Pro Arb magazine article

I quite regularly contribute to an industry magazine. Here is most most recent Pro Arb magazine article about managing people. I’m no expert and have had to learn on the hoof as it were.

 

Us Arborists are a special bunch, we are in the game because we love it, it becomes a way of life. Seldom do you stumble across forums or Facebook pages where other tradespeople are so sharing with techniques, critical of new kit and indeed other fellow professionals approaches and interpretations of spec than in the world of Arb.I’ve been in the game for over 20 years now and in my view there seems to be a well-trodden labour progression to the industry and the trouble is with Arboriculture is that it isn’t a one-man job. At some point you’ll have to pay someone to work with/for you. This is my take;

All tree surgeons NEED a second person. Those who work alone are taking horrendous personal risks in what is already an incredibly dangerous profession. So that’s what you do, you start off as main climber and get a groundsperson in to help you out, sometimes two. Business goes well and you cannot dedicate that time anymore to swinging around on the latest SRT rigs – people need to be visited, quotes need to be typed up, posted or emailed. You start to rely more on other people to do the job you used to.

Perhaps like me you’ll pick up an injury (let’s face it chances are high, it’s not the softest job on the old bones is it?) and your climbing career will be ended. At 40 I stopped climbing altogether, I’d picked up one too many injuries and if I’m honest was a little exhausted with the sheer intensity of the hard work – yep that’s right I’m a soft Southerner!

Focus

My focus changed; suddenly I become a manger of people and a builder of business. This was never taught to me 23 years ago at Sparsholt. So now like thousands of small businesses, along with payroll, accountancy, purchasing, surveying, secretarial, logistics and face-to-face meetings I became a HR operative too. How hard can that be I thought to myself?I like to think I’m a pretty decent boss, My mantra has been to treat people as I’d like to be treated, I think I’m laid back and realistic in expectations. I lack the drive to build a large company, as long as I’m providing for the family financially and am sound of mind to be a decent husband and father that suits me. I’m not pushy and most definitely not into stress.

I’ve built a small family owned company, we have fulltime staff and subbies come in when needed. I guess a large job could see me have 5-6 people including myself on site. I’m no Richard Branson!

 

Manager

But I do manage people, and it’s tricky. I think the very nature of the game tends to attract a high proportion of transient type folk. They tend to be young, capable and can work anywhere, why would you not? One of our lads for has ended up living and working in Finland, another buying a beaten up LDV and travelling around the UK and so on. It’s full of opportunity and learning experiences. I know if things were different for me back in the day I’d do exactly the same. It does however have huge implications when a valued team member leaves you.We’ve had it several times over the past 10 years. Whist for me these departures have always been well natured and not personal there’s always been a small part of me that took it so. The upheaval is great and the feeling of being unsettled is unpleasant to say the least.

Bad news

Last year was tricky for us, my Team Leader of 5 years got an amazing opportunity thrust at him, he grasped it with both hands and left the fold, I was shocked and spent the next 4 months bumbling around trying to find a replacement. Why he went and could I have done something to keep him is probably a different discussion, but it was essentially down to the desire to try an area in the industry that we are neither set up for or have interest in doing. I do believe that if someone wants to leave it is not my job to convince them to stay if we cannot satisfy their needs, someone on the firm that does not want to be with you is pretty acidic I think. I took this approach in this case, as I always have done, and I fear I did come across non-plussed about the news. Truth is I was gutted. To my surprise it was really difficult to find a full time team leader, I tried my hardest publicising us as company showing all the decent work we carry out, pointing out what a great guy I am, putting jobs ads up on Facebook of us working with cranes, doing big takedowns, heavy rigging – yawn but still it took time. Fortunately we are back on track now, I now have a capable team, decent lads, who get on well with each other, so normal service seems to have resumed.

Lessons learnt

It also has taught me some really valuable lessons.

What I’ve learnt is that there are plenty of good people out there. What they often aren’t, are people that do it the way you want it done. You have to build on a firm foundation, work ethic is important as it technique, the rest I think is doable. It’s really hard to relinquish that finished article to someone else, there’s no doubt they will do it different and often better than you would have done. This is where I find BS 3998 (2010) useful, if your new subbie/team member can prune to this you can relax a little. You know the knowledge, skill and good practice is there.

No team wants to feel at fault, it’s deeply de-motivating. I think clear concise job sheets can avoid some errors. Sometimes I fear mine are too prescriptive and may come across like I’m patronising the lads or treating them like children- not the case. I do this to protect them on site, mistakes due to misunderstanding of spec. or client’s wishes are down to me. I’d like to think that this makes me part of the team. Don’t get me wrong it’s not a regular occurrence but let’s all be honest mistakes do happen.

Snowflakes

I’ve also found the new cohort of arborists to be conscientious, hard working and really willing to learn. Some of the contractors we’ve used over the past 4-5 months have been well turned out and very professional in both their approach and finished article. There have been no snowflakes walking through our door. But face it, if you were such a person as described in the 1999 film Fight Club

“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile,”

I don’t think you’d be undertaking this career in the first place. So far so good – there is good people out there, that knock out great work that are hardy and not snowflake(like)The tricky part is managing these people, I was never taught HR. I was trained to be an Arborist, of which I do very little now. How to get the best out of people is hard, what motivates them, what do they love. The answer to the latter I have to say is – not your business as much as you do!

This is a harsh realisation but very true, I’m ok with that after all I haven’t loved my ex bosses companies in the past.

Paternal

I find myself feeling a little bit paternal to the team, I want them to know I have their back, just as I’m exposed letting them be the face of the company, I’m also there for them. I’ve had people before with personal problems at home, difficult family life, tricky ex girlfriends and I’ve tried hard to support and understand. In the past I’ve enjoyed the fact that I’m a Boss and have lads on site to do the hard work. I’ve rocked up in the morning issued the job sheets and left the them to it, truth is whilst trying not to interfere with their way of running the job it just comes across as me not being interested which is far from the truth. My desire to not micro-manage, constantly be calling for progress reports or be Alpha male had been conceived as me just not giving a damn. This is easily changed; I started to go out on site with the team more often. Yes I got under their feet and tried to impart knowledge (that they already know) but at least on those days we are all in it together. I also realised how much of the banter I’d been missing. We also try to have regular tool-box talks. Whilst a bit American and touchy feelythey are really beneficial – team members feel valued and able to raise concerns regarding kit, jobs, timescales etc.

Sub Contractors

Getting subbies in brings a whole new ball game. In truth I feel for sub contractors, these people work HARD! Face it, you’re paying your subbie easily upwards of £160 per day, you’re going want you pound of flesh. I’ve tried to resist this urge, generally they do come in on larger jobs, and so it’s very nature is that these are harder days in fact the whole team works harder on these days. The reason you pay them more? No holiday, no sick, no pension, their PPE, their tools and so on. That’s their risk not yours. It’s not an excuse to load them up. When they are working with us they are part of our team, not some pit pony to be worked and worked and worked. This approach has worked for me, subbies want to come in for me, they’ll change stuff around for us in their diaries and my view is work more conscientiously for us. My experience has shown subbies to be amazing professionals who perform day in day out, learn how different companies work and adjust accordingly, they are worth the money, treat them well. Some may say it’s crazy but when we have subbies in I’m quite happy for the whole team to job and knock.

No expert

I’m really no expert, this is my take on trying to manage people, I’ve never brought in to the school of thought that “there’s plenty more where they came from”mentality this builds no trust or appreciation. Like clients it’s much easier to keep existing employees ones that keep finding new ones. Treat people well, understand that they will clock off and not think about work to the next day, and take them for a pint on a Friday – sorted

 

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