Among Steve Jobs' most quoted observations about success is that dots only connect when you look back. For me, the dots were there for all to see at LANDSCAPES 2021 when Britt Wood, National Association of Landscape Professionals CEO, presented me with the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, accompanied by a ballroom size retrospective of my 50 years in the industry.
To say I was humbled by the honor and caught by surprise made the moment all the more meaningful because my family had flown in, a logistical and secretive undertaking of impressive precision.
Since returning from Louisville, I’ve been thinking about this thing called achievement and how leaders get to a place where a lifetime of work matters, and it’s simple. We never get there alone.
The NALP video made my career look like a straight line. But, like so many of you, my journey also had its ups and downs. Several people asked, what kept me going when the going got tough. The answer is, mentors. And generations of great and inspiring people in this industry, who taught me resilience, and how to play the long game.
My first lesson was from my first mentor, Palmer Starner, owner of Starner Tree Service in New York and a passionate tree guy. I was just a kid thinking about what to do with my life and he lit the fire in me to become a contractor. He taught me that passion is the #1 thing that makes work worthwhile.
Joe Marsh, a retired geologist and landscape entrepreneur, taught be to be a businessman and how to connect the dots between doing what I loved and making it profitable. It was 1971 when I interviewed with Joe for an entry-level job at Green Valley Landscaping in San Jose. Joining Green Valley was life changing. Green Valley sold to Valley Crest and became its maintenance division and my subsequent career home for 30 years.
I started as a spray tech and Joe’s daily mentoring helped me grow strategically instead of just tactically. I learned to arrive early and stay late. I learned the importance of learning and reading the Wall Street Journal, and staying on top of trends that would affect our customers and our market. At first, this was tedious, but once I realized the power of information, it was full speed ahead — a commitment to data that fuels my passion for benchmarking and competitive analysis to this day.
When I became a manager, I met Dr. Joe Trickett, Dean of the Graduate School of Business at Santa Clara University. He asked me if I liked to be managed. My answer was: no, not really. So, he suggested that if I wanted to achieve better outcomes with people who probably didn’t like being managed any more than me, I needed to change my approach from telling people what to do to enable people to do better. Empowering people improved engagement, inspired innovation and created better relationships. It was the beginning of my commitment to look at a dialogue as a way to find the “win-win," the single most important skill of effective leaders.
My favorite motivation quote comes from Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”
I read this book when it came out in the 90s and it still guides the way I grow business.
As a lifelong learner, there have always been ah-ha moments. And that’s the thing. If there is a secret to success, it’s the superpower of the butterfly effect, where one good deed can inspire many more.
Always remember that what’s given to you — life lessons, leadership advice, acts of kindness or generosity, even awards — always have greater meaning when in turn you can share them with others.