Are you focused on “fixing” or “growing” your team? Gardening methodologies may help us "see the light"

On a recent sunny morning,  during informal discussion before a coaching session, a client of mine shared his delight at the prospect of returning to more intense gardening now that the weather was turning. Gardening has always been a challenge for me, with a repeated pattern of dead blooms emerging weeks after purchase and I am currently the not so proud owner of several withered and battered shrubs. I was interested to gain more insight into the secrets of my seemingly green fingered client and having shared my gardening methodology, my client was appalled to learn that I had been severely neglecting my duties, (the last input I recalled was a flick of the watering can across the plant pots and beds on the last warm day of the year (most probably last august).

Committing to engaging with a gardener's calendar, I was advised would be my starting point. This calendar involved tending to different elements of the garden every single month; protecting, planting, pruning, feeding, maintaining. Weeding, it turns out was what was going to make the biggest difference, as weeds inhibit growth in a garden and by investing in time and consistent habits I could foster growth and subsequently convert my withered shrubs to blooms.

Informal chat behind us, we settled in to our coaching session. My client (let’s call him James) was relatively new to leadership and shared that he felt he had been promoted to his role due to his achievements and competence as a technical expert. James had “hit the ground running” a few months previous and had been tasked with leading and implementing numerous changes to his teams roles to meet organisational demands.  There had been a lot of resistance to these change initiatives and although he and the team had “limped over the line” to meet deadlines, he was now experiencing a barrage of grievances, witnessing interpersonal difficulties between team members and described the team as weary, disengaged and conflict laden. 

Referring to our earlier gardening discussion he felt that he and many of the team members now resembled the withered, battered shrubs which inhabited my garden. Drawing on what worked for him as a technical expert he relayed that he had been focused on “fixing” (or finding a quick solution to) these problems he was encountering without taking time to observe and learn what his people needed or what he could offer to help them grow and prosper in their roles during or beyond the change project. Since commencing his role he had not taken time out to get to know his people individually to get a sense of their strengths, areas for development and challenges they were encountering.

We surmised that effective leaders are much like competent gardeners.  Whilst James decided to wait for the upcoming performance management meetings to address the issues that were arising he was neglecting the ongoing maintenance (each and every day, week and month) that was required to cultivate and grow his team. The most immediate issue we identified was to remove the impediments (weeds in gardening terms) to his teams growth. To resolve conflict he would focus on removing the distractions and interferences (lack of role clarity, uncertainty about the future direction of the department). Most importantly James realised the importance of regularly meeting with team members both individually and collectively to “plant seeds” in other words to encourage others to think, to foster ambitious ideas, to encourage creativity. He would also need to ensure he was tending to his own development to be an appropriate “container” to cultivate the right conditions or safe space where people experience psychological safety enabling them to share ideas, give feedback without fear of reprisal and where they could learn, grow, and change.

James also vowed to “carry a watering can at all times” as the leaders job is highly dependent on the ability to nurture. Growth will happen particularly with the more coachable, receptive employees, with others leaders may have to look a little closer and pay a little more attention, just like in the garden when you have to get on your hands and knees to see the germination, but when there are signs of growth, it makes it worth the effort.  Much like the gardening calendar commitments , James has protected time in his calendar for regularly tending to his own growth through engaging in regular leadership development specifically people skills development.

Effective Leadership and gardening both focus on positive change and great leaders invest their time in “growing rather than fixing “people.  

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