In today’s fast-paced, constantly evolving business landscape, a strong leadership team is more important than ever. But many organizations fail to realize that leadership is not a quality that can be taught or imposed from the top down. Instead, it must be nurtured and developed from within. How can organizations identify and invest in employees who have the potential to be great leaders?
Here to discuss leadership along with insights from his book, Growing Weeders Into Leaders, is Jeff McManus. At 37, the University of Mississippi hired Jeff as the Director of the newly formed Landscape Services Department. As one of the most junior directors on campus, his immediate challenges were staggering – exceptionally low morale with an unacceptable lack of productivity. So, he established a four-step process he calls “The GROW System.” Great teams, Raising results, Offense scores, and Winning Attitudes are the four things that formed Jeff’s GROW System. Join Jeff as he talks about growing leaders and how organizations identify and invest in employees who have the potential to be great leaders.
Listen to the podcast here
Growing Weeders Into Leaders With Jeff McManus
[00:00:47] Welcome back, my wonderful audience. I want to say thank you for coming back, for emailing me at Ben@YourBrandMarketing.com, and for finding me on LinkedIn at Your Brand Marketing. I love the fact that you guys tell me your ideas, what you like, what you’re interested in, and what your challenges are. I try to bring all of that to the table and find great people to interview to be able to answer the questions that you guys have because that’s what this is all about.
In this episode, I have the pleasure of bringing in Jeff McManus. He is the author of a book called Growing Weeders Into Leaders. He spent 22 years at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. We’re talking about the guy who is the Head of the Horticulture Department and is an incredible guy. Jeff, welcome to the show.
[00:01:37] Thank you, Ben. It’s a pleasure to be here.
[00:01:39] I have enjoyed our conversations. I enjoy listening to you. By the way, I get your weekly newsletter and I love it. There is always a great tip in there. There’s always something interesting. There are some great stories. I love the story you had, We Put People First. But Do We? We’ll probably get into that. It was a great conversation. Before we start, I want to let you give a little bit of history about who you are. Who is Jeff McManus? What do you do? What brought you to Ole Miss and what are you guys doing now?
[00:02:15] Thanks again for having me on the show. The easy way to think of Jeff McManus is I grow plants, people, and ideas. That’s what Jeff does. I try to grow things. What I have found is if I grow people well, then they’ll take care of growing the plants here and growing a beautiful environment for us all to live in and recruit in. That’s a big part of what I do.
I used to focus a lot on growing plants and so much more on the technical part of it. As I got better and the people who worked with me got better, I did less of that. I worked on growing them and growing their knowledge so that they became the experts and they became the go-to people. In essence, I keep growing. I want to keep outgrowing what I’m doing and add more value to what I’m doing here.
We’ve started some interesting programs that have helped our leaders grow. We’ve now even started teaching other schools how to do these programs to help them grow their people and to get a better campus and a better product. We’re not content with making Ole Miss the most beautiful campus in America. We’ve won that national championship five times of being the most beautiful, but we also are trying to help others. We help private companies. We help others and show them how we create that system so that others can grow great campuses, great landscapes, and great people. That’s a little bit about what we’re doing now. We continue to help others.
[00:03:47] It’s sitting there and going, “It’s our people.” I’m in the horticulture business. There’s technical technology that comes with it. It’s figuring out the right plants and the right grass. We know what’s going to grow in what season and all that, but having great people who can implement, people that can understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and be part of the organization and realize that what you do is far more than just planting plants. You are an incredible recruitment part of the university.
I remember I got a second-year Engineering student. I talked to all my friends. In high school, everybody goes on these tours. You go on these tours. You go to these different universities and in some of them, you sit there and go, “Wow.” You look at the campus and you look at how clean it is and how bright it is and the green grass and the beautiful buildings and all that stuff. It gives you a feeling.
It’s either, “I want to be here. I want to be part of this.” I think that that’s part of the story that a lot of people don’t miss. It’s how we present ourselves. Whether it’s a university, an organization, or a personal person, it has a lot on how people see us. When you first started at Ole Miss, before the five championships, what was the campus like when you first got there? Was it in great shape when you took over or were you starting from something that was less than what it is now?You are who you are because of the people you hang around with. Click To Tweet
[00:05:10] It was interesting. I started in 2000 and the big reason they came and found me as I was working in Miami at a five-star resort and had some ties to the Southeast and Paul Bern, where I went to school. They actively came after and looked for someone who could take them through this growth process of beautifying the campus. A donor had given a lot of money to the university to plant beautiful plants. He came back over six months later to discover a lot of the plants had died and the areas did not look any better. There were weeds. It was one of those terrible stories.
You’ve got to know where you’re going. As the organization wanted to change that image, they knew that there was a statistic out there. Sixty-two percent of prospective college students will decide that they’re coming to your college campus based on the looks, the way the landscaping looks is a big part of that, the buildings and how clean it is.
They wanted that image. They knew that they were recruiting against some of the top schools in the country, so that’s important. They knew where they wanted to go. When they came after me, they were saying, “How important is a good first impression?” Coming out of the five-star resort business, that’s the front gate. You sell the room and the price of the room with the entry into the gate as the wow. “This place, I’m going to pay a couple of thousand dollars to stay here,” or whatever it is.
That was important to understand what was it that the big picture that we needed to get. The hard part is not understanding what the big vision was to create the wow and that unique experience is to get people to buy in, to get the state-in mindset employee who says, “I’m here for my pension. I’m not here to produce anything, so I’m going to do as little as I can.” That’s where you got to become a very good salesperson.
It challenged me in my leadership in how to get people to buy in because I knew the vision from my bosses and who had recruited me. I had to sell that in a way they understood so that they wanted to be a part of that as well. We always say we went from last place to first place. We have one of the lowest budgets and the fewest employees in the conferences, but we have one of the largest campuses. With the same staff that was in last place, within two years, we won our first national championship. We had a big flip quick. That was nice and what helped the credibility of our department probably more than anything was getting that national award.
[00:07:49] What’s making me think about this is that you were lucky you had a senior leadership, or I’m assuming you had a leadership that was bought into a vision of a more beautiful campus. They could understand why it was important. They understood why it was putting a top-notch person in terms of leadership. They understood what it was like to put money towards beautification. They realized they needed to change how their brand looked to be able to compete in the marketplace.
On the other side, you had a group of people that have been doing this job for sometimes years, if not decades, that had been underserved, probably had been undervalued to a point and they didn’t see what they did matter. How did you, as a new leader, go into that situation and be able to change that mindset? Without those people believing that what they did matter, what they did was important, and what they did made the campus a better campus, I’m not sure that those five championships ever would have happened. How do you go about doing that? Changing a mindset is a difficult thing to do.
[00:08:56] It is. The first thing I had to do is I talked to some wise people before I set foot on campus on my first day. I had already accepted the job, but I hadn’t gotten here yet. I started asking leaders who had done something similar to what I was going into and asked them. The answer I got back repeatedly was, “Take inventory of what you have in people, plants, and equipment. Take an inventory of what you have. Know what you have. Observe it, watch it, and pay attention to the rhythm.”
That was wise advice. There was a lot of pressure to create change quickly. I had to observe my people. It didn’t take long to see who was bought into doing something bigger versus those that were there for a paycheck and a pension. Once I felt like I had a little bit of understanding of what they were doing, I showed gratitude for what they were doing. I appreciated them.
You said underserved and undervalued. My role was to be an encourager but then to start setting a vision of what we wanted to do. My vision was not super complicated. It was, “Let’s be the best of the best.” I didn’t say we’re going to win national championships or any of that. I would say, “Let’s be the best of the best. Let’s be one of the prettiest campuses in America.” We looked at that and some people stared. They don’t jump up and down and everything, but you could see the mind shifting with our staff.
A lot of people bought in earlier and some never did. Some selected out. I even tell the message, “We’re recruiting people who are going to cure cancer one day. We’re recruiting people who are going to be a part of the space program. When we recruit them, we’re a small part of that because we helped get them here. They’re going to get that education. They’re going to do great things.”
That was the bigger purpose of what our department did. I realized there’s a secret weapon for getting other people to come to share that same message. I would bring in what we would call our all-stars¸ our VIPs, or our celebrities. I would bring in our head football coaches. In the Southeast, they worshiped football. That’s the God. Get that head coach to come in and tell the team how important they are to recruiting.
I had a kid, a young guy who worked for me. After the coach left and everything, he goes, “I hate putting out mulch and pine needles, but if it helps the coach recruit the top players, I’m all in it.” Getting that deeper purpose and that buy-in helps in getting others to help say the message that you’re saying helped as well. We invite our local celebrities, coaches, and professors to come in and tell our staff how important their role is to their job.
[00:12:08] That’s so important because you said something earlier. You said, “We want to be the best of the best.” Being the best of the best, what does that mean to somebody who’s never been the best of the best? Let’s say I’m aspiring to this mountain top, somewhere in the distance that I probably can’t even see the peak, let alone figure out how I’m going to climb it. It doesn’t mean that much to somebody.
If you can make it tangible and say, “Because of the work you’re doing, we’re going to be able to bring in top-line astronauts, physicists, football players, you name it, and be able to elevate this level of this university.” You, as the Horticulture Department, have a place in this. You will be able to recruit the right people because you make them feel welcome and valued within the school because the school is a beautiful place to be.
That is something that people can hang their hats on. That’s something that you can drive deep into somebody’s soul. It gives them a purpose and a reason to get up every morning to be able to go out and do what they do, especially if it’s cold, damp, and rainy, or they’re mulching and they hate mulching or whatever. They say, “I’m doing this stuff that I don’t like to do, but I can see where this is going to do for us.”
That’s extremely powerful, but let’s take that one step further. We talked about this before. You also sat there and said, “We want to be the best of the best.” You took people on field trips, if I remember correctly. Talk about the field trips because that’s something that can give people an idea, “We want to be the best of the best, but let me show you, not tell you.”
[00:13:47] To your point, people don’t know what that means. When they have not been out of the state or even out of the county very often, they haven’t had those experiences. You and I travel a lot. We know what Disney World looks like. We know what great resorts look like. Not so much our team. When I came in and I said, “We want to be the Disney to the universities,” they shook their head. I don’t know that they all understood.
A lot of times, we would load up the leaders in the group and the supervisors, and we would go look at other college campuses. We would go look at resorts and let them make those first impressions. I want to tell you a quick story. I had a guy who was one of my supervisors. I was frustrated because every time they would go on lunch break, they would leave their job site unattended. It was like, “We’ll be back in an hour and we’ll clean it up then.”
There were grass clippings everywhere. It was sloppy. No tidiness. If somebody came on campus during that lunch break and saw that, it was not a good first impression. We went to a major school and they had done something similar, but it was even worse. They had not cut the grass in a while. They had reasons why. It looked terrible. The grass clippings were everywhere. It made a bad impression on our team.Allow people the freedom to think of themselves as coaches and mentors. Let them think that way and empower them. Click To Tweet
When we got in the van, that one person goes, “That grass looked terrible.” It made the first impression on him that he was able to transition that back home, back to where he worked, that every lunch break, he made sure we were cleaned up. We were tidy. It saved me twenty years of pulling my hair out because he got it. He got it in that one trip. It was worth whatever we paid to put everybody in the van and put them in hotels. It was well worth it.
[00:16:06] I remember a story. I grew up with lots of people in the restaurant industry. This guy I knew had an employee that was frustrating him because he never wiped the tables properly. He said, “Come over here.” “What?” “See that small family? Look at the toddler.” The toddler is sitting there playing on the table. All of a sudden, the toddler puts his hand in a pile full of ketchup and then starts putting it toward his face.
This guy never left a table dirty ever again. The owner of the restaurant never had to say another word because all of a sudden, he says, “My job is not to wipe the tables. It’s to keep people clean and safe.” If people understand what their purpose is, what they’re trying to achieve, and what the greater goal is, they tend to become far more self-motivated. You have a system that you call GROW. I’d love to have you explain GROW.
[00:16:56] GROW is a simple way for me to remember and help develop our team. G is that greatness. It’s that great team. It’s great communication. We cultivate greatness, all these things of greatness that we want to be the best. We simply say greatness. The R is so much about being resilient and raising the results. When we say resilient, we want to be helping each other. We want to be tough. We want to adapt and overcome all those challenges that Mother Nature gives you. We think of R as resilient in a lot of ways.
The O is always opportunities to shine and opportunities to grow our people. That’s one that I focused on developing people, just growing. There are ways to give them opportunities to shine on their own, develop their leadership skills, and show us that they want to be the best. The W is the winning attitude. A lot of times, we talk about, “You are who you are because of the people you hang around with.” Winners hang around with winners. We’ve heard that saying, “You become like the five people you hang around with.”
We try to influence our people and bring in people to influence them on podcasts, videos, and books. We do a big session, L2L, leader to leader where on the clock, we’re growing our people. We bring them in out of the field and we’re intentionally growing them on the inside. We want that to grow. GROW evolves, but it’s a simple four-step process that we use to grow our people.
In that, let me share this. We came up with a landscape creed. That creed of our core values was that winning attitude. We know who we are and our core values that became a solidifying part of our whole organization. I never had even thought about having core values and a landscape creed before, but we did it years ago. It’s made my job easier, more fun, and more exciting to have that landscape creed. I put that in that wisdom, walking with winners.
[00:19:16] I would say that that creed probably leads to being able to create better opportunities for your people. I truly believe that we need to give people room to grow on their own. As leaders, we need to make a safe space for people to fail, become more resilient, learn from their mistakes, and become better to be able to make sure that we build those leaders of tomorrow and be able to transition. How do you enable giving people the opportunity to have opportunities and to grow that next generation of leaders?
[00:19:52] We did a lot of mentoring and we still do a lot of mentoring. We challenge our people to be mentors, to change the mindset of, “You’re not just cutting grass.” You’re helping mentor that student next to you, that student worker who’s working with us, and you’re going to be poured into their life. You never know, in a few years, they come back and say it was you that kept them in school. We do that. We make sure people know even on a one-on-one basis that their role is important.
I knew that was clicking when one of my guys, who used to be one of my biggest troublemakers, became one of my best mentors. He says, “I realized I might be mentoring my next boss. He may be my next supervisor.” That was the connection. I’m like, “He’s got it.” That’s what his role is. He wants to be the best mentor on campus. He feels like he’s adding tremendous value, which he is, to our organization by doing that. Allowing people the freedom to think of themselves as coaches or mentors was one thing I had to learn. Let them think that way. Empower them.
The other is unless it’s this guy who’s spraying chemicals, you’re okay with everybody making mistakes., We don’t want the guy spraying chemicals making any mistakes. We got to let them make mistakes. You can’t beat them up when they tell you they made a mistake. You can’t call them out. What do we learn from it? Let’s grow from it. Let’s learn from it. Let’s make sure we take a picture of it so we can always put it in the training that we learn. We don’t have to put Jeff’s name on it, that Jeff did it, but we try to learn from it. Even now, we’ll not do things. We try to take a picture of it to remember it.
[00:21:28] I’ll send you a picture because in the spring, I was getting rid of some weeds and I used the wrong weed killer. My grass has those great big brown patches in it. It will come back, but it looks beautiful. I got great big brown patches all over my grass. Everybody knows that Ben’s got the black thumbs.
[00:21:45] We’ve done that a few times. I understand that. We’ll scalp the grass, we’ll put the mower decks too low to the ground and it looks like space aliens have come in because it gets these round circles in the turf. That’s going to happen but get on the mower. Get on that big 11-foot deck mower. That’s an $84,000 piece of equipment. Get out of your comfort zone. It’s amazing. We were getting ready to recognize some of our landscape legends in a hall of fame.
One of our gentlemen who’s going to go into it says, “I remember when I first came here. I was scared to death. I was going to make a mistake.” One of the guys who was mentoring him came in and told us, “We need to fire him. He’s not any good. He follows me and he weed whacks everything that I just weed whacked.” He was scared to death. He thought he was going to make a mistake. We changed his mentor, walked him slowly, and invested in him. Instead of assuming and thinking he knew, we had to slow down. He became our best weed eater guy. He became our best edger area. He was scared to death of running lawnmowers. He got over that fear.
I had to empower the supervisors, “It’s okay to slow down,” because we’re very production-oriented. It used to take us ten days to mow the campus. We’ve got it down to 4 days now, but we’re trying to get it down to 3, trying to get down to 2. It’s always to move. You’ve got to give your team freedom to slow down. It’s okay to stop and walk with them and show them these things. That takes me having to change my management style tremendously.
[00:23:24] It’s giving people the ability to gain the confidence they need because we all learn sometimes. There was always a time when any of us, no matter what it was in our life, were terrible at something. We were always awful at something. Some of that led to self-doubt and some of that led to trepidation. Some of that led to fear. Some of us sat there, rolled up our sleeves, and said, “I’m going to try it.”
As a good leader, you understand who are fearful and who are the people are going to roll up their sleeves and be able to help both of them be better at what they do. Both of them are going to make mistakes, but they’re going to make different mistakes. As leaders, we tend to try to treat everybody the same. People are the X-Factor. Every human being is different. Every person learns differently and we have to give people the opportunity to learn at their own speed.
[00:24:13] What you said is very important because people learn in different ways. I would say 90% of our team learns by watching and doing hands-on, but that still didn’t stop us from creating some class content in our landscape university. They had to sit down for 5 or 10 minutes and take a class to be able to make sure we covered everything they needed to know so they’re successful. We know the best learning is going to go on out in the field when they’re matched up with someone and they’re showing them how to do it. You’re right. Some are very visual, some are hands-on, and some like reading, but you got to pay attention to that as leaders or at least provide all the opportunities for them to learn that.
[00:24:56] Let’s talk about the transition because there’s always change in every organization. People come, people go, people get promoted, realize that’s not where they want to be, and end up somewhere else. How do you sit there and help people through those transitions and make sure that as they’re being moved or being brought from one department to another, they understand that the skills that got them there may not be the skills that they need to be to move to the next level and be able to allow them to gain those new skills in a way that allows them to be comfortable and confident?
[00:25:29] The technical knowledge that they were good at and what they used a lot to be so successful is not what they’re going to always use to lead people or to do more, to start organizing large properties and knowing how to manage those. It’s good if you can already have it in the conversation. This is what our leader to leader does a lot. It is to go ahead and start preparing people mentally for the big picture. We do a calendar every year and that calendar has everything that we do in it. It’s a perpetual calendar.Good things happen with growth. Bad things happen when we stop growing. Click To Tweet
On the maintenance side, it’s pretty routine. That’s some roadmap to help set them up for success. We know in January, these are the key factors. We’ve even organized it by different teams on who’s doing what. That gives them a big picture to see that, “We’re going to be cutting this, pruning this, and doing this. This is the window to do that.” There are soft skills or people skills. That part is the part where you got to make sure that they can lead and have good chemistry with their people. How do they earn the respect? Hopefully, they have already gained that respect but then keep that respect.
You talked a lot about trust. You talk about how they lead by example and how important that is. They can’t sit in the truck and expect everybody to work for them while the air conditioner’s running in the truck and they’re staying cool. You’re part of the team. You’re working. How do you handle the changes when a college professor comes swinging? They’re waving their hands at you and saying, “We’re taking an exam inside the room. We need you to quit making noise.” How do you handle that? How do you adapt and overcome?
To stay in that next part of growth, if you quit growing, you’re going to do what plants do and you’re going to die. You’re going to start rotting. You’re going to be living off your past knowledge and experiences. That may not be what you need to make the best decisions. We try to stay fresh. We go through different programs. We’ve even started our own new program now called Landscape Champions. What we do is help bring our team into awareness. One of the things that are big for us is having an eye for detail. Do you see the little things? Those little things make the big picture.
Train people to have an eye for detail. You mentioned seeing that ketchup on the table. How do they see those weeds before our guests see them? How do they see the different things that we want them to see, the low-hanging limb that’s going to be a problem in about three weeks if we don’t go ahead and trim it this week? We’ll run them through a program. What does it mean to lead by example? That program has been helpful because it brings a new awareness and they see things not as a worker but now as a leader, as a supervisor. That’s been very good for us.
[00:28:23] By training people to think beyond the day-to-day and the minutia of what they do on a daily basis and start thinking on a more global basis, it allows for the entire team to be more successful.
[00:28:39] Here in little Oxford, Mississippi, we’re in a global market. When I say that, as we talk about who’s our competition, our competition is the SCC schools, but it’s also everybody. People have a choice. They can come here or they can go wherever they want to go. Not only that, our competition’s right down the street. It’s the company that wants to come in and do the landscaping here.
Our staff needs to know we’re being competitive. It’s a competitive market. We’ve got to stay fresh. We’ve got to we got to show our bosses that we’re the best to go to. When you have a problem on campus, you want to call landscaping or the hort team. You want to call Jeff, those guys, and get them to fix it. We don’t have to rely on somebody down the street.
[00:29:23] They trust you. Let’s bring this home because it’s been a great conversation, but I want to value your time and my audience’s time. What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you? The book is called Growing Weeders Into Leaders. People need to find that on Amazon because that’s a great book, but how do people get in touch with you?
[00:29:51] Here is the last question. It’s a question I ask everybody before I let them out the door. When you leave a meeting or you get off the stage, you get in your car, and you drive home, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you’re not in the room?
[00:30:05] I want them to think not about me, but I want them to be thinking about, “What book or podcast am I going to be listening to help me grow?” If I can get them to be thinking about it and if they don’t do that if they’re not challenged to be growing, that they are thinking that. Jeff may have said that. That’s important. I see value in growing myself. I’ve got to set the example and grow myself to become the best leader and the best individual I can be. That is my message. It’s to grow others and to grow ideas and get growth happening because good things happen with growth. Bad things happen when we stop growing.
[00:30:44] Thank you for helping people flourish their minds and getting rid of the weeds in their brains. I appreciate it, Jeff. Thank you for all your wisdom. You’ve been a phenomenal guest. I got to find a way to get down to Ole Miss, take a walk through the grass, take my shoes off, and appreciate your work.
[00:30:59] We would love to have you anytime. Seven days a year, we have these little things called football games and we pack out the stadium. We pack out our Grove with probably 50,000 to 60,000 people in this 10-acre spot where they tailgate. We would love to have you come down and experience that sometimes. It is the number one tailgating spot in America.
[00:31:20] We’re going to have to find a way to get me to come down there to do a keynote or something to get that experience. I would love it. Jeff, thank you for being an incredible guest. Thank you for giving such wisdom to my audience and thank you for being you.
[00:31:33] Thank you, Ben. My pleasure.
- Your Brand Marketing – LinkedIn
- Jeff McManus
- Growing Weeders Into Leaders
- We Put People First. But Do We?
- Landscape Champions
- Amazon – Growing Weeders Into Leaders
- LinkedIn – Jeff McManus
- Twitter – Jeff McManus
About Jeff McManus
At the age of 37, the University of Mississippi hired Jeff McManus as the Director of the newly formed Landscape Services Department. As one of the most junior directors on campus, the immediate challenges that faced him were staggering – exceptionally low morale with an unacceptable lack of productivity. In many ways, the Ole Miss landscape services was actually an extreme example of the same problems facing many organizations then and today.
Jeff believed the challenges could be overcome with focused team effort. So, he established a four-step process he calls “The GROW System.” Jeff works from the position that everybody wants to be successful and they can be – by recognizing their personal potential. Great teams, Raising results, Offense scores and Winning Attitudes, these four things, formed Jeff’s GROW System.
Jeff has been praised by Forbes and the Huffington Post for his book, Growing Weeders into Leaders, where he shares how his team went from last place to being on the national stage. It wasn’t long before PGMS, Newsweek, Princeton Review, and USA Today all recognized Jeff’s teamwork and awarded their efforts with the nation’s most beautiful campus designation.
Dan Cathy, chairman of board of Chick fil A, had this to say about Jeff’s book, “…[it] serves as a guide for all current and future leaders. As a member of the leadership team at Chick-fil-A, part of my job is to help define the future of our business. One thing we have learned throughout my tenure at Chick-fil-A is that there’s a big difference between locating leaders and cultivating them. Jeff reminds us that all leaders can be cultivated with the right pruning and nurturing.”
Jeff holds a bachelor’s degree in Landscape and Ornamental Horticulture from Auburn University and is a Certified Arborist.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share! https://yourbrandmarketing.com/yourlivingbrand-live-show/