse missing every Monday because of the PBR flu, nor does being an excellent salesperson/estimator mean one is too good to haul brush or feed a chipper. Every worker or employee needs to feel that the same standards are applied to each of them; and that they can expect the same rewards or discipline based on their actions, not some nebulous unknown such as “the boss just likes them better.”
Fairness in all things
The majority of people in the world will respond well when treated fairly, though, of course, there will always be exceptions to this rule. While pay, benefits, bonuses, and other fiscal rewards will certainly affect the behavior and satisfaction of employees, poor, or even unfair or dishonest, leadership will sabotage a crew or company almost as quickly. While the “golden rule” may sound trite to many, as a leader one could do worse than trying to treat their employees as they would wish to be treated.
Workforce management is a complex topic, one that contains elements of psychology, ethics, philosophy, and many other subjects. And although leadership is never easy, regardless of the profession or industry, it can be particularly challenging in the tree environment where poor choices by a crew member can lead to an injury or death. Add in the likelihood that one is attempting to lead and organize a group of people who are probably individualistic problem solving risk takers by nature, and the complexity of workforce management among tree folk becomes apparent. The few basic principles and techniques discussed here provide a starting point to becoming a better leader, but true tree industry leaders are always looking to add to their mental toolbox.
Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.