True Confessions of a Former Micro-Manager

Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association
The Buckeye
September/October 2017
By Marty Grunder

The other day I came across a short interview in the New York Times with John Zimmer, the president of Lyft, the ride-hailing service and Uber competitor. In five years’ time, Zimmer has grown his company from 30 people to some 1,700 today, and the interviewer wanted to know how he scaled himself as a leader.

“The most important thing I’ve found is to know your weaknesses and hire people better than you,” he said. “That takes a certain amount of confidence.”

Now I am never going to oversee a team as large as Zimmer’s, but as a reformed micro-manager myself, his observation hit close to home. I started my landscaping business some 34 years ago when I was just a teenager who needed to make money for college. I found a used lawn-mower at a garage sale for $25 and got to work, and today my former one-man company employs a team of 60. Since I was 14 years old I have never not been the boss at work (at home it’s a different story; there I’m lucky if I get a seat on the couch!).

When I was first starting out, and for a long, long time after, I thought the only way to get something done right was for me to do it myself. I had capable, dedicated people working for me, and yet I’d check and recheck their work and then become frustrated and lose my cool if they didn’t do their jobs the way I would. I would insist on having the final say on every decision, no matter if it was significant or small. I thought I was the only one who could close a sale.

And then somewhere along the way I realized this simply wasn’t sustainable—there was no way I could scale my business if every last aspect of it depended solely on me. More important, I realized this was no way to lead a team and create a workplace people actually wanted to come to everyday. You know what you get when you micro-manage your company? You get a team who, no matter how talented, will never reach its potential. You make them afraid to fail in any way and, in turn, afraid to innovate. They learn to keep their opinions to themselves, to fear you, to tell you only what they think you want to hear. They feel no ownership in their work—how could they?—and no pride.

So, slowly but surely I started to loosen the reins. I hired a VP steeped in finance whose fiscal cautiousness counterbalances my more generous penchant for risk. I took several steps back and let the expert landscape designers and crews whom I’d taken such care in finding actually do their jobs. I listened to my office manager, whose organizational skills far surpass mine, and adapted the systems she wanted to put in place. I stopped inserting myself into every hiring decision and listened to my team about who was a better fit. I discovered I wasn’t the only one who could close a sale.

Is my company perfect now? No, not by a long shot—and neither am I. Balls occasionally get dropped, mistakes are made. Someone suggests a new way of doing things, we try it, and we learn the old way was better. Someone else makes a bad hire and we have to let them go. “There’s a difference between saying you’re empowering someone and really empowering them,” Zimmer says in the interview. “Sometimes you have to just let people grow and make mistakes on their own.”

And if your people are growing, then your company—and, in time, your profits—will too.

If you want to see how this approach works firsthand at Grunder Landscaping Co., join me in Dayton this fall where I’ll be leading two field trips to our headquarters. You can learn more at Hope to see you there!