Over the last couple of years, I have taken up gardening. It sounds boring but there are so many aspects to it that I've realised that even people who have been doing it for decades still have things to learn.
One of the first things I've learned is the concept of “right plant, right place”. Each plant has its preferences; for moisture – does it like to sit in damp, clay soil, or does it prefer well-drained soil? Similarly many plants have a requirement for acid or alkaline soil. If you put a shade-loving plant into full sun, it’ll probably wither and quite quickly look rather sick. It won’t be having a good time, and neither will you get the best out of it.
In short, if you put a plant in conditions that it likes, and make sure it has the essentials, it can’t help but grow.
When I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is a fairly good metaphor for leadership and management. What do I mean? Well, think about it a little. If you put a shy person into a position that requires, say, presentations to customers, then it’s not likely that you’ll get the best out of them. Put an active person who thrives on pressure and adrenaline into a routine job that rarely changes, and pretty soon that person will look just as out of place as an alpine plant in full shade.
You could argue that it’s easy for gardeners. All they have to do is look up the plant in a book and put it in the conditions that suit it, or maybe vice versa. Perhaps you want to know what’ll thrive in your shady, damp garden – so you look for plants from woodland environments. Dealing with people isn’t quite so straightforward. That’s where the skill as a leader comes in. You need to know your people well enough to know if they want well-drained soil, or cold wet clay, and whether they are happy to bathe in full sun, or better given some cover.
The metaphor extends beyond just putting the right people in the right place, though. So you've chosen your plants, and rooted them firmly in the correct soil. What then?
Well, obviously, you need to water them – but it’s not as simple as that. When they’re first planted, most plants need a really good soak to get them started off, but if they’re planted directly in the border they can usually be left alone unless it’s really dry.
The other thing that needs to be done is to keep the plants fertilised, and that doesn’t just mean dumping “manure” on them. You know what I mean. The fertiliser has to be selected for the plant too. If you’re trying to encourage lots of leafy growth, you need a fertiliser high in nitrogen. Fruit plants and vegetables need more potassium and phosphates.
If you want your plants to take a particular direction, then it may be that you need to point them in the right direction with a trellis or other such support. Whatever you do with them, the plant knows how to grow. It won’t grow any quicker or more lusciously whether you dig up the roots to appraise them, measure their growth daily, or put them into league tables along with the other plants. Neither will they respond to being shouted at or threatened with disciplinary action. If the conditions are right, the plant will grow.
Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, referred to the “Law of the Farm”. There is a natural order to things. You can’t sow seeds and then somehow farm “smarter, not harder” to make them come up the next day. You can’t get more carrots from fewer seeds.
Yet when it comes to looking after our people, what do we commonly see? People put into positions that they are plainly unsuited to. Employees that are insufficiently fertilised, or given the wrong sort of fertiliser. Some are even not watered when they need it. There will even be some people who are allowed to grow plenty, but in the wrong direction, or – even worse – left to dangle without any support whatsoever.
Yet despite this neglect in the most obvious ways, we see plenty of examples where people have their roots dug up to see how fast they are growing, or having their growth unfairly compared to a totally different type of plant. Would you even consider punishing a slow growing foxglove? Or insist that bluebells flower all year long?