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Interview: Jeff McManus, Author of ‘From Weeders to Leaders: Leadership Lessons from the Ground Level’

I had the chance to interview Jeff McManus, landscaping director at Ole Miss, and author of From Weeders to Leaders: Leadership Lessons from the Ground Level, which I reviewed on this site. McManus challenged his grounds crew to become “the best of the best.” They did — earning national recognition and campus grounds awards. As well as offering key leadership lessons, the book tells the inspiring story of McManus’s team’s rise to award-winning performance.

When you took over the Landscape Services Department at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), what were your goals?

When former Chancellor Robert Khyat hired me, he had a long-term vision of expressing the University of Mississippi’s greatness. He pursued establishing a Phi Beta Kappa chapter here — one of three hundred in the nation, and the only public university in Mississippi with a PBK chapter.

Chancellor Khyat hired me to work on the external aspect of that. Most importantly, we wanted to provide an environment that nurtured the students, faculty and staff. Studies show that 62 percent of prospective students decide in the first few minutes of a college visit if they will attend. In essence, curb appeal really matters.

My job was to work with the landscape staff: engage them, train them, instill a team mentality, and literally change the quality and quantity of our work to support that image of greatness.

How did you get your crew on board with your goals?

I had to create a culture that enabled my team to learn and unleash their greatness. To do that, they needed ownership and voice. I gave them a say in what and how we do things. I listened. Listening is the most underrated communication activity of humans. I didn’t just listen to the words, but to the intention behind the words, factoring in both situation and perspective.

Given the right culture, there are few limits to what people can accomplish. By trading in passiveness for passion, we created learning experiences at every turn — getting by was no longer good enough. Once on that path, the team became connected to all aspects of the university. They met the faculty and administration, and came to understand how the people in the buildings interacted with the grounds. Suddenly, they were “nurturing” not just the plants, but also the people on campus. They saw the bigger picture. Their efficiency and accuracy went up, along with their job satisfaction.

What was your inspiration behind Landscape U, and what do you think has made it so successful?

Landscape U came about because, first, we reside within a university, a place of learning. Secondly, I knew that training, preparation and organization go a long way in creating a culture for doing work with excellence. Training empowers people. I began with the idea that there’s always a better way to do things.

Contrary to popular belief, the team’s ideas might be more insightful than my own. Landscape U is unique because it allows staff members to contribute to the development of classes and the training itself — creating ownership. Tracking the success of completing the classes motivates the staff to master the information and excel in their jobs.

How did you help turn your staff from “weeders to leaders”?

Plants respond well to being nurtured. People aren’t much different. Championship programs don’t happen by accident: You have to know what you want, plant it, and spend time nurturing it. Giving the staff the permission and encouragement to think of themselves as leaders starts cultivating the mindset of a leader. Leadership thrives within a team culture that’s empowered, professional and enthusiastic.

How are your leadership practices at Ole Miss applicable to other organizations?

Every organization’s success is determined in large part by how well its staff performs. What all leaders have in common is the challenge of getting the most out of their staff and helping them to be efficient, profitable and successful. The greatest, most memorable leaders earned their reputation by recognizing the potential of their staff and organization. Greatness is never just about one person, and that truth is applicable to every industry.

Whatever the industry, the key is finding the vision and process that work for your team and tell your story. Then, institutionalize them. Make them applicable at every level.

Learn more at the author’swebsite.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her “beat” is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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