By Jeff McManus
The Hail Mary pass. It’s football’s equivalent of a million to one odds, the over the top, back of the endzone strike to win the game as time expires. It’s the once-in-a-career, come-from-behind victory people talk about for decades.
While those single, spectacular plays can build a legend and create highlight reels, they don’t keep coaches employed, happy with their work, and motivated to make sure their players strive for excellence every day. The best coaches know the game is won with first downs: steady, rumbling drives of short, hard runs of three yards, clearing room over the top of the defense for the deeper touchdown throws. The Hail Mary pass is extremely rare in football, but there’s almost no equivalent for it in the workplace.
In my role as the University of Mississippi’s director of landscape services, and airport and golf operations, I’ve noticed that the little victories, capturing low-hanging fruit, on a consistent basis is the foundation of excellence. We’ve seen our workplace culture help transform Ole Miss into a campus that wows those who visit it. The work our landscapers do complements the work or other staff members across many departments do to create a welcoming environment with beautiful buildings and landscaping. It’s a total team effort that is built on a relentless dedication to small details to build the big picture, make no mistake about it.
My new book, “Growing Weeders into Leaders” covers some of the fundamentals of how we’ve built a winning landscaping team at Ole Miss. It explores leadership lessons “from the ground level.” Among the cornerstones of my lessons are defining your wins as an organization and capturing the low-hanging fruit that ultimately builds team morale. That team morale is crucial for reaching greatness.
The little wins by my team can be identified easily. They’re the dead weeds that don’t come back. They’re an expertly edged patches of grass and the popping azaleas. They’re the emails I receive from an administrator, prospective student’s parents, or any visitor to campus who sees the good work our people do and takes time to let us know about it. These are the kinds of little victories that come from a continued focus on what needs to be done, not just the work that wins awards. But, it’s not unrelated. Doing things the right way, being diligent in making sure your team is engaged and happy in their work and that they feel valued is what leads to the big wins.
Whether they sit at desks, work on a production line, or pull weeds, if employees feel their investment of time and energy matter, the the culture of leadership begins to grow. Leadership in all levels of your organization by individual employees with pride in their work and initiative pushes your organization’s work to new heights.
Everyone has the potential for greatness. Take Denise Hill, who works in Landscape Services, for example. One day while walking down the sidewalk, I noticed she was expertly operating a weed whacker. She paused to let me walk by, smiled, nodded, then she went back to work. She was a hardworking, front-line staff member who took a lot of pride in her work. With very little formal training, she energized those around her with her enthusiasm. Long story short, I placed employees under her supervision. She built collaboration and called her work crew “Delta Force” because her team would do things no other team wanted to do. Delta Force keep winning in big and small ways.
Denise is now superintendent of Landscape Services at Ole Miss and her enthusiasm is contagious for all workers who come within her orbit. She often remarks about her job that she “loves getting to do what I do.”
With a relentless focus on little wins each day by leaders like Denise Hill, our team has parlayed their work into major successes. Ole Miss Landscape Services has become an elite unit of professionals who are proud of their work, and they strive for excellence. They have bought in. They try to do things right each day. The end result of this is little wins, first downs, that add up to major accomplishments. They work together. They find jobs that need to be done.
They keep the Oxford, MS campus of more than 1,500 acres consistently recognized as “the most beautiful campus in America.” It’s become a tagline for university publicity items, a brag point. But, it’s not just us calling it that. We have our own trophies. Five times since I took over the landscaping department in 2000, our campus has been nationally recognized, including being named “Most Beautiful Campus” by the Princeton Review and by the Professional Grounds Management Society in Newsweek.
As you go forward with a focus on identifying little victories and easy wins for your organization, keep this quote from author Richelle E. Goodrich in mind. “Small steps may appear unimpressive, but don’t be deceived. They are the means by which perspectives are subtly altered, mountains are gradually scaled, and lives are drastically changed.”
McManus has been director of landscape services at the University of Mississippi since 2000. He and his team have gained national recognition through Ole Miss 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. McManus has a Bachelor’s degree in Landscape and Ornamental Horticulture from Auburn University and is the recipient of the 2016 Horticulture Alumni of the year. He is also an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist. His new book, “Growing Weeders into Leaders – Leadership Lessons from the Ground Level,” focuses on cultivating excellence among staff. McManus can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.