People: the most valuable asset (notes from FutureScape ’17)

For those of you who either missed my talk at FutureScape this year, or just want a second read, here is a transcript. All businesses are built on two things: the quality of their ideas and the quality of their people. So the question is, how do you find and retain the best people? The first thing to ask yourself is…

WHY?
Why are you hiring? The obvious answer to this is ‘because I’m busy’. If you are a one-person organisation, you should think about what it is you want somebody else to do and what you want to keep doing yourself. What are you good at? What are you not good at? So, we have gone from why to What…

 

WHAT?
What are you looking for in an employee?  First step – write a job description. This will help you focus your thoughts on what duties you want someone to carry out. There are loads of ways to structure a job description with the minimum being simply a list of duties. I find it is helpful to start with the basics: Title, Place of work, Line manager (who does the holder of this post report to?), Accountability (to whom will they have to explain themselves if something big goes wrong?), Development path. Then move on to some general stuff about the business and the post. Next a short summary of general duties relating to this post. Finally, a list of specific duties, grouped under headings. There are different ways of doing this. Some people find it helpful to list them in order of importance. Others use some sort of chronological order. Personally, I favour listing them in the order of the percentage of time they will take up, but noting if there are any that are particularly important that appear further down the list.

Next step – write a person profile. Again, there are many different ways of approaching this. I usually divide these into sections under the headings:
Character
Experience
Qualifications
I then mark each with ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. For example, ten years’ experience in your sector might be desirable, three years’ might be essential.

What are they looking for in an employer?

  1. Salary is a key decider for many people – around 60% put this top of their list
  2. CPD opportunities and career development come next – important for around 45% of people
  3. Company ethos and values is also really important, particularly with younger employees – I’ll come back to this later
  4. Company reputation is next – most people want to work at a company which has an excellent standing within the industry, and somewhere that will ultimately add to their CV
  5. Location is important for some people
  6. Flexibility of working can also be important.
  7. Size of business not important to most people, nor is job title.

WHO?
The character section on the person profile starts to touch on another area completely. The experience and qualifications are, if you like, ‘tangibles’. But at least as important are the intangibles. What is a person really like – who are they? And even if you knew the answer to that question, would it help?

The answer to this is in the culture of your business. Culture is made up of the intangible parts of a business, the non-commercial aspects. This includes things like purpose, DNA, values, ethos etc. It affects not only the sort of place it is to work, but also ultimately has an impact on the ‘tangibles’ – the commercial aspects of the business. If you have already thought about this, then you will be able to take some of this and use it to feed into the general section of the job description. More importantly, it will allow you to much more directly profile the sort of person you are looking for. Having done all this background work, where do you then look for the ideal candidate?

WHERE?
Whereas previously you would have had to rely on classified ads in the back of magazines or recruitment agencies, now there are a multitude of routes to candidates. Here are a few of them:
Your own website (Website Career Page)
Social Media – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook
LinkedIn Career Section (on your company page) or LinkedIn Paid Job Ads
Job Sites / Talent Acquisition Platforms / Aggregators, such as SmartRecruiters, Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder, Neuvoo.
Niche Job Boards and Sites – SGD, BALI, LI etc
University Career Boards
Referrals from current employees
Agencies. If you go down the agency route, there are costs – typically 15-25%, but they will cover most of the options above, and it does take a lot of the hassle out of it.

HOW?
So, once you are flooded with applications, how do you go about selecting who you want? It is almost impossible to glean anything reliable about character from job applications, so in the initial application stage it is best to stick to the experience and qualifications sections of the person specifications you have already done. Normally this is straightforward – the candidates are well spread, and it is easy to pick out the obviously strong ones. Sometimes you have several candidates who are very similar. In this situation I often use a scoring system against my criteria. If it is still difficult, start by telephone interviewing the candidates you are most interested in. I tend to find that it can be quite good to cover experience and technical issues on the telephone. I stick rigidly to a script scoring each participant and then compare the scores afterwards. You can always weight the scores for areas that you think are more important.

When it comes to face to face interviews, allow plenty of time. Chat first to put them at their ease. Spend a little time telling them about the role and the organisation if you need to, but remember that at least half to two thirds of the interview should be the applicant talking. Ask open rather than closed questions and give them plenty of time to answer. A good part of the interview should be taken up with cultural questions. Some of these could be scenario questions. Others could be ‘give me an example of when you…’ So, if your core value is around excellence, you could ask – “Provide an example of a time when you went out of your way and jumped through hoops to delight a customer” or around team work you could ask “When you work with a team, describe the role that you are most likely to play on the team.” Followed by “How would co-workers describe the role that you play on a team?”
Apply the two-hour test… could you spend two hours (say on a train) with this person? Could you enjoy their company at the dinner table for two hours, or would you be bored stiff? And how will they fit in with other people in the team? Whilst it is important that you can get on with potential employees, it is also important that you don’t just hire people like yourself. The best teams are made up of lots of different types of people. Imagine a football team of all strikers (or worse still, all goalies!). And don’t just hire people who will make you look good. There is an old management adage that says: ‘Hire people who are smarter than you.’ I believe that learning is a two-way process. We learn a lot form our employees at all levels, just as they learn from working with us.
Don’t rule out some sort of test – particularly if you are a sole trader or very small business and this is a major step up for you.

Finally, Check references. Not long ago, we were looking to appoint a new member of the design team. Interview went well, applicant seemed good on the verge of appointing we took up references. This popped into my inbox (just an anonymised excerpt from a longer email): “My experience with XXXX is that she is motivated only by his/her own self-interests. S/he is extremely poor with client follow-through—does not provide any customer service after s/he has been paid his/her commission. Often s/he does not reply to email requests nor questions. S/he spends a great deal of time in the office FaceTiming with his/her partner and has taken 5 vacations or extended leaves of absence in the last 8 months. S/he has very poor people skills is the most moody employee I have ever employed.” We didn’t employ them.

Salary is a motivating factor for around 60% of people applying for jobs, so naturally enough there is often some negotiation on a starting package. Salary in particular is a difficult one – people starting often using their leverage at the time of appointment to drive up starting salary. Make the salary range clear from the start and do not ‘promise’ the job before agreeing the package. Bear in mind where the new person will fit into the range of salaries of existing employees. Sometimes agreeing a higher salary but tying it to no review for say eighteen months allows both situations to be addressed. Offering ‘one-off’ items such as help with moving costs can also ease the situation without affecting the position permanently.

Once an appointment is in place and a starting date agreed, make all the necessary arrangements swiftly and efficiently. Make sure that the new starter has all the necessary hardware (desk/chair /phone/computer/vehicle etc) and software and logins (including email addresses etc). They will have enough to worry about when they start without adding to it with hassles over their working environment, plus it will send the right message from the beginning.

So how do you retain staff once they are in post? Although money is important when people are looking to change jobs, curiously it is not the main issue for most people in whether they stay in a job. These are the top issues:

  • Feeling valued and rewarded. Money is important here, but it is not nearly as important as feeling valued
  • Knowing clearly what is expected of them
  • Quality of management – especially sticking to promises and being fair and consistent
  • Ability to speak their mind freely and being consulted
  • Opportunities to learn and progress
  • Chance to use their skills and talent

Your culture and values once again play into these points. Consult staff constantly on important (and less important) issues and have an open and democratic culture. Regular appraisals or reviews also help as well as give employees a framework for improvement.

It is all too easy to be ‘busy’ with work. Remember that your business – all businesses are built on two things: the quality of their thinking and the quality of their people.

Are you doing enough to attract and retain the best people?

So, what does the future hold (and why should I care)?

Setting aside what’s for supper and plans for the weekend, for most of us, our plan for the future is to carry on doing what we do now, but perhaps a bit better and a bit more. But is that good enough? That was Blockbuster Video’s plan and look how that ended up. I am always suspicious when people say to me that we are living through a revolution – I have been told that for most of my life. But there is no doubt that that we are being buffeted by winds of change, some of which will lead to permanent alterations in how we work. I think there are three main socio-economic changes that we face, along with a couple of further trends within our industry.

The first is an obvious one – digital technology; although it is not always quite so obvious how it will affect us. Some of these changes have already taken hold – social media, digital design tools, Skype, etc., and we ignore these at our peril. However, some of the biggest upsets in markets come around delivery of service rather than the actual service – look at Uber or Air BNB for example. They are also difficult to predict and take hold remarkably quickly. The key here is simply to be open to new ideas and quick to adapt.

The baby-boomer demographic has had a an impact on the economy all the way through.

The next two are to do with demographics and are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin. So, my second big change is Baby-boomers. That’s me and some of you. Essentially this is people born between 1945 and 1965. This group has distorted the economy all the way through from the 1950s onwards. The oldest of these people are already retired and virtually all will have stopped being economically active in terms of earning over the next 15-20years. Research shows that people spend significantly less (particularly on capital items) after the age of 70, which includes things like garden design. How many of your current clients are 52 or older – most?

The millennial generation have a different outlook on consumption from their parents generation

And what of that group the millennials, my third big trend? This refers to people born between 1982 and 2004. There are significant differences between how this and the previous group spend their money. In short, Baby-boomers spend on possessions and millennials on experiences. With the costs of education and housing rising sharply relative to earnings over the last twenty years, this group either cannot afford to buy a house in the first place, or cannot spare much to spend on it.

What do these changes mean to us? I would argue that it probably won’t change the overall size of the landscape industry significantly, but it may change the focus. For example, there may be a drift away from private gardens toward communal spaces in long-term rental estates (as in parts of continental Europe). There is already a noticeable trend for the upper end of restaurants, hotels etc. to spend more on gardens. And an aging population may mean more spending on lifecare and healthcare institutions.

Finally, I promised two trends within our industry. The first of these is what I call the ‘blurring of boundaries’. Partly due to the pressures of change, there are no longer sharp boundaries between the professions, sources of work, and how it is delivered. To give you an example, twenty-five years ago, public space would have been paid for some form of local government and designed by a landscape architect. These days it may be planned by an Urban Designer, paid for by a developer and detailed by a Garden Designer (who is probably employing a landscape architect!). So an ability to be flexible and form partnerships (in the broader sense) is essential to survival.

Bosco vertical by Stefan Boeri – green infrastructure at its best?

The second industry trend is that of green infrastructure, again much of it paid for by development. Green roofs, living walls, the high-line and even community gardens are all examples of the more granular end of this, but at all levels and scales there are opportunities for our profession here.

There may be many changes afoot, some of which will undoubtedly be negative in their impact. My view is that if we remain open to opportunity and collaboration, then we can insulate ourselves from the worst sides of flux and take advantage of the most positive aspects.

(originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal, November 2017)