Everything I know about management I learned from gardening


Things are looking pretty good in my garden, where I’ve learned many lessons about management.

It’s September again. The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler. The grass is staging a comeback, the liriope is in full bloom and the crepe myrtle is taking its final bow. As I walk around the yard, taking stock of this year’s horticultural successes and failures, it occurs to me that everything you need to know about management—about life, really—can be found in the garden.

If you think about it, many of the skills of a master gardener are transferable to the C-suite. Just as good leaders understand their people, gardeners know their plants. They know when to nurture and prune to promote growth—and when to remove and discard and start anew. They measure progress by seasons and years, not by days or weeks. They enjoy the fruits of their labor and learn from their mistakes. They take risks, but they also carefully plan for the future. They know that nature, like the marketplace, can be harsh and fickle but also wonderfully generous.

I’ve always liked working in the yard. It began when I owned my first house and then became an obsession when I moved to an older house with a bigger yard. It was there that I got a little crazy, ripping out everything and starting over with all new landscaping. I learned a lot about plants, about preparing the soil, about fertilizer and pesticides. I watered. I made numerous trips to nurseries, read lots of books. And I watered. Always watering.

I experienced great satisfaction, and I had my share of setbacks. Two small yews I planted on the front and side of the house slowly grew into perfect specimens. They would have made beautiful Christmas trees. On the other hand, English ivy I foolishly planted on one side of the house became unmanageable almost immediately.


My camellia in bloom.

I learned that gardening favors those who persevere. It teaches patience, that things happen in due course, and you must wait for the good things. Take the camellia in my backyard. It almost died shortly after I planted it. I came home from work one day and found it toppled over, its root ball exposed. I put it back in the ground and watered it. Then I staked it on all four sides to keep it from falling over. I brooded over it all summer and into the following year. It survived and started to take off a few years later, and now my garden is the better for it.

When I was in management, I enjoyed mentoring employees and building teams. Like the farmer who surveys the progress of his fields, I have watched young saplings grow into tall trees. What if I had given up on the employee who didn’t quite fit in, the one who took longer to get the job done in the beginning, or the one who needed a little nudge or just some time to come into his own? Would those employees have matured into mighty oaks or withered from lack of support?

The best managers are those who understand they are stewards, entrusted with the care and feeding of their organization. That’s not to say that we should coddle employees or turn a blind eye to unsatisfactory performance. Like plants, some employees do not do well, no matter how much Miracle-Gro we give them. Sometimes we have to transplant them or remove them entirely.

So the next time you’re in the yard or admiring your neighbor’s prize roses, consider these seven management lessons from the garden:

  1. Take the long view. Remember, good things come to those who wait. It takes patience, perseverance and faith to grow something big from something small.
  2. Know your people. Understand how they perform in different climates and different seasons. Then place them in an environment where they will thrive.
  3. Give your team the resources to succeed. Make sure your organization has the water, nutrients and sunlight it needs to grow.
  4. Have a vision. Maybe there’s nothing but weeds or dirt in your backyard. Think about what it could be, then go to work on making it happen.
  5. Not everything that grows is desirable. Learn to identify and quickly remove weeds, pests and disease. There is no room in your organization for dishonesty, prejudice, selfishness, laziness or complacency.
  6. We all labor under the same sun. Everyone has the same growing season, the same 24 hours to get things done. So plan and execute accordingly.
  7. You cannot control everything. Sometimes death and destruction visit the garden despite all of your hard work. When they do, salvage what you can and move on.
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