Strong leaders know that growing an organization means growing its people. They also know the difference between surviving and thriving. And if you watch any good gardener at work, you’ll discern habits that you can apply to your own leadership work as you grow your practice.
Plants have their own work to do, for sure. They convert the air, sun, and water around them into food, they extract minerals from the soil to nourish their growth, and they create new seeds to plant in the future. A good gardener optimizes the work the plants do by carefully watching the signals they are sending, and responding accordingly. Are the plants thriving? Are they struggling? It takes focused attention to create the conditions necessary for bountiful harvests and long-term growth.
Get Growing: 12 Things Good Gardeners (and Leaders) Do
If you don’t spend time nurturing the people in your practice, their motivation and performance will wither—and so will your practice’s performance. What does it mean to be a leader who grows people? Let’s take a look at what good growers do, and how you can follow their lead:
Understand the environment.
Gardeners school themselves about soil conditions, light, shade, rainfall, drainage, and a litany of other technical topics so that they can take full advantage of what the garden naturally contributes to their cultivation project. They also learn about external threats, such as pests, fungus, and unseasonable weather.
Good leaders pore over qualitative and quantitative data so that they understand their practice’s internal strengths (maybe you’re highly skilled in FLACS) and weaknesses (like non-existent marketing).
They also look beyond the organization and into the market and larger economy so they can take advantage of opportunities (acquiring new diagnostic technology) and safeguard against external threats (health system acquiring local practices).
Supply the infrastructure and nourishment necessary for growth.
Good gardeners dig trenches to drain away soggy quagmires, install rain barrels to help the plants survive drought, and they apply compost and fertilizer strategically. Similarly, good leaders provide the framework and continuing education necessary to help their employees thrive. This might mean shelling out to attend conferences like AAO or Vision Expo, or sending someone to your EHR vendor’s user group meeting. It could also mean taking the time to review your practice’s policies and procedures to make sure they work with—and not against—your staff.
Select the right plants.
Few gardeners begin with a blank slate, but eventually every gardener needs to plant new, entry-level seeds or install mid-level or mature plants. A hasty, thoughtless trip to the garden center isn’t the answer. At just the right season, the master gardener considers the plants already growing in the garden, researches the kinds of plants that thrive in the climate and in particular spaces, and carefully examines each plant available to select the best specimen. The gardener digs a good hole, supplies plenty of water and fertilizer, and watches the new plant more closely than the other ones during its early days to learn its habits.
Similarly, a good leader hires slowly and carefully, ensures that a good ramp up plan is available (if necessary), and monitors early outcomes to assess whether the hire has been a good one. He or she also thinks through what traits a new staff member should possess to complement existing staff. Dig deeper with personality assessments, or at the least, thoughtfully crafted interview questions to draw out personality traits and values, not just skills.
Know when to transplant.
Sometimes, even the best plants don’t thrive in the place where they currently are. Their strengths are more suited for another spot, or perhaps they’ve simply outgrown that spot and need a larger territory in which to flourish. Master gardeners transplant without hesitation—both for the good of the plant and for the good of the garden. Good leaders do the same. When you have the right people in the right positions, your practice will thrive amid both day-to-day and long-term challenges.
Take the long view.
Most good gardeners have at least a couple spots that don’t look like much now, but are growing something for another season or another year. Good leaders are always thinking about what their organizations will look like in the future, and they’ve planted the seeds and created the conditions to make the future happen. How?
By regularly and clearly communicating their vision of the practice and helping staff understand how their everyday work helps accomplish those goals. A good leader also takes the time to develop the future leaders in their practice.
Help the plants adapt to sudden change.
You can know seasonal patterns inside and out, but sometimes you’ll be surprised by freak incidents that you didn’t forecast—like a late frost or a prolonged drought. Good leaders face the brutal facts, adapt to them, and help their teams adapt also. Whether you’re suddenly getting claims denials for an unexpected reason, or need to give an employee negative feedback, hiding from the challenge won’t do. You’ll never prevail if you pretend nothing is wrong.
Experiment—and watch the analytics.
Even when master gardeners appear to be resting in their gardens, they’re not just resting. They’re watching. A garden is really just hundreds of little experiments of various durations. A watchful gardener is always considering the factors affecting each experiment, observing the outcomes, and figuring out how to make the most of what she’s learning.
Running your practice on instinct isn’t enough. A good leader must know what data to measure, how to measure it, and what to do with that data. The right benchmarking data can alert you to potential problems before they turn into profit-killers, giving you the chance to turn things around.
Foster good communication.
Not everything happens because of the gardener’s direct intervention. Sometimes good things happen because of conditions the gardener has created. Pollination is a good example. Gardeners increase the odds that pollination will happen by mulching profusely, scattering shallow basins of water around, and limiting toxic chemicals.
Similarly, good leaders aren’t involved in all the little communications and transactions that happen in their organizations, but they’ve created the conditions that make them productive. For example, you can’t force patients to spend more in your optical. But you can give your opticians the sales tools and skills that enable to them to convey the features and benefits of eyewear to patients. You’ll increase your capture rate, and eventually you’ll see a positive effect on your bottom line.
Prune and redirect for optimal growth.
Think gardeners are gentle earth mothers all the time? Think again. Sometimes good gardeners are ruthless. They know when they must prune. Strategic pruning isn’t trimming or simply prettying up a plant’s ragged outlines. A pruner assesses the plant and reaches in among its branches to hack off where dead growth begins. Pruning is selective: sometimes you remove branches that look perfectly fine because you know those branches are diverting the plant’s energy away from more productive directions. Pruning well, like leading well, requires decisiveness and bravery.
“As the gardener, by severe pruning, forces the sap of the tree into one or two vigorous limbs, so should you stop off your miscellaneous activity and concentrate your force on one or a few points.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Spot and stop what’s toxic.
Whether it be marauding pests or invasive plants, something’s always around to hinder the plants’ growth and stall the garden’s development. Good gardeners and good leaders are on the lookout for the earliest signs of toxicity. Sometimes it’s best to let nature run its course and correct itself. Sometimes, swift, decisive action is required. A good leader knows the difference.
Letting issues fester under the surface at your practice drains time and energy from your core mission. Whether its drama between your front and back office, or a physician partner who’s not pulling his or her weight, those issues need to be addressed head on.
One can never be at all places at all times, but a gardener is often somewhere among the plants—watching for signs of how they’re really doing, planting seeds, making moves, and creating conditions for optimal growth. Cultivating is dirty work, and so is leadership. If you’re not aware of the challenges those on the front lines of your practice face every day—and if you don’t celebrate their successes (even small ones)—you’re going to have a tough time inspiring staff to follow your leadership. Quality leadership takes courage, focus, emotional intelligence, and plain old hard work.
Don’t mess with what’s working.
Master gardeners are proudest of the spots that work beautifully on their own—with little intervention. They understand clearly that they don’t have to be micromanagers for beauty to happen. Yeah, they’ll admit, they created the conditions to get the whole plot going, but they couldn’t have done it without good plants and some dumb luck. Good leaders behave similarly. They understand when plots thrive well without them and go on to plough new fields.
It can be tough for a physician—who’s used to being in control in the exam room or surgical suite—to become comfortable giving up some of that control to others. But part of being a good leader means knowing when to delegate so that you can focus on tasks that only you can do. Focus on caring for patients and growing your practice, and trust—and train—your staff to handle everything else.