Hiring. Interviewing. Managing. Training. Educating. Motivating.
These are the most important tasks a manager or business owner faces on a regular basis. Think of them as puzzle pieces — when put together, they make the ideal workforce; one that is engaged, motivated and productive.
They are also an absolute necessity for success, and these puzzle pieces can often be what separates a floundering tree care company from a flourishing one.
Hiring the right people
Before managing, training, educating or motivating employees, first you must hire employees. Better yet, first you must hire good employees. In the age of the internet and social media, finding prospective employees for your company is easier than ever. But screening them, narrowing the field and finding reliable, knowledge and dedicated people remains challenging for business owners — including tree care company owners.
“Finding a person with the right attitude” is one of the bigger challenges Royce Hall faces when searching for desirable employees. Hall is the production manager for Limbwalker Tree Service, a 20- to 25-employee tree care company in Louisville, Kentucky. “We see lots of people who have talent and ability, but don’t have a positive attitude,” Hall explains. “It drags down the other employees — which hurts production — and may even lead to lost clients. If we find someone with a good attitude who is willing to learn, we can help them become great workers.”
Hiring experienced workers also is high on a company’s wish list. This is true for Brian Hartel, a supervisor for HTS Tree Care Professionals, a less-than 10-employee tree care company in Pennington, New Jersey. “Many people lack the skills and work ethic required to produce quality work,” Hartel says. “We prefer to hire experienced personnel, and those with experience do not come around that often.”
Social media sites have been HTS’ most successful resources for finding new employees. “These networking connections are key,” Hartel adds. “Online advertising, such as on Craigslist, has also shown some success for us.”
The job interview is the most tried and tested way of screening prospective employees and finding people that best fit the open position. Of course, resumes matter and speak for themselves. But how interview subjects answer certain questions and their body language can be key factors in choosing whom you hire — or don’t. According to the employment website Business to Community, while the average length of a job interview is 40 minutes, 33 percent of 2,000 employers surveyed in 2014 said that they knew within the first 90 seconds if they would hire a candidate.
“I ask about their experience in the field they are applying for, but I really want to know if I can trust this person,” Hall says. “I like to ask if they could tell me about an experience where they were honest despite possible negative repercussions for themselves. For example, ‘What would you do if management made a decision you disagreed with?’ I also ask how they have improved the current company they work for and what their professional goals are and where we fit in with them, among other things. I also look at their body language. Are they confident, or timid and worried?”
At HTS, Hartel focuses on the details of the specific tasks the person will be doing on the job — how good are you at what you’re applying for? “Knowing up front what is required and expected from somebody is a must,” Hartel says.
Motivated, happy and productive
Gaining a better understanding of what motivates people will make you a better manager. It will help you get the most out of those who work for you.
“You need to be understanding to [employees’] needs. Good employees require good pay, and we are doing a dangerous job,” says Hartel of what it takes to retain good employees and keep them happy and motivated to produce.
Once you find someone who is qualified to join your team, keeping that someone happy and retaining their skills for as long as possible is a key ingredient in having the best possible workforce — with the result being happy company bank statements as well. According to Forbes business magazine, last year revenues increased by an average of 22.2 percent for the 2014 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For. That means companies that have satisfied employees have better bottom lines.
At Limbwalker Tree Service, employee satisfaction is at the forefront of management’s goals for a top workforce. “We try to provide a positive atmosphere where everyone is appreciated and feels like part of the same team,” Hall says. “We want each person to feel like his or her voices are heard and respected. And we try to pay them well for their position and incentivize good performance and customer satisfaction. We also try to set realistic expectations for everyone from salesman to [ground crews] and help when someone is struggling. Also, we try to create a family-like, hostility-free environment. When we critique or correct, we try to do so without anger or hostility.”
Also, consider mixing employees on different teams to help to spread new skills throughout your company. Take climbing, for example. Each employee climbs a little differently and possesses a different level of skill. So, if someone says he or she’s having a hard time learning a particular climbing technique, a manager can say, “Why don’t you spend some time working with [expert employee climber]; maybe [he or she] can teach you a different variation of what you’re doing that’s going to work better for you.”
Training and keeping them educated
Wanting to get better and learn more are common traits of an employee who is both well-vested and engaged at work. Therefore, supporting employees’ opportunities for learning is a mutually beneficial exchange between employee and employer.
Specifically for tree care companies, this can be accomplished by pushing employees to become certified arborists, paying for employees to take classes at a local college and continually offering in-house training programs to keep things current. In other words, as employees check off different skills and levels, they can more easily envision themselves climbing a ladder to success, rather than being locked into a certain role or level.
There are high school vocational education programs available in some areas of the U.S. that focus solely on tree care, providing graduates with classroom education on tree biology and diseases in addition to valuable field training and experience with climbing, rigging and other tree industry tasks. A number of colleges and universities in North America offer two- and four-year degrees in arboriculture, along with some that offer master’s degree programs; all of them encompass a mix of classroom and field-based, hands-on training.
“We want our employees to be at the top of the industry,” Hall says. “We have in-house training on a weekly basis, and semi-annually we have half-day training sessions for everyone in the company. We regularly send our arborists to ISA training programs and other relevant training events. “
Consider the ISA or the Tree Care Industry Association as great resources for all training and education needs. The ISA staff works with industry professionals and field experts to provide diverse educational opportunities and platforms for the presentation of new research, information and technology. According to the ISA, “certification affords the public and those in government the opportunity to make an informed selection of services based on the knowledge and advanced training demonstrated by an ISA certification.” That said, it stands to reason the more certified arborists you have on your staff, the better it is for your company.
Building the team
The goal of management shouldn’t simply be to direct and control employees seeking to shun work, but rather to create conditions that make people want to offer maximum effort. One way to do this is by team building, or planning activities to strengthen camaraderie and togetherness in your work force.
“Team building requires the management of egos and their constant demands for attention and recognition — not always warranted,” business strategist expert Glenn Llopis told Forbes. “Team building is both an art and a science, and the leader who can consistently build high performance teams is worth [his or her] weight in gold.”
At Limbwalker Tree Services, Hall believes strongly in team building.
“We do our best when everyone is happy and going in the same direction,” Hall says. “In the summer we typically have one half-day of training followed by a ‘morale day,’ which consists of catered food and fun (one of our managers has a pool and a field where we can play Frisbee).
“Then we have a two-day retreat in the winter where we can all hang out, hike and have fun together. We also encourage our climbers to participate in local climbing competitions.”
Making sure your employees are having fun (where possible), implementing effective motivational strategies and putting a premium on education and training all go a long way in making your tree care company the best — and most profitable — it can be. Consider this snippet of wisdom from ultra-successful American automobile executive Lee Iacocca about managing employees: “Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.