I started working in a managerial role at 23, and the learning curve was steeper than I expected.
When you grow up in a family business, you learn as you go. That’s great in the sense that a hands-on approach gives you invaluable firsthand experience, but it can also be hit-or-miss when it comes to refining certain skills. In my case, those skills were in the management arena.
From the time I was 13, I worked for Guardian Pest Solutions, the company my father had established in Duluth, Minn., in 1966. After school, I took the bus to work, where my brother Jeffrey and I took on any odd jobs sent our way — making bait bags, washing trucks, mowing the company property, vacuuming the offices, you name it. I continued to work for Guardian during my college years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Once I graduated, I ran a route as a technician for three years and then gradually began managing other technicians.
I wasn’t ready.
Age Gap. At 23 years old, I was managing people more than twice my age and dealing with customers who thought I was too young to be in charge. I recall on one occasion, when I was accompanying a trainee in his 50s on a service call, the client maintained eye contact with the technician even though I was the one explaining the remediation measures we would be taking. Although the technician was silent, the customer assumed, based solely on our ages, that he was in charge and that I must be a trainee out learning the ropes.
I grew accustomed to this age prejudice as well as to some level of resistance on that part of technicians to acknowledge my authority. But I couldn’t blame the latter entirely on the age differential — my lack of management skills played into the mix.
The Wrong Approach. For example, one day when I discovered that one of our technicians had failed to check the mousetraps he had set on a previous service call, I became flustered. I knew remembering to check the traps that he himself had set wasn’t too much to ask. Angry that this technician would allow us to pay him for work he clearly wasn’t doing, I followed my instincts and yelled at him. My approach backfired. Instead of inspiring him to work harder, the reprimand had a negative effect on his performance.
I had a lot to learn about effective management.
My management education began with my realizations that in most situations, sugar trumps vinegar, and that not every technician is out to do as little as possible. Most of our employees take pride in their work and want to do a good job. As managers, it’s our responsibility to communicate our expectations, explaining and demonstrating our procedures as needed. And when employees excel, it’s vital that we recognize their positive performance by complimenting them for a job well done.
Establishing a Culture. Over the past 25 years, I’ve worked to evolve our corporate culture to ensure that Guardian Pest Solutions is a great place to work for everyone. As president of Guardian since 2001, I have made strengthening our culture part of my daily thought process as I look for new ways to reward employees for their hard work and commitment.
I also concentrate efforts on improving our management capabilities. The great majority of our managers begin as technicians. They move up into management positions after proving themselves to be outstanding in terms of service, customer satisfaction and commitment to going the extra mile. These achievements are important in serving as an example to the employees these managers lead. People respect leaders who have been “in the trenches” — who know the business from the ground up and can solve pest management issues with the best of them.
But these managers also need more. They need coaching and mentoring to guide them as they change roles so that they don’t make the same kind of mistakes I did as I was developing into a leader. We provide that mentorship and strive to keep the lines of communication open so that our managers know they have support anytime they face a tough issue or new challenge.
In fact, as our business continues to grow, we are developing a more formalized management training program. We’re in six states now — Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Iowa and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — and we plan to continue growing through both acquisitions and organic growth. We can do that only if our managers exhibit effective leadership skills and ensure our employees deliver consistent service levels. We’ll keep looking for better ways to help them achieve those goals, because we recognize that a business is only as strong as its culture, its employees and its leaders.
As told to PCT contributor Donna DeFranco.