The utility vegetation management (UVM) industry has always been about one thing: ensuring safe reliable power service to millions of private and business property owners across the country at the lowest possible cost. While we seek to solve vegetation challenges for our utility customers, it’s all to ensure that those we serve continue to enjoy safe uninterrupted power in their homes and businesses. But just as the focus of our service is on people, so too must we focus on our own people — employees of companies in UVM and related industries. They’re the ones building VM strategies, managing contractors in the field, analyzing vegetation along right of ways (ROWs) for hotspots, and performing countless other tasks that keep our nation running.
It’s this internal focus on our employees that has never been more important than today. The past several months have been challenging for countless reasons — the pandemic being chief among them but certainly not the only one. And while we all provide training, resources, and support for our employees to help them excel in what they do, the responsibility for ensuring success must start with managers. Drawing on years of experience in the industry in multiple managerial roles, and from our own rapid shift to address the pandemic, we wanted to take this opportunity to share insights on how managers in UVM can support employee success in today’s world.
Much of the UVM industry was already remote, conducting the majority of work along ROWs in some of the most remote areas of our customers’ service territories in addition to more populated rural and urban areas. But when we all went even more remote, communication between managers and their employees became even more critical. Teams needed to know what was going on, what the goals for the day were, and had to keep up training and learning remotely. Due to the ongoing uncertainty with the pandemic, the need for ongoing communication is even more critical.
Whether you’re having daily standup meetings or conducting more frequent check-in calls with remote and office-based teams, maintain honesty in every single conversation. Be transparent with where things stand, even if you don’t always have the answers. Ask what you can do to support your team members, as they’ll have uncertainties of their own and will need clear and frequent direction. As a manager, adopting greater communication tendencies in your daily processes demonstrates your commitment to their success, positions you as a resource they can rely on and trust, and strengthens your working relationships.
Allow Employees the Freedom to Fail
We all make mistakes, but it’s important to remember that the opposite of success isn’t failure — it’s not learning from failure. When employees make mistakes, managers should not latch onto them, viewing the mistakes as black marks in employees’ files and not seeking to trust them with similar responsibilities in the future. This only disheartens employees, potentially causing distrust and even resentment when they’re not given similar opportunities in the future.
Instead, managers should view mistakes and failures as opportunities for employees to learn and apply those learnings in future work. Throughout that process, managers should provide coaching and mentorship on what caused the mistake, what is needed to fix it, and how to approach similar tasks or efforts in the future so that they result in success. Not only will managers be investing in their employees through this approach, but they’ll also be giving the employees a strong foundation to manage their own teams in the future.
Practice Extreme Ownership
Recently, our Safety Manager Keith Pancake shared a safety spotlight on the book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The central theme of this book is that what happens in your world is your responsibility — even if you have no control over it. As managers, we must own the work of our employees, though we might not be involved in doing the work or be on-site where the work is being performed. But as leaders, we must also own our respective shortcomings and mistakes.
Adopting this mentality and approach, both as managers and throughout our teams, empowers us to stop finding fault and start finding solutions. As leaders, it demonstrates our commitment to serving our customers with excellence and supporting our teams in every situation and project. The extreme ownership approach also positions managers as role models for their employees and sets the stage for how they should view and approach their work every day.
The past year has brought forth many challenging events for our country and the rest of the world. As a result, people are facing increased stressors and difficulties in their personal lives. As leaders, we don’t always know what these stressors are, or even see them impacting employees though they may still be there. We must be cognizant of what people may be going through. While we can’t solve our employees’ personal challenges, we can invest time in understanding them and supporting them as best we can.
Managers should focus on building emotional intelligence — your ability to be aware of and manage emotions and to have empathy in interpersonal relationships. Whether through training or constant practice, strengthening emotional intelligence and spending time with employees improves our understanding of ourselves and those with whom we spend so much of our working lives.
As managers, our roles aren’t only about providing coaching to employees during performance evaluations, check-ins, or training sessions. It’s about serving as a mentor to employees and providing coaching as constantly and consistently as possible. Our direct reports have strengths and weaknesses all their own. Our job as leaders is to learn these attributes, provide support and insights employees need to leverage their strengths, and support them in overcoming their weaknesses.
While every team is different, consider how you can best implement a coaching schedule into your team’s weekly routine. You may not be able to have coaching calls or meetings with employees every day, but find opportunities — frequently, if possible — to provide the coaching your team needs based on what you know about their strengths and weaknesses and the work being performed.
Last but certainly not least, we must have patience with our teams. For all of the reasons already outlined above, people are going through quite a bit right now, and we must be both aware of and empathetic toward that. Managers should continue to work on themselves, building up their strengths and leadership qualities while focusing on doing the same for employees. Every effort made is an investment in stronger working relationships and work output.