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Give Them Purpose

January 11, 2022

One of the keys that we miss, in my mind, is that we (Green Industry professionals) seldom talk about the work itself. 

Green Industry companies never talk about how rewarding it is to plant something in the soil and know that you’re helping propagate life. We never “sell” candidates on the fact that by properly pruning out diseased branches or treating against borers, we’re helping extend the life of a tree that was around long before our parents were. And in the process, we’re ensuring it’ll live on long after we’re gone. 

We also never talk about the amazing people who work for us and with us every day. You should be talking about the friendships forged while working together in nature and improving the lives of the people we’re serving. 

I believe there’s a vast, untapped labor pool of people of ALL ages (not just young people) who feel connected to something larger than themselves when they’re in nature. Gen-Z in particular isn’t unmotivated; they simply have different values than previous generations.

I believe these people would be willing to work hard to ensure that our natural world is healthy, vibrant, and thriving for years and years. 

For these people, pay isn’t the most important thing. It’s one factor among many, but I think they’d be willing to work at the same rate, or perhaps even less than they’re currently earning, for the chance to make a difference in the world around them. 

Break the stigma

There’s this nasty undercurrent of misguided thoughts about our industry. You’ve probably run into this stigma yourself when you tell people you work as a landscaper. So often, people have this idea that the work is back-breaking and unsustainable later in life. Or worse, that this type of work is somehow “beneath” them.

When I got my start in this industry, the first true landscaping company I worked for (pretty much full-service) was pretty amazing. I had a wonderful experience, except for one thing: the other guys refused to learn my name.

The owner, his dad, and the Designer on staff were all white. There was one other white dude who helped out occasionally. Then we had 16 Hondurans and a single Salvadoran. And I know this because every single Honduran made a point of telling me that “Paco” was Salvadoran!

But they refused to learn my name for a few weeks for a simple reason: no “gringo” had ever lasted that long. They didn’t even begin to take me seriously until three or four weeks into working for that company. When I showed up on Monday of week three, they all marveled “You came back! We’ve never had a white guy who wanted to work like you do!”

And I did. I still do enjoy this type of work. Just last summer, I installed a dry streambed for my in-laws to help with drainage around their shed. But the point is this: the work is fun. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the results of your labor at the end of the day and to know you’re improving the world around you.

There are people who will do this work, and gladly. We in the Green Industry are just garbage at communicating that higher purpose to them. 

The research

There’s a LOT of good research about these ideas. I’ll lay out some concepts below and insert relevant links. Stay with me for a few minutes, and you’ll be rewarded with some gems!

Principle: Sell them on the work itself

Communicating the value of the work we do is something we, as an Industry, are awful at doing. We’re incredibly bad at this, and that’s a shame. 

The work we do day in and day out is incredibly meaningful. There’s tremendous value in what we do. This is especially true for those of us who work in urban environments. Having access to Green spaces is shown to positively impact the health and well-being of the people who live in those neighborhoods. 

When people feel a sense of calling to their job, they’re far more likely to find meaning and community in their work. This leads to higher levels of job engagement and satisfaction. 

Having something to show for your work at the end of the day is essential. Research has shown people with college degrees are more disengaged at work, despite receiving higher pay. Dr. Michael G. Pratt, who teaches management and organization at Boston College, explains it this way: 

My grandfather was a glazier, and he found his work quite meaningful. When I asked my grandfather, ‘What did you do today?’ he could tell me exactly what he built.

If we’re not doing anything tangible, if we don’t know what the standards are for good work versus bad work, then it’s difficult for people to try to figure out why their work is meaningful.

Much of that research, including the above quote, came from the American Psychological Association (APA), and you can read the full article here.

Real-world Examples of Purpose at Work

The article above from the APA cites zookeepers as an example. They often have college degrees but will work for around $25,000 per year on average. Sometimes, they perform these jobs on a volunteer basis until paid work opens up. Why? They feel “called” to this work. Having a sense of calling or purpose in our work makes us feel better about going to work, makes us excited about the next day, and is generally more fulfilling than simply working to earn a paycheck.

Another example is social workers. Social workers are chronically underpaid and overworked. Their work doesn’t bring in any direct revenue (like a manufacturing job, for example) but relies on government funding. So, they often have tremendous caseloads, work insane hours, and are abused by the people and families they’re working so diligently to serve. So why do they do it? 

The comment thread on this post is pretty revealing. It’s a thread about this very thing: being overworked and underpaid. 

If you read the first comment, you’ll see this woman (Mary Lee) describe it as “the work they love.” Go down to the fifth comment (Matt Butler), and you’ll see he’s no fan of the working conditions. Despite that, he says, “We’re social workers. What we do matters.” 

Read some of the other comments if you have time. For some, it’s far too much to deal with, and they’re considering career changes. But for Matt and Mary here, you can see that they’re willing to keep doing what they do in spite of the conditions. Why? They believe what they do matters. They have a purpose. 

The principle translates directly into any industry: a sense of purpose, even feeling a “calling” to a particular field leads to better engagement and a more satisfied workforce.

So why aren’t we giving our current team members and potential new hires a sense of purpose when we’re talking to them?

Principle: Sell them on the people

As this article from Forbes explains, interest fit is only one part of job satisfaction. This Forbes article written by TEDx speaker Alison Escalante, MD explains that finding enjoyment in the people you work with is just as important as finding meaning in the work itself.

She quotes Kevin Hoff, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Houston. Hoff states: “Things that lead to satisfaction include the organization you work for, your supervisor, colleagues and pay.” Note the order here: the organization itself, supervisor, and colleagues are ALL mentioned before pay in Hoff’s statement.

This is a powerful insight for business leaders. It’s just as important to hire likable, team-oriented employees as it is to hire competent ones. 

Use the power of Stories to your Advantage

We’re wired for stories. Facts contained in a story are 20 times more likely to be remembered than if they’re just presented. Use this part of our human nature to help you recruit (and retain!) your best talent. 

Story: Selling them on the work itself

I’ll share a couple of personal stories about how this has played out in my career. The first is centered around trees. 

One of the most exciting days of my professional career was spent in an arboretum. This particular strand of trees was also on an historic site (a presidential homestead). The company I worked with was contracted to treat the ash trees on-site to protect against Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). 

It was fascinating work! We used a product that allowed us to make multiple injections around the trees at one time. The tubing from the tank to the injection sites was clear, so you could literally watch the trees drinking their medicine! I got home from work and talked about it for an hour with my wife, wrote a blog for the company’s site that week, and have talked about it often ever since. This was in 2016 (I think). 

Another unique experience I’ve had in my career was working with a family that had small children. I was selling Lawn Care door-to-door, and I found a neighborhood with some new construction. (If you’ve ever been in Lawn Care, you know why.) 

The weird thing about this development was that the contractor seeded the lawns with clover rather than grass seed. (There’s a tension for contractors; they need to hold grade ASAP after inspections are done so they can obtain a certificate of occupancy.) Most companies use annual rye, but this contractor required plantings that grew even faster. 

A young family moved in and had kids running around the backyard. They moved, and their kids quickly began to get stung by bees looking for pollen in the clover. After a few stings, they were afraid to go outside and play on the shiny new swingset their parents had lovingly installed. 

I told her we could help, and BOY, did we come through! After the first treatment, the kids could get out and play. After the second treatment, the clover was all but gone, and they couldn’t have been happier. 

Current team members and potential new hires need to hear these stories. They need to hear that the work they’re doing is significant in the lives of the people they’re serving. You’ve probably got much better stories than I do – leverage them to help your employees and candidates find meaning and purpose in the work.

Story: Selling them on the people

My last personal story is about that Lawn Care company. When I started, it was pretty amazing. It was an industry leader, and I was very proud to be working for the best. A few years into my time there, they announced a “merger” with Trugreen. Trugreen was a 70% stakeholder in the “merge,” making it an acquisition in my mind. 

In the year or so leading up to the takeover, I began to notice a LOT of changes. The structure of the company became far more centralized and authoritarian. The enforcement of HR policies became much stricter and lacked any empathy. It became a place that wasn’t like anything I recognized and certainly wasn’t the place I had agreed to work years before. 

What kept me working there? My fantastic boss and awesome coworker. I had camaraderie, support, and reward in those relationships. Those two guys are still so meaningful to me that we get together at least once a year for a camping trip. 

The people in your company aren’t the greatest asset to you because you can’t get your work done without them. They’re your most significant asset because they help you attract new employees and help you keep the fantastic people you’ve already got. 

How to apply this to your business

So what do you do with all this information? Here are some ways you can apply this to your business. 

The types of people you should be trying to recruit

Look for people who are passionate about Nature. Avid hikers, hunters, etc. Look for people in your network who post about Earth Day every year and connect with your local Sierra Club or Audobon Society chapters. These are people who are most likely to be interested in the type of work you’re doing, getting their hands dirty, and having an “outdoor” office.

Also, look for people who are passionate about serving. Folks who are involved with helping a local soup kitchen or food bank, people who regularly volunteer outside their current job, and folks who are deeply involved in community or religious groups are also likely a good fit. They WANT to do right by people, and that’s the kind of mentality you’re looking to add to your team. 

Tell your story in the interview process

So many businesses consultants will tell you to talk about the role, the job requirements, the benefits, the salary, etc., in a job interview. I’m going to suggest something counterintuitive here: talk about how the company serves the community and clients, and talk about yourself

I don’t mean you turn this into an “I love me” session. Don’t talk about the revenue the company has done, the awards you’ve won, etc. Also, skip the part where you go over your personal qualifications; they don’t care about the initials after your name. 

DO talk about the impact your company has on the community. Talk about the amount of carbon dioxide that the trees you’re planting each year are removing from the atmosphere. Talk about the company’s involvement in working to help the homeless in your community. People want to hear about your Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. 

Just as importantly, talk about your journey into the Green Industry. Talk about how you got into Green (studied for it or stumbled upon it). Talk about why you stay in the industry – what is it that keeps you going? Why do you stay when there are opportunities in other sectors? 

Communicating all these things to current employees and potential new hires will make a difference in your recruiting and retention efforts. 

Consider Team Dynamics

There will be times when you have to put two people who don’t work well together on the same crew or job site. Try to limit these occurrences. 

When people like the people they’re working with, they’ll get higher satisfaction out of the job itself. Since you know the importance of the “tribe” of people you’re working with, try to get people on the same crews who like working together. You’ll get better results from them, and they’ll be more likely to stay working for you. 

I experienced this at a landscape company I worked with during my summer breaks in college. One coworker was a complete suck-up and constantly made up lies about other coworkers to make himself look better to the boss. I did not work well with him. 

Instead, my boss found another guy I got along with very well. I worked with him for months, and we even spent time together outside of work. He was a big part of why I returned to work for the company the following year. 

Expose candidates to others on your team

I know a Lawn Care and Pest Control company that does this well. They have a “ride-along” with a technician as part of their interview process. 

This is a pretty prestigious role in their recruiting process. There are several goals with recruiting this way, but one of them is to match the prospective candidate with someone they know will talk well about the company and the industry. These techs are people who can communicate why they like the industry. 

Giving your candidates strategic exposure to the people you’ve identified as passionate about your industry reinforces what you’ve told them in the interview process. It also validates what you told them – they’ve got someone else with no skin in the game, confirming what you said about what a great industry this is in which to work. 

Conclusion

You can and should talk about the Green Industry when recruiting. You should talk about how incredible this industry is when talking to internal team members. Highlighting wins around ecology and people as often as possible will help keep everyone on-mission.

When you paint a clear picture of the value of our work with the incredible people they’ll be working with, you’ll get more internal referrals and have a much easier time recruiting.

Try it, and you’ll see.

Go back and read Recruit & Retain – Part 1: Show Them The Way.

Read the next blog in Recruit & Retain – Part 3: A Healthy Culture.