Tree Crew Leadership

Tree Crew Leadership

Strong leadership from crew leaders and managers will result in increased safety and efficiency.

Workforce management is a subject that, while readily recognized and emphasized in the broader business world, often gets short shrift in the sweaty, sawdust-laden universe of tree care.

Without a doubt, larger tree care companies often provide some form of management/leadership training to the appropriate staff, but many crew leaders in the tree care industry are “making it up as they go along” with little to no training or education on leadership.

This is certainly not due to any willful ignorance of the importance of leadership in tree operations; after all, what semi-experienced tree crew member does not have a story about one particular crew leader’s Captain Ahab-like behavior or ineptness.

Rather, a multitude of activities in tree care can result in death or disfigurement; and it’s difficult to focus on leadership techniques and training when chain saw or chipper safety is so obviously needed.

In reality, good leadership will result in increased safety and efficiency, and a few basic principles of leadership in the mental toolbox will not only assist existing crew leaders and managers, but also plant the seed in the tiny little brain housing groups of the new folks/leaders for next season.

A good leader seizes every opportunity, should time allow, to teach, share and reinforce positive, or negative, outcomes.PHOTOS: MICHAEL (HOUSE) TAIN

Fail to plan, plan to fail

If there is no plan in place, how does the leader know what went wrong? Nothing is more frustrating, and more damaging to motivation or crew morale, than being reprimanded or disciplined for no apparent purpose or reason.

The requirement for an individual tree job plan goes far beyond that individual tree when discussing leadership, as it encompasses a basic structure, protocols, and/or standard operational procedures for every foreseen action in tree care operations. If crew members know, and have been trained, in how to safely and efficiently perform the various activities of tree care, they also know, as well as their leader or supervisors, when they have “cut corners” or done something wrong. Obviously, every tree job is not going to fit inside the parameters of the company or crew’s standard procedure, but many will; and not only will safety and efficiency be well-served by the existence of these protocols, crew members will perform better knowing what is expected of them in a given job or situation. In addition, given the right mix of leadership and personalities, the crew will develop a structure of “herd leadership” in which the individual crew members are leading one another to do the right thing.

One leadership pitfall that must be avoided with the use of these structures or procedures is being too committed to them, to the point of blindness to good ideas, techniques or methods. The protocols and structures should always be evolving to accommodate new gear and methods, within the framework of safety, efficiency and ease of use.

If it ain’t documented, it didn’t necessarily happen

A true leader never “blindsides” a crew member or peer with a correction or disciplinary action, given the time and space in regard to immediate safety. There are few things more disorienting or disheartening to a well-intentioned crew member than feeling that his or her leader has come out of nowhere with a criticism or complaint about performance.

While more paperwork/forms is something few tree folk would wish on anyone, it is imperative for good leadership. The documentation need not be anything fancy, but simply dates, times and locations where crew members created negative or positive impressions. Specifics about the incident(s) help “make the case” for the leader, and avoid a debate about the issue, while those same specifics lend credence to positive reinforcement. Just keeping track of those positive and negative impressions is not enough for the good leader. Sharing or feedback is vital to insuring that crew members are always aware of how well, or how poorly, they are doing their jobs. In addition, negative feedback should always be accompanied by the ways and means to improve the performance, perhaps even with a timeline for better outcomes.

The majority of people want to do well at their job and succeed, and they should be offered the opportunity to do so; letting them know when they need to make changes, as well as when they’ve improved or done a good job, will help them succeed. Celebrate those successes, otherwise folks who only hear criticisms will start to think they can’t do anything right.

First in, last out

While personal leadership styles will certainly be influenced by life experiences, would-be leaders should keep in mind that being in a leadership position should create more work for the leading individual, not less.

Few things are more disturbing to a crew than seeing a crew leader, operations manager or even company owner thinking that his or her exalted position means he or she can take it easy by talking on a cell phone, waving around a clipboard, or posting a new tweet on the job at hand. A leader who takes his or her leadership role seriously will find it demands more than any role he or she has ever held before; and while the toll may be more emotional and intellectual than physical, it is still a toll felt every night when the head hits the pillow.

Crew members can use the push broom to take some time off at the end of the job, or look busy folding tarps, but crew or company leaders are “on” every minute they are around; and anything or action that smacks of laziness, poor work habits or unsafe practices will be immediately recognized and discussed by crew/company members. Being a leader is a responsibility, and, while it may seem unfair on more than a few occasions, a good leader must expect and demand more from themselves than they do from their employees.

Fail to plan, plan to fail. A good leader always starts at the worksite with the plan for everybody involved.

Equal justice

Whatever the standard may be, a leader must apply them equally to all crew members or employees. It is incredibly poor leadership, not to mention very detrimental to employee morale when certain people don’t get in trouble for actions or things that other people do. The best climber or salesperson doesn’t get a pass for not wearing their helmet/hardhat, or for hanging out by the truck when raking and cleanup is going on. Everyone needs to feel, and know, that the same standards and expectations are applied to each individual and that rewards, or punishment, are based on action/inaction, not whether or not the boss likes them.

The fact that most tree folk are by nature individualistic risk takers does not simplify the subject at all, but the basic principles discussed here will help current and would-be tree industry leaders become better at leadership in a challenging and difficult environment; and hopefully result in crews not only well-led, but safer and more efficient.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated.

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