Do you know someone at work who isn’t performing as well as they could?

With nearly three quarters of people reporting that they are not engaged at work, I have many clients asking what they can do to change this.

“How can I get rid of low performers or poorly engaged staff?”, is a refrain I hear a lot.

Then it’s time for a bit of tough love.  So I say, there are two reasons for that:

  1. Someone hired the wrong person – who is that someone and what are you going to do about their recruiting and interviewing skills?
  2. You hired the right person and something has changed since your hired them.  What are you as a leader going to do about it?

Leaders need to think like gardeners

Gardeners don’t blame the plant when it fails to thrive.  True leaders, like effective gardeners, look at themselves first and then the environment.

As a keen gardener, I’m struck by the thought that if you are a leader, you can do a lot to help those around you withstand the cold winds of shrinking budgets and increasing targets by thinking about it from a gardener’s perspective.

Gardening is about both leading and managing change. Here are three leadership lessons from successful gardeners.

1. Work hard to improve what you have

There isn’t a gardener on the planet who works in perfect conditions. You might have too much rain, or too little.  Too much sun, or not enough. And almost every gardener struggles with the quality of the soil.

What leaders can learn from gardeners is that success comes despite the unpromising conditions. Carefully analyse what you have, develop a clear goal for what you want to achieve and plan for how to bridge that gap.

Gardeners don’t waste time wishing they gardened somewhere else, they focus all their efforts on doing their best with what they have.  Leaders should do the same.

2. Think long term and plan for success

Gardening success depends on planning ahead.  Whilst visitors might admire a garden in full bloom, gardeners are already thinking ahead to the next season and the one after that.  What worked? What could be improved? How can all this survive the harsher weather to come?

In addition, gardeners are optimists.  They don’t put a plant in the ground thinking “this probably won’t grow”.  Gardeners are not naïve, they’ve just ruthlessly prepared and planned and then acted with energy and optimism.  Leaders should do the same.

3. Pay constant attention to outcomes

Together with long term planning and constant learning, comes the need for consistent care and attention.  Gardeners know that they need to nurture what they have; that inattention and poor prioritization will lead to poor results.

So gardeners would tell leaders that their daily maintenance schedule should ensure appropriate amounts of:

  • Space – Give people room to grow and take responsibility by delegating more.
  • Water – Nourish people through regular, constructive feedback
  • Light and warmth – Provide a supportive environment where achievement is recognised.

For more on how this works in a leadership, context click here for a download. This spring will your team grow?

But perhaps the most important leadership lesson, is that to be successful the hardest work has to happen in the harshest seasons

The bulk of gardening tasks have to be done in early spring and late autumn. Not always the best time to be outdoors.  But the reward for facing up to those unrewarding tasks of digging, weeding and planting in the wet and cold will come many months later.

How can leaders put these lessons into practice?

Time spent one to one is the greenhouse for successful people development

Tempting as it might be when time is short, your one-to-ones are vital chances for you and your direct reports to develop and grow. Don’t cancel them.

Make sure you spend at least a third of your time talking about the “people” element of the job and don’t just focus on fire-fighting task-related issues. Discussing one “people” topic can help to prevent many future challenges and problems.

As Jack Welch said:

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Through the hard work of thoughtful delegation, constructive feedback and fair recognition leaders are in the job of growing others to their full potential.

And remember the most important leadership lesson of all

If your people aren’t thriving or aren’t performing, the first place to look is at what kind of leadership skills your managers are really displaying.  That’s where change lies.


Download my Motivation Matrix and become a better leader by learning how to motivate the people around you.

I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank