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Show Them The Way

This is the first part of the six-part blog series we will be doing about recruiting and retaining great labor in today’s labor market. 

We start this off by saying two critical things: 1) we will (eventually) talk about pay, but there are far more essential factors to consider, and 2) there’s no “silver bullet” to solve your recruiting solutions. 

We will dive into several aspects of retaining and recruiting great talent. We’ve already had a podcast episode about retaining great talent. Still, we’ll take a deeper dive into this series. Here’s the first one: show them the way. 

Principle: People want to know where they’re going

There’s a story about Albert Einstein that is true as far as I can tell. I’ve read it in several places, and they all seem to confirm it. It goes like this: 

While riding the train from Princeton once, the conductor came through looking to punch everyone’s tickets. After checking his pockets, Einstein couldn’t find his ticket. The conductor said something like, “No problem, I know who you are. No charge for this ride,” and kept moving down the aisle, punching tickets. 

A minute or so later, he turned around and saw Einstein looking under the seat for his ticket. Trying to be kind, the conductor rushed back and said, “Dr. Einstein, please don’t worry about it!” 

Einstein replied, “Thanks, but if I can’t find my ticket, I won’t know where to get off the train!”

If Einstein needed to know where he was going, you could be sure that your employees and potential new hires do, too. 

Let’s talk about the workforce

One complaint I have frequently heard from employers in all industries is, “Young people just don’t want to work.” To that, I say read this post from Malky Weinberger on LinkedIn. Hopefully, paired with this blog series, it will reshape how you think about recruiting a younger workforce.

I’ve also heard a lot of people say that “People don’t want to work right now.” That will always be true – there will always be a portion of the general working-age population that doesn’t want to work. We’re not talking about recruiting them. 

The expectations employees have for their employers have changed. And this isn’t just a Millennial and Gen Z issue (although they contribute). Expectations have changed for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, too. A recent study showed that almost 70% of employees would rather have a good work-life balance than a raise.

That’s just one example of how the workforce is changing. It’s not enough to throw a higher salary at people and expect them to line up at your door for employment. One of the ways you can differentiate yourself is to show them how to get ahead in the company. This will genuinely distinguish your recruiting efforts from the competition.

You’ve got to “show them the way!

Most people you’re going to hire want to do a good job. Many of them are ambitious. These people want to learn, get promoted, and prove themselves. One study showed that 70% of employees under 25 years of age and 60% of employees with less than one year of employment at a given company value opportunity for advancement more than development and training. They’d rather you show them how to get promoted than train and develop them. 

Stickers on the window of a Panera Bread advertise hourly wages and advancement opportunities. The photo was taken on February 13th, 2022, in Akron, Ohio.

The problem they face in many Tree Care and Landscaping companies (and many other companies, for that matter) is that the path to advancement isn’t clear for them. And that’s likely because you’ve never defined it correctly. A study by Comparably showed that 63% of employees aged 18-25 felt they were offered advancement opportunities, but less than half (47%) of employees between 51-55 years old felt the same way. (If you look at the graph, it’s a pretty steady decline as people get older.)

People who are ambitious and want to do a good job are the type of people you want to work for your business. They’ll get things done, and they’ll do them the way you want things to be done. They need that crucial second part from you – how you want things to be done. 

The Peter Principle

This is a principle laid out by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1969 book, “The Peter Principle.”

If you’ve EVER worked in a proper Sales environment, you completely understand this concept. 

It states that people get promoted to “the level of their own incompetence.” What makes people good at one thing (for example, your hardest-working laborer) doesn’t mean they’ll be good at the next level (crew leader). So, they keep getting promoted until they reach a level for which they’re completely unqualified and unprepared. Then, this person is a liability to the organization. 

However, now that you know this principle, you can head it off with some thoughtful, deliberate planning. By working on “creating the ladder” in advance, you can head off this landmine for your company. 

Create the “ladder”

This means that you have to show them the path to advancement. Whether it’s a potential new hire you’re trying to woo or an ambitious current team member, they need to see how to get to the “next level” in the company. 

This also means lots and lots of documentation. It means talking about advancement opportunities regularly at company meetings. There should be conversations happening in one-on-one sessions across the organization, from front-line workers and supervisors to department heads meeting with the VP of Operations. 

Everyone, at every stage of employment (or potential employment!) with your company, should see a road map for how to get ahead. Sometimes it’s as dull as an org chart with descriptions. A better option would be an actual graphic that looks like a road map (or a thermometer, a ladder, a mountain they’re climbing – pick something) that helps people visualize the journey toward advancement.

Failure to do this properly could come back to haunt you. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), almost one-third of workers cited “lack of advancement opportunities” as a reason they were considering leaving their current job.

Now, you have to follow through…

One of the worst things you can do for morale is to renege on the established advancement criteria. If you have a personality conflict with someone, you’ve got to set this aside. If someone meets the requirements, you need to promote them and replace them from the bottom. 

This is uncomfortable for many business owners. They say, “I can’t bring on another supervisor right now!” or “I can’t take the additional overhead of another manager right now.” 

I have two answers for that. First, you can’t afford not to promote them. If they’re really at the caliber where they’re deserving of promotion, you’ll not only lose them to a company that will make space for them, but you’ll damage your credibility with the rest of your workforce. It’s that simple. 

Secondly, if your finances are indeed in that desperate a situation where you can’t promote them at that moment, create a deadline when your finances will be in order and stick to it. 

An honest conversation where you tell someone, “Hey, you met the criteria, and I have every intention of promoting you. The business’ finances are in this situation (break down the numbers with them – trust me here), and I can afford to promote you in three months. Will that work for you?” Chances are they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and hang around. 

That is if you stick to your word and promote them by the deadline. You’ll build a ton of loyalty and credibility when you do this!

Story: Andy, the Patient Salesguy

One example was a coworker we’ll call “Andy” for this story. Andy came from a rough background. He grew up in an urban setting near us and had very little exposure to the natural world, let alone Green Industry experience. 

I met Andy at a previous job when I was selling Lawn Care door-to-door. I had helped train several classes of recruits, and this year the veteran door-knockers in the room ran the training entirely. 

I’ll be honest – I didn’t think Andy would make it. Door-to-door can be very physically demanding, and I wasn’t sure Andy’s health would allow him to survive. But in the classroom setting (before being turned loose to the field), he proved to be exceptionally bright and attentive. 

When you put Andy in front of a live person to talk to – that’s when the magic happened. He connects with people in a rare way that is fun to watch. He establishes rapport far faster than almost anyone I’ve ever met (including me, which was off-putting at first; I’m usually a master at this). 

Fast forward a few years. I’ve left door-to-door but stayed in touch with Andy. I knew I was a year or two away from a promotion, or at the very least that my department would be expanding, and found out Andy was between jobs. He wanted to stay in the Green Industry but took a job selling mattresses to make ends meet. I went to our owner and laid it all on the table. I told him, “This guy is going to be a tremendous asset to our company. You’ve got to hire him before he gets really established in another job!”

To his credit, he took me seriously. He offered Andy a job as a Lawn Care Technician and explained, “We don’t have something open in Sales yet. When we do, we’ll move you over. It should be sometime in the next year. Does that work for you?” 

He was as good as his word, and less than a year later, Andy was in a role much better suited to his skill set. Since starting with the company in 2017, Andy has been promoted twice. 

The owner had an eye for good talent, and he was exceptional at making space for talented team members, even if we didn’t have an opening at the exact moment they were available. I watched him do this a few different times. Sometimes it didn’t work out (once with a C-Suite hire), but often it did. 

Recap: Why This Worked

Critically, he was good at keeping his word when he said, “Hey, we’ll make room for this, but we don’t have it right now.” He laid it out on the table for Andy (“We don’t have the capacity right now”) and then made a deadline for it (“Within the next year”). He had also made the criteria clear for Andy by telling him, “We need you to be a Lawn Care Tech right now. If you’re doing well and your Supervisor is happy, we’ll move you over.” 

So, he did a few crucial things: 

  • He was honest on the front end about where the company was at with a Sales role.
  • He set a timeline on the intended “promotion” to a new role. (Not all people would view a shift to Sales as “promotion,” hence the quotes. Andy did see it as a promotion, though.)
  • Lastly, the owner laid out the criteria “Here are the responsibilities of a Lawn Care Tech at our company, and here’s the person to whom you report. If they sign off on it, you’ll get your shot at Sales.” 

How to apply this to your business

I know some people are reading this right now saying, “I don’t know where to even begin creating a plan like this. How would I start?”

This involves you (owner, CEO, President, etc.) or the leadership team at your company becoming very deliberate about defining what the “next level” looks like throughout the organization. Start at the bottom (laborer, groundsman, lawn care tech, etc.) and begin to define the qualities that someone would need to become a crew leader, supervisor, or foreman. 

You’ve got to lay out some objective, achievable goals. Perhaps there’s some industry training you want them to complete (ISA certification or Landscape Industry Certified Lawn Tech). Perhaps there’s leadership training you make available, and you want them to go through that course. You can also use the rate of service calls on jobs they’ve completed (showing you they’re doing the job the way you expect). 

The best job way to lay this out would be a combination of job competencies and leadership training. Whatever metrics you choose, you have to lay out a course. Show candidates and new hires “This is how you get to the next level.” 

Then, do the same from supervisors to managers, managers to department heads, department heads to VP of Operations – you get the picture. At every level, you need to define critical questions.

  • What progress does someone need to make, what milestones do they need to reach in order to be considered for a promotion?
  • From a front-line worker all the way up to CEO, what does someone need to do to get promoted?

Then, apply those criteria to the visual “road map” or “ladder” graphic you share internally. Let people see what it takes to advance. 

Is This Really Important?

You tell me, friend. Remember how we discussed that this isn’t just a Millennial and Gen Z issue? How Gen Xers and Boomers were also part of this trend of wanting more from work? 

A study recently found that 82% of employees would quit because they could not advance their careers. And while Millennials and Gen Zers made up a large portion of the respondents, they found that: 

…the survey found that there was a common sentiment across all participating age groups. Indeed, the opportunity for job progression was a priority to the overwhelming majority, regardless of age.

So – is creating a path for advancement and making people aware it exists necessary? Only if you don’t want 80% of your workforce surfing Indeed on their lunch breaks.


Clearly defining the path to advancement will help you recruit and retain new employees. You’ll find that people with a “go-getter” attitude are drawn to specific milestones and objectives they can achieve. 

Putting this into practice will not only help you attract better candidates but you will also be surprised by how many people in your existing workforce “step up” to the challenge.

Read Part 2: Give Them Purpose

Download the FREE Recruiting & Retention GuideAll six blogs condensed to help keep your staffing efforts on track this year!

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