Five Leadership Lessons for My Younger Self

By Jeff McManus, University of Mississippi

Sometimes I think about what I’d like to tell the 25-year-old version of myself about leadership in the workplace. At that time, I felt like I knew a lot. Since then, I’ve learned many important lessons about some things I never would have imagined even mattered. This is something I bet many readers can relate to.

In 2013, I initiated the creation of Landscape University and Airport University at my organization, the University of Mississippi. Both of these programs are a series of classes instituted and created by staff to understand their role on campus to “cultivate greatness” in all they do each day.

The program curriculum covers introductory materials, professional responsibility, safety training, advanced classes and people skills. The goal is to develop a highly confident, motivated team that is empowered with the sense of excellence.

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We have found that this program works well in not only landscape, airport and golf services, but in many other industries. Over the years, companies in the real estate and moving businesses have joined us and used the ideas behind our training programs to create their own.

After having worked for decades, most recently in my current role as director of landscape, airport and golf at the UM Department of Landscape Services, there are five things I definitely would have taught my younger self and that I strive to pass on to younger generations through programs such as Landscape University.

Jeff McManus helped UM become known as one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

1. Think like an investor. “Buy-in” is important in any job. Writer and motivational speaker Robin S. Sharma says, “A leadership culture is one where everyone thinks like an owner, a CEO or a managing director. It’s one where everyone is entrepreneurial and proactive.”

Look at your work like it is something you have a stake in already, even if you are working in an entry-level position. You should view it like you’re the CEO. This will hone your focus onto the success of your organization, which should be in the forefront of your mind each day. You will be proactive and find yourself striving each day to make sure business is being taken care of. If the company or organization prospers, so do its employees.

2. Goals should be clear at all times. As a staff, define your core values and what you strive for. These goals should not be small ones. Strive for big things every day. Once these goals are reached, go for even bigger things.

Write objectives down and post them. The better you get at practicing them, the better the organization becomes. One benchmark worth adopting is trying “to be the best of the best.” Paint a verbal picture of what that means. This makes it tangible.

Your goals should be catchy, brief and easy to recite. Like a well-written sentence, you should be able to say a goal aloud without having to pause and take a breath in the middle of it. Using fewer words in the declarations makes them easier to remember. It needs to be something everyone can relate to, remember and repeat.

Once vision statements are defined, they should be ubiquitous. Display them everywhere throughout the workplace so the reminder of why you’re there is always visible to staff and top-of-mind.

3. Accept that you will fail. When I was just out of college, I managed a resort in Orlando, Florida. I felt the need to increase the size of the landscape crew by 35% and to hire managers to provide more leadership. It began to break the budget. I found we needed to raise the rates we were charging our customers, but there was pushback. Long story short, we went through gut-wrenching layoffs. I had to tell people I cared deeply about that they couldn’t come to work with us anymore.

I received hate mail. I felt so low. Team morale was bad. But I turned to the lessons of Zig Ziglar, who said, “You can have everything in life you want if you’ll just help enough other people get what they want.”

The key is to learn from your mistakes. I did. I began to pay more attention to my team. I started providing better training sessions that gave them a sense of purpose. I instilled in them a sense of pride. In time, our team won several state awards and a national award.

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McManus works at Arlington National Cemetery as part of the annual ‘Renewal and Remembrance’ observance.

4. Be real, be approachable and listen. Many times, leaders assume their employees know what they’re thinking about, or employees assume bosses understand or are aware of an issue they’re having.

Each week, my team gets together to talk about our standards and where we’re going. This environment inspires employees to be the best and turns them into leaders who will eventually head up the meetings and train and develop others.

I’ve also always believed in keeping my organization as flat as possible to increase communication. What do I mean? I want direct access to everyone. I want them to have that same access to me. I’m out among the teams as they work each day.

Cultivate an environment where your workers can be honest and real with you. Push for that dialogue to permeate the entire team. You will find more problems will get addressed and, ultimately, better work (and more of it) will get done.

5. Show you care. Mediocre leaders underestimate the value of respecting people with whom they work. It is simple to stop what you’re doing, smile and acknowledge people as you encounter them, yet it means so much to your colleagues. It seems simple to think your employees should know that you value them, but it’s something bosses often overlook. I think we’ve probably all worked for a supervisor we thought didn’t care about us or didn’t care about our professional growth. Maybe they didn’t seem interested in whether we found our work rewarding.

Get to know each person when they start working for you. Give them a tour of your workplace in a golf cart or vehicle if you have the option. This creates a low-pressure situation that makes it easier for them to talk. Even the shyer employees seem comfortable with this interaction because they don’t even have to make eye contact.

I’ve also found that simple things such as short breakroom chats at the end of the day make a big difference in letting the people you work with understand that you care about them.

But there will be some difficult interactions. Toxic workplaces can be caused in part by a leader who doesn’t care enough to address a difficult situation. For whatever reason, some employees sometimes consistently get away with bad behavior. When a leader doesn’t address this bad behavior, the other workers become frustrated and morale drops. Those bosses who care about their employees make workplace morale a priority.

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Find Hidden Leaders, Help Them Grow
Sometimes leaders are born; sometimes they are grown. It’s a leader’s duty to help both kinds of people be the best they can be. As part of the process of showing employees you care, you will ultimately get to know them well. The more you interact with someone, the more you can pick up on hidden characteristics of their personality. Sometimes, what bubbles to the surface during these talks can be characteristics of leadership.

Don’t fall into the trap of confusing cheerleaders and real leaders. Listen to those who dissent sometimes or express frustration with their work. You must remember that it takes leadership to speak up.

Jeff McManus’ latest book

Once you become a leader and you’re shaping your organization, those who say they had been ready to quit but wanted to see if things changed with new leadership can be important voices. Some are potential leaders. These staff members can be key to cultivating a new, dynamic culture.

Once you’ve identified leaders, it is important that you do not hesitate to help them grow. Mediocre leaders worry about the success of someone on their team threatening their own career. This flawed way of thinking causes leaders to insulate themselves and try to do everything alone, causing them to become burned out and to lose their workers’ trust.

Spread opportunities to those who possess leadership traits. Rejoice with others when they find their own workplace wins. Be mindful that you probably got ahead in part because someone else helped you without being threatened by your successes.

Give growing leaders access to professional development and training. Have them share the lessons they pick up with others as much as possible. Take these lessons and create a culture of professional growth in your organization.

Have these standouts lead employee training sessions. Let them mentor new workers. Encourage them to spread their knowledge to others just as you shared yours with them.

Jeff McManus has been director of landscape services at the University of Mississippi since 2000. He and his team have gained national recognition, winning the National Professional Grounds Maintenance Society Best Maintained Campus twice and named most beautiful campus by Newsweek in 2011, the Princeton Review in 2013 and USA Today in 2016. His latest book, “Growing Weeders into Leaders – Leadership Lessons from the Ground Level,” focuses on cultivating excellence among staff.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Mississippi website.

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