As president of Initial Tropical Plants Inc., Sally Briese can relate to the challenges faced by her staff in her 27 years at the company, she has held every position there. After taking a front-line job as a service technician directly out of college, Briese was promoted to branch manager, then to regional manager and then to executive vice president, all the while filing away leadership ideas for if she were ever named president which happened earlier this year. As the leader of the nation’s largest interior landscape contractor, Briese stresses the importance of staying close to the front lines and allowing each of the company’s 1,500 employees the opportunity to make meaningful contributions.
Smart Business spoke with Briese who oversees 40 branch offices with $110 million in annual revenue about building trust and the difference between being a leader and being a victim.
Focus on what is truly important. I try to keep my focus on the co-workers and the customers, versus thinking about what I might be doing or how something might affect me. As I have grown through the organization in different leadership roles, I always have kept my focus on the vision of where we might be going rather than on myself.
It highlights what is most important, which, again, is co-workers and customers, and trying to keep those things in hand. Almost everything that we do, we try to sense check what we are doing as it plays over the co-workers and over the customers. It can be any strategy that we have. Any strategic objective that we put in place, we ask, ‘How does that relate to the co-workers, and how does that relate to the customers?’
We had a time that there was a lot of self-interest in the leadership role, and the message to the co-workers and ultimately, the customers, was that they were not important. It keeps you focused on the right things.
Make your employees leaders, not victims. You have to try to put a leadership culture on the forefront for everybody and talk about it a lot. Set that example by being yourself.
I try to remind everybody that they have choices, and these are everyday choices; they are not necessarily monumental things. Every day, you have a choice of whether you want to be a leader or a victim. I try to keep that at the forefront of everybody’s mind, and strongly encourage (people) to be the leaders of their own lives, their own jobs and take a lot of personal responsibility.
A lot of times, people at first will say, ‘I don’t want to be a leader.’ But when they realize that the choice of not being a leader is being a victim, then they say, ‘Oh, OK, well then yes, I would rather have control over my destiny and my own life.’ And how really important that is.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to lead other people but that you have to know yourself and lead your own program. It is exciting to people once they realize what they can do and be.
Don’t place blame; instead, look inward. Being a victim is a terrible place to be, and we had that for a while in our culture, where people just did not have any hope. They just gave up, and they didn’t believe that we could accomplish anything as a group. There was a lot of mistrust in the community of the company, and that all comes from that victim culture.
You have to set the example of knowing yourself, and you have to look inward for all the answers. It’s very easy to look outside to blame things and others, but really, you look inward first. From there, you know yourself and you find your own voice.
That leads to building trust with all your co-workers and your customers. The thing is for people to be more conscious of their own choices and look inward and then be clear.
The more you communicate that out to your co-workers and your customers and your entire community, your culture becomes very strong because people know very well what it means to work here.
Build trust with honest communication. The best way to communicate, first and foremost, is by setting the example. That’s honest communication. You have to build that trust because, like in any relationship, the trust is important.
You have to be consistent in the example that you set. It’s being consistent and really walking the talk. Those are the trust-builders. The best way to do it is to just be it, and set that example. Anything else, eventually people see through that.
We’re trying to engage the hearts and minds of the people now. I’ve worked in this company for a long time, and there was definitely a time, 20 years ago, when we were trying to improve productivity by driving people, incentivizing people and that kind of thing. Now there’s a real shift to engagement. They have to want to bring their hearts and minds to the program, and that’s how we get productivity now.
Breaking the trust of the people takes so long to build back up again. Communication is so important for you to be consistent and to set the right example and communicate it over and over again by being it. If you fail there, building the trust back, just like in any relationship, takes a long time.
You’re working hard to get the hearts and minds of people, and that is a big responsibility. If you break the trust, you are breaking somebody’s heart there. That is a terrible thing to have to overcome and get back.
HOW TO REACH: Initial Tropical Plants Inc., (847) 634-4250 or www.initialplants.com