Leading and managing The Garden Company – 5 learning points

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What have you learnt from your job over the years?  I’ve been leading and managing The Garden Company since 1991 and recently I have found myself reflecting on what this has taught me.  These ‘learning points’ happen to be set in the context of a garden design and build business, but I strongly suspect they are applicable to any small service firm – architects, consultants, accountants – let me know!

Point 1 – Clients must always be at the heart of what we do and how we do it

We provide a high-end, bespoke landscape design and build service; we aim to ‘wow’ our clients, who may be residential garden owners or commercial organisations, schools, hotels …. Sometimes, we have two clients to ‘wow’ – the garden/site owner and also a fellow designer (where we build to their design, not our own). With all of this in mind, it can still be surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we want to deliver rather than listen to what the client really wants.

So … the first learning point I want to highlight is that designing and building gardens isn’t about our wants and needs, it is about those of the client.  What do they want from their garden or grounds?  What are their aspirations? How do they want to use the space in future? Of course, we can add a lot of value when it comes to solutions (that’s why we’ve been chosen!), but we need to start from a very good grasp of the project’s starting point and the desired outcomes. We have learnt over the years to listen intently to the client from the beginning and all the way through a project.  Our marketing materials speak about our clients, their stories and aspirations, not what makes The Garden Company great.

Point 2 – Failure to plan is planning to fail

A bit of a cliché maybe, but so true in my view. Any good project manager knows the importance of mise en place, a French term which translates to “putting in place.” This is the work that begins in the restaurant trade long before a meal is due to be served. Chickens are portioned, vegetables are peeled, sauces are prepared. It is certainly not exciting work, but it  is essential for a high-quality service and it reinforces the need for people to take pride in their work at all stages.

We hold this principle very dear at The Garden Company and we have invested significant time and resource into making sure that projects are planned and delivered effectively and efficiently.  We have captured our approach to this in both our Landscape and Maintenance teams by writing down a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all team members to follow.  The overall purpose of each SOP is to give detailed directions so that any individual can do a job correctly, on time, every time. They are great training (and cross-training) tools and we are glad we took the time out to document them.

Point 3 – True teamwork delivers results

Soon after setting up The Garden Company, I realised that to scale the business up I needed to develop individuals and teams to be able to help me to deliver our services. However, delegation has been one of the hardest lessons to learn because – even now – in such a competitive industry, every opportunity feels a little like gold dust.  Once I have delegated a task, I know that I can neither ‘abdicate’ nor can I interfere – so I’ve learnt to keep things on track by making sure that I have shared any information about the delegated task that I already have, by communicating regularly and agreeing interim steps, deadlines and progress reviews. But it’s a work in progress and for the full picture, ask the rest of my management team how this is going!

Of course, the alternative – trying to keep doing everything myself – is not sustainable. Leading and managing my own small business has taught me to appreciate value of good team work in practice. As company owner and manager, there have been days when I’ve not been quite sure how I’ll get everything done – perhaps it’s the big finish on a project in time for a client’s garden party, along with a proposal presentation to be prepared and a new design waiting for my attention on the drawing board – these situations are challenging, but they do reinforce the message: on your own, you’d never meet all the requirements made of you.  Together, through genuine collaboration and cooperation, teamwork can really save time, make great use of the talent available and deliver fantastic client service.

Point 4 – As company leader, it’s vital to preserve some thinking time

Many of us started out in business at a time when lunch was for ‘wimps’ and we all carried bulging time-managers or Filofaxes around alongside our over-sized mobile phones. However, as The Garden Company grew, I found that being very busy and rushing from one activity to the next without a pause was becoming a problem.  These days I have learnt that a vital part of my leadership role is to carefully protect some of my time for thinking and reflecting on the business and its future growth and development.  While day-to-day operations will always be a high priority, I know I need to balance my time spent on short term ‘stuff’ with bigger, long term thinking and decision-making about what we do and how we do it. Tactics that help me to do this are:

·         delegating to others (as described already)

·         listening and staying open to new ideas from others, inside and outside the business – otherwise, it’s so tempting to stick to old tried-and-tested solutions, and the listening skills I deploy with clients are also very useful with colleagues and business contacts

·         applying some good old stress-management techniques – for me, it’s about getting good quality sleep, eating healthy food, taking exercise, relaxing with the family and/or my guitar, walks in the fresh air enjoying my surroundings (remembering why I do what I do!).  I think it’s well-recognised that time away from the ‘coalface’ can often be the time that new ideas come to the foreground.

Point 5 – Being creative is extremely rewarding

Creating beautiful gardens for a living is highly rewarding in itself, not least because every project is unique. Every new project needs to be based on a robust thought process together with a sprinkling of design creativity and inspiration.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about the factors that have most influenced my design work over the years and the satisfaction to be gained from creating a space for people to enjoy.

I am always impressed at RHS Shows and elsewhere by the creative talent in our industry and the opportunities to be creative that come our way.  I’m so grateful to remain highly motivated by this and not ever feel stifled by my job!  It’s clear to me why many people switch into second careers in this industry because of the opportunity to be creative and work with nature, compared to so many deskbound professions.  As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with other designers over the years – building gardens to their designs and interpreting their concepts as sensitively as possible has been a great additional source of creative energy and inspiration for me.

And this leads to my final point – I’m glad I chose this career path

It’s not exactly a learning point, but the golden thread through all of my ‘rambling’ here is that we are a friendly bunch in garden design and construction! Sure, it’s a highly competitive world, but at least it is friendly competition.  In my view, the work just attracts nice people (!) – I’ve written before about how much ienjoy being immersed in this industry.  It would be easy to take this for granted.

A good example of the positive culture that we work in can be found in the support that many give to industry charities such as Perennial and Greenfingers. More selfishly perhaps, as a member of the Society of Garden Designers and the British Association of Landscape Industries, I can honestly say that I have met lots of lovely people through these organisations. Otherwise, I can see how being owner-manager of a small business could be a lonely place to be.


So, while most (maybe all) of the points listed are well-established in theory, I believe that it is my personal experience of leading and managing The Garden Company that has driven them home for me.

If you are a business owner, what would you add from your own experience? I’d be very interested to hear – whether you are new to the industry, or in the middle and later years of your career …. or from a different industry altogether!  Please do comment.

And if you have enjoyed reading this blog, please do have a browse some other posts on our website: www.thegardenco.co.uk/work/blog/


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