Sometimes serious and always inspired, Kirk Hurto views leadership the same way he approaches science – with a blend of structure and creativity.

Kirk Hurto  Photo: Rycus Associates

The lawn care industry revolves around science and research. Pesticide manufacturers spend months and years testing active ingredients for EPA approval. Lawn care operators use soil samples to balance lawns’ pH levels, and most companies take a few application seasons to fine-tune lawn care programs with trial-and-error-style investigation.


Company: TruGreen-ChemLawn

Location: Delaware, Ohio

Career Highlights:

• Received BS and MS from Southern Illinois University

• Received PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

• Assistant professor of turfgrass science at University of Massachusetts, 1978-1981

• Joined TruGreen-ChemLawn in 1981 (Research scientist from 1981 to 1989, director technical services from 1989 to 1995, vice president of technical services from 1995 to present)

• Former Member, EPA Advisory Board

• Member, Ohio Pesticide Applicators for Responsible Regulations

• Member, Lawns & Environment Coalition




Science and research go hand in hand, but once all the data is collected and the products and application methods are perfected, it’s back to the drawing board to make things work. For 23 years, Kirk Hurto has been guiding and coaching researchers at TruGreen-ChemLawn in endeavors just like these.

"On the scientific side of what we do, we use established principles to develop new strategies and approaches to examine work practices and products we use to meet our customers’ needs," says the vice president of technical services for TruGreen, Delaware, Ohio. "While science and research help identify possible solutions, the real challenge is to find what will work in the field."

In particular, Hurto and his team have worked to bring new products to market and, in terms of technical support, delve into the precarious world of consumer perception to keep TruGreen at the leading edge of the industry.

POPULAR SCIENTIST. As a child, Hurto says he remembers watching and helping his grandmother in the garden, but didn’t imagine that he would receive a PhD in plant sciences. While in high school, his initial professional aspirations were geared toward structures more solid than leaf tissues and slightly higher off the ground. "I always thought I would study architecture," he says. "It’s a field that’s creative and yet requires knowledge of structure. " Thankfully, Hurto didn’t have to sacrifice the always-intriguing balance between form and function when he entered the green industry.

"I’ve been reminded throughout my career that successful scientists must have a creative bent," Hurto says. "Science and research are very structured and organized – it has to be so that the data we develop is valid and considers all factors critical to the project’s outcome. At the same time, you have to be innovative in asking the right questions about the products you’re testing and determining what resources you have to develop solutions to your clients’ problems."

When Hurto first started with TruGreen in 1981, his focus was on weed science, which put him in the thick of the company’s technical research. Surrounded by other talented scientists, Hurto says this environment taught him a great deal about leadership as he took on more responsibility and began to assign projects to others on his staff.


1. What is your favorite book on leadership and why?

Two books that speak to personal strength and leadership come to mind: Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike and Tom Brokaw’s America’s Greatest Generation. Both speak to the power of the human spirit and its role in developing an individual’s character and ability to achieve their goals even when faced with hardship and situations they may not directly control. What I found most interesting was the common leadership traits of courage and vision exhibited by Lance’s battle with cancer and American soldiers’ sense of duty in World War II.

2. Who has been the greatest influence on your leadership style and what did he or she teach you?

There are many positive role models that I try to emulate, but leadership is not something one can mimic. More importantly, the exposure to these leaders and understanding what makes them effective helps you become a better leader. Their personal style of interaction with others and their ability to influence others to achieve common goals is worthy to note. I try to learn from others whom I admire by examining their strengths and how I may apply select elements of their style in my interactions with others.

3. How do you develop leadership skills in your employees?

Lead by example. I don’t ask someone to perform a task that I would not do myself. Allow for mistakes, but make sure they learn from the experience. It’s important to allow employees to develop their own management styles, rather than always directing their decisions. Make suggestions and challenge them to be better performers at their work and influence others they lead.

4. What has been your biggest leadership challenge and how did you overcome that challenge?

Communicating shared visions is a challenge that all leaders have to overcome. Leaders accomplish little if they work alone. To be effective, it’s important that others believe in and understand your goals. Communication is key to influencing others’ actions, so leaders must encourage input from those who they lead, set clear objectives that people will understand and then allow them to act. I find that coaching rather than directing people’s actions builds support and positive actions to achieve shared goals.

"One notion we used in developing our young scientists was to be willing to take calculated risks," he says. "One phrase we would use to convey this was the rope story. A rope can be useful if you learn to use it as a lifeline. Taking on more rope – or risk – than you can handle can turn that rope into a noose around your neck. I think the message there is that when opportunities arise in your work, you need to take a look at what’s in front of you. Act upon the opportunities, but be aware of your limitations and ask for help when it is needed. Our function as research leaders is to take the basics of what we know and creatively turn new concepts into practical applications our field staff can use."

As vice president of technical services, Hurto oversees a field staff of 17 region technical managers who support 205 TruGreen-ChemLawn branch locations when they have questions on operations, applications and customer concerns. Hurto continues to use advice given to him early on to encourage younger technical managers on leadership and responsibility.

"Good researchers and technical managers should be asking additional questions before they can fully answer the question asked of them," he says. "When I first started studying plant and soil science, I never thought I would enter academia, but I always wanted to understand more about the basic problem at hand. Now that I’ve had the experience of being an educator, I’m glad I did it. What I’m most impressed with by today’s students is how creative many of them are. Newer scientists are a lot smarter – they use their knowledge to solve more complex issues confronting our industry today."

TEAM PLAYER, TEAM COACH. Having spent much of his career collaborating on everything from research teams to technical writings to in-house committees at TruGreen, Hurto’s leadership skills are a combination of partnership and management experience. His participation in organizations outside of the office have influenced his leadership style, as well.

"In my earlier days, I coached youth soccer," he says, remembering how his green industry background caused him to look at the fields he was coaching on with a bit of consternation. "These fields were not in good shape and I mentioned that to someone, and the next thing you know I was nominated to our parks board."

As a board member, Hurto worked on projects including land use planning and greenspace management. Through his work, Hurto says one of the best lessons he learned was the importance of reaching a consensus. "When you get involved in these types of projects and community groups, you meet people from all different walks of life," he says. "When those people’s points of view are different from yours, it becomes important to really understand where they’re coming from. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree, but an effective team sticks to the issues at hand, regardless of the personalities behind the issues. As a team, members work to reach a reasonable compromise and recommend a solution that best meets the common good for our community."

Hurto acknowledges that effectively communicating issues and goals in a team setting is a challenge leaders have to face head on. "Sometimes, leaders’ awareness of an issue because of their background can impede them if they fail to consider that others may not have their experience," he notes. "You may be so close to the topic that you forget what it took for you to get to that level of understanding and acceptance of new ideas. It’s important to realize your team’s level of understanding of an issue and not assume they are on par with your understanding."

To keep everyone on his large staff of technical managers on the same page, Hurto says he stays in contact with his team in the field and frequently travels to meet with those managers to coach them on current company initiatives. Hurto’s colleague of 23 years, Bobby Joyner, director of research for TruGreen, explains how challenging this arrangement can be. "Kirk and I interact with the regional staff and technical managers almost on a day-to-day basis – those are really our customers," he says. "It’s difficult because you don’t have a direct responsibility over these individuals, so as leadership goes, it’s really a matter of attaining these individuals’ respect first and then guiding them through the project."

Joyner adds that he can attest to Hurto’s strength as a leader in these situations. "From a technical standpoint, Kirk really has an incredible amount of knowledge and experience," he says. "It’s always amazed me because he’s obviously a weed and herbicide specialist, but it goes beyond that. He’s a great go-between with the technical side and the operations side and keeps our clients’ best interests in mind."

The trust and rapport that Hurto built on both the technical and operations sides of the business was tested when TruGreen disbanded its research division in September 2003. "The company did a restructuring of its business units and decided to phase out internal research, which left a lot of people wondering what was going to happen next," he says. "My role then turned to helping several members of our team find new positions within the company and encouraging everyone through the situation."

During this tough transition, Joyner adds that Hurto exemplified the faith and commitment leaders make to their teams. "As a group, we were in a position to make a big impact in the company and the industry. Instead, the company went a different route and our department was gone," Joyner says. "Kirk was very sympathetic and really went to bat for all of us and struggled to help everyone out. It took several months to reassign everyone, but that shows the loyalty that Kirk has to the people he works with and to his company."

FUTURE FOCUS. With a new structure in place for the division, Hurto recently began focusing on the consumer perception of pesticides – a challenge many companies are facing in terms of customers’ concerns regarding exposure.

"The science is starting to get lost, especially in the face of ongoing controversy in Toronto," Hurto says. "We used to feel confident that the science would win our argument for responsible use, but advocacy groups against lawn pesticide use have become better organized and are appealing to consumer concerns about chemical risks. We use to assume the facts would favor our position, but some groups have distorted the facts and people are getting confused."

Hurto says the industry is now dealing with consumers’ emotions, which makes pesticide use a much more delicate topic. Additionally, the information age has made masses of information available to the public, though not all of that information is accurate. "It’s not enough for us to tell people what we know to be true," Hurto explains. "There are groups who believe lawn care poses an unacceptable risk. It’s virtually impossible to prove a negative; therefore proving something is risk-free is a challenge. Because of that, scientists need to put the data into context. What are the benefits of the products and services we offer? What approaches can we take to show our customers that the products can be used responsibly and provide benefits with acceptable risk."

This challenge is something Hurto says he hasn’t seen since the 1980s, another time of public outcry against pesticides. A push to counteract this, he says, must involve professionals in the field, the corporate offices and the laboratories. "Today, the assumption is that lawns don’t provide value and that inputs we use to care for lawns and landscapes pose too much risk," he explains. "What makes this theory palpable to civic leaders is it that makes people feel good when they act out against lawns in their communities. It’s as if they feel like they’re doing something positive for the environment but those ‘feel goods’ are based on misinformation. Current industry and academic leaders, as well as the leaders of the future have to get more engaged in public dialogues to challenge these assumptions."

Despite public pressures, Hurto maintains a positive outlook and believes that, as a group, the industry can increase professionalism and positive public perception. "The backyard lawn and garden is alive and well, but today’s consumers are more savvy about their lawns’ needs and have concerns about the inputs we use and their possible effects on our communities. To earn the right to service customers, we need to address their concerns. We’re being challenged to provide cost-effective services that incorporate low-impact strategies to control problems and enhance the lawn’s utilization of resources applied."

A changing workforce will also impact the customer service, Hurto adds, giving a glimpse into how the industry will change over the next five to 10 years. "We’ll need to offer better training on communicating with customers about the service we provide, its benefits and our responsible management of the perceived risks," he says. "These are issues that the next generation of leaders will need to deal with. As an industry group we need to ensure the service experience we provide customers meets their lawn and personal needs in a responsible manner."


Kirk Hurto spends a lot of time on the road. With a team of 17 region technical managers who look after 205 branch offices, the vice president of technical services for TruGreen-ChemLawn, Delaware, Ohio, racks up frequent flier miles as he keeps in touch with more than 70 to 80 colleagues each year.

With a schedule like this, you would think Hurto would have a hard time keeping thoughts, ideas and projects organized. But on the other hand, Hurto’s background as a research scientist implies that organization and tracking data are among his management strengths. So which is it?

"I wouldn’t say I’m overly organized," Hurto says with a laugh in response to friend and coworker Bobby Joyner’s comment that Hurto’s desk is "way too neat and clean." However, Hurto does note that having a busy schedule of field time and office time is actually beneficial to the type of work that the TruGreen technical staff handles.

"I think you need a good mix of time in and out of the office," he says. "If you’re out in the field, you need time to collect your thoughts and transfer what you learn from one field visit and apply it to other locations. There’s so many good ideas that originate in the field and a lot of times we get so busy that we really don’t make time to collect the good ones and share with others."

That’s when office time works wonders. "Time in the office allows me to collect the data as well as catch up on activities I missed while on the road," Hurto says. "It’s amazing how dominant e-mail has become as a conduit for information exchange. It’s not unusual to spend several hours responding to e-mails received while on the road. I also use the office time to collect my thoughts on new ideas I observe while in the field and polish them into a format that can be shared with others."

November 2004
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