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Turning Over a New Leaf

Joseph Fearn


My official title here at Drury University is Assistant Director of Facilities – Grounds. I much prefer to call myself the Head Groundskeeper. I believe this job title says something about my philosophy of grounds management. Including 'Groundskeeper' in my title reminds me, and more importantly my crew, that I am to some extent like my team. We are all focused on “keeping the grounds”. Unfortunately, sometimes a rift can develop between us. The crew and I can have differing opinions on how well we are functioning in our role. This rift usually stems from a communication breakdown resulting in different concepts of where we are, and where we are headed. 

Getting to the bottom of it.
At the end of last year, our rift was why we were not being effective (we all agreed we could be better, the question was how). To find out why we had this gap in understanding, we undertook a meeting to have some discussion. I like to hear from my team because it gives them a voice and a stake in how we operate. Rather than ask why we weren’t effective, though, I chose to ask why we would accept mediocre performance? The answers were very interesting. 

  • Lack of recognition – hard work is taken for granted by organization
  • Serious days result in more of the same – maximum exertion just gets us more maximum exertion
  • No finish line – perpetually behind
  • No consistency – emergencies prevent a plan
  • Appreciation not shown with meaningful currency – put it in the paycheck, take us to lunch, get good gloves, etc.
  • Little cognizance of how hard the work is – This isn’t a chain gang, but we do work hard
  • We tolerate it – self-explanatory
  • Complacency – we are in a rut

Putting thoughts on a board makes sure everyone is seeing the same thing.

We’d Gotten Soft
Every crew I’ve been in has had these issues at some point. But the best crews always find a way to overcome, or at least to manage and get by. My final summary of our situation was we were soft. I mean we lacked the toughness to put our heads down and perform. We didn’t lack knowledge, tools, or even the capability to work hard. We simply lacked the conviction to do what we knew needed to be done. We were at the point where mole hills became mountains, and small obstacles weren’t being overcome. Of course, no crew wants to be called soft. If I was going to help us overcome, I needed to figure a way to get them to see this issue from a different perspective rather than just “being soft”.

Rather than ask why we weren’t effective, though, I chose to ask why we would accept mediocre performance?

Finding a way out
Communication within the team has many benefits. One positive is misunderstandings can be presented for open discussion. Instead of asking how our team could overcome “being soft”, I asked how we could improve our effectiveness. The team came up with several answers. What I think is remarkable about nearly every team I have worked with is we all know how to do a good job. By teasing out the thoughts of the crew, they answered the question of improvement on their own, with their own language. Acting as facilitator, all I had to do was summarize concisely what they said. Helping the team craft answers creates an attitude of shared commitment to problem solving.


Seeing something in writing adds significance to what is shared.

Our Key Response 
Overall, our crew performs pretty well on all these expectations. What we lacked most, at least in my opinion, was discipline. It is not that we had no discipline; it is just that we were demonstrating it inconsistently. Discipline allows a team to set a goal and pursue it to completion. Discipline also allows a team to manage problems that are potentially disruptive and overcome them. Discipline is the framework that underpins all other aspects of crew performance. At the end of last year, I told the crew we would set expectations and meet them. This commitment to discipline, first on my part, then on all our parts was to be the difference maker. 

A Very Good Start
Crew dynamics fluctuate, but hopefully evolve. What seems to work for a period of time, sometimes does not work perpetually. This is to be expected. What must be sustained though is the discipline to set standards and goals, and then meet them. If the crew is committed to meeting high standards, those standards having been well explained and unanimously adopted, discipline becomes the catalyst for success. Apathy and inconsistency are the opposite of discipline. A lack of discipline becomes a consistent drag on all efforts to improve. So far this year our team has responded to the call to discipline and even they agree we are better for it.


A disciplined crew is appreciated by the entire organization. You may even get cupcakes as a thank you.
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