Planting the Seeds of Great Leadership

Planting the Seeds of Great Leadership

What do landscaping and leadership development have in common? A lot more than you think. Jeff McManus, former landscaper and author of “Growing Weeders into Leaders”, joins us to discuss growing plants, growing leaders, and the things that they have in common. We’ll touch on Jeff’s philosophy toward leadership, the ways healthy environments can be cultivated, and the Landscaping Creed that every organization can and should be embracing to maximize everyone’s professional growth.

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 Run Time: 33:21

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Brandon Laws: Hey and welcome to The Human Resources for Small Business Podcast. Appreciate the support. I’m your host Brandon Laws. Please go give us an iTunes review. We’ve been getting a lot more over the last couple of months and I would love to keep that going, just so other people continue to find the show. Really, really appreciate the support.

We also have a survey that you can find on the Xenium blog and on the show notes. Be sure to take that. I promise it only takes a couple of minutes and it just helps on the feedback and you will have an opportunity to win a book that we do a drawing for monthly, so better chances of winning if you’re doing both.

Anyway, on to today’s episode. Today, I interview Jeff McManus. He is the author of Growing Weeders into Leaders and has been the Director of Landscaping Services at the University of Mississippi. Most of us know it as “Ole Miss”.

His first book Pruning Like a Pro was about being a great landscaper and this book Growing Weeders into Leaders is all about the people side rather than the plants themselves. So I brought Jeff on. He’s got a unique background that I’ve never had on the podcast before. He’s got some really interesting leadership ideas and just growth opportunities for his people. And you can just tell, he genuinely cares about the people he leads and the results prove it for themselves.

He has won multiple awards. Ole Miss has won multiple awards for their campus and Jeff highlights a lot of the secrets about developing his people and just how far they’ve come. I think you’re really going to enjoy what he has to say about leadership and the growth and development of his people. So I will step out of the way. Here’s the interview with Jeff.

Brandon: Hey Jeff. It’s so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome.

Jeff McManus: Brandon, so glad to be here with you and your team.

Brandon: Yeah, I appreciate it. So first off, this is not related to the content of your book whatsoever. But I love the cover. Who did that illustration and the cover, the design? It’s one of my favorites, actually.

Jeff: Morgan James, my publisher, provided that cover. They did a super job.

Growing Weeders into Leaders book cover

Brandon: I think with the title and then with the cover design, I think it really sets the stage for the book and it’s a nice, easy read too. So I want to dive into the subject of it. You’ve got an interesting story, actually, and it’s one that – I have a lot of authors come on and they don’t have your kind of story necessarily. They’ve been either a lifelong business owner or entrepreneur or they’ve had a career in HR. You started in landscaping.

Jeff: That’s right.

Brandon: Tell me your story.

Jeff: Well, I was actually a marketing major. I was sort of in your world.

Brandon: Yeah.

Jeff: And I didn’t really enjoy that world too much, Brandon. I actually got an F in my marketing class and I knew that was a sign that I should go into a different area. I really didn’t enjoy it that much. I was taking a horticulture class at Auburn University. Truly enjoyed it. The professor there had a tremendous impact on me, the one class I had, because he knew every plant name. I mean he just knew everything about it. You know, one of those guys, like a walking encyclopedia.

But Brandon, after a month or so, what I really realized is that the name he knew that really mattered to me is he knew my name. I wasn’t used to that – having a college professor not only know my name but he wanted me to be successful, too. He was trying and working hard for my success. Dr. Harry Ponder.

So through that, I got hired down in Orlando for a year at a top-end resort at Grand Cypress Resort and then I quickly was hired away from there to Turnberry Isle Resort in North Miami. I was there for 11 years. After that, I ended up here at Ole Miss, at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, Mississippi.

Brandon: So during the time you were working at these resorts, were you at any sort of leadership level? Or were you really doing the work?

Jeff: Well, I started off as a manager trainee. And of course my dad made sure I was doing the work growing up. So I had my hands dirty. But since I got out of college and manager training, I’ve been in midlevel management most of my life. And of course I’ve had the entrepreneur bug too. I have a small business as well and have a small landscaping business. But my big thrust has been midlevel management and working in large organizations.

Brandon: So at Ole Miss, what year did you get hired there?

Jeff: 2000.

Brandon: And you’ve been – is it Director of Landscape Services? Is that the title?

Jeff: Yeah, they threw the airport and the golf course in on me too.

Brandon: Oh my goodness. Give us some context. How big is this campus? And then how many people report to you?

Jeff: Well, we have a thousand acres on the main campus. We have another 200 or so at the airport, another 300 or so at the golf course or the other way around. It’s something like that. It’s about 1,500 acres total. I have close to 50 people in the whole – all three divisions answering to me, 50, 55, just depending on what we’re doing. We get to bring in students part-time. We love to hire students and mentor them. Our staff looks at students as more than just people with strong backs and weak minds. They look at them as the future, and at developing them and actually mentoring them.


Brandon: So I think people know Ole Miss is a beautiful campus. When you started in 2000, what was the shape of it like?

Jeff: Well, it was pretty rough. It had good bones, as they say. It was a nice structure. But it was missing the eye for detail and we were in last place when it came to beauty. Our morale was pretty low amongst the team. It was an area where we were lacking in a lot of good, strong leadership and direction. I found that when I first came onboard, the people just didn’t trust me. They didn’t have a reason to trust me.

They had been burned so many times and I had to work hard to build the trust with our team to sell our plan, to sell our vision, that we do more than just landscaping. We help recruit the future of America, people who were going to go on and cure cancer and cure HIV. And that took a while to plow that up and to lay the seeds and plant that and water those ideas in our staff.

Brandon: That’s so fascinating. For most people, they would kind of look at a role like that. You know, landscaping. Oh, I’m just making the trees look nice. But you just said like the greater outcome, which is making sure that the top talent goes to Ole Miss and they can go cure – like they can get their degree, go on to bigger and better things and cure cancer. They may not go there because it’s not the campus that they desire to be at.

Jeff: That’s true. You know, 62 percent of prospective students will make a decision in the first few minutes, if they’re coming to a college based on the appearance. So that’s important. I mean we need to see the bigger picture and as leaders, it’s our job to connect the dots – we’re doing more than working for a paycheck and a pension. We’re working for a purpose. There’s a purpose for what we’re doing.

Our work actually matters in the bottom line, but also in changing our culture, in changing our world.

Brandon: When you first started at Ole Miss, did you realize you would have struggles such as the lack of trust? Based on previous leadership, you came into a challenging situation. You knew there would be a lot of work to do.

Jeff: Yes, I did know that. I knew that coming in, that there were going to be some challenges. I just didn’t realize how challenging it was going to be and it took a while. It took a good year, two years to really make some headway. But it’s like anything else. You watch nature. You have to be persistent. If you walk away from the garden, everything in the world is going to grow in there – weeds, everything you don’t want. So you have to continually till that and work it and water it and get the things that you want to grow.

It’s the same way with people. You’ve got to continually feed them healthy – a diet and develop them on the inside.

Brandon: You’ve got some awesome philosophies throughout your book and I want to touch on some of those things. But first I wanted to understand you early on in your career at Ole Miss, what was one of those “ah-ha” moments? Did the leadership situation change you as a leader? Are there any of those moments that stick out to you?

Jeff: Well, I think watching one of my role models, which was Dr. Robert Khayat, and how he empowered people. He was the head of the whole university. But Brandon, each morning, he got up, walked the campus and picked up paper and that right there –

Brandon: That’s incredible.

Jeff: Yes, it spoke volumes to me. Here’s this guy with all these degrees, he’s raising over half a billion dollars. All these things that are top level. But yet he’s out there willing to lead by example. For me, that just – it was an “ah-ha” moment over time that just planted in me and said, “This is important. The details matter. How you lead yourself is probably the most important part of leadership.”

It builds the credibility for everything else. If people know that you’re in there with them, they want to be a part of that too.

Brandon: I love that because it’s like not only are you walking the talk, but it shows that you’re not above anything. You may have this top level position. But you’re not above picking up garbage when you see garbage on the ground. Yeah, it’s just important.

Jeff: You’re willing to get your hands dirty.

Brandon: Yeah.

Jeff: Exactly, yeah.

Brandon: Did you do that as a leader a lot?

Jeff: Oh, yeah. I still do. You never stop. I got the great opportunity to hang around a CEO of a major fast food restaurant and he did the same thing. He just picked up paper. Every time he parked, he parked way away from anywhere he went. He just picked up paper and I’m like, “You know, these guys, they get it. They’re setting the example. They’re setting the tone.”

Brandon: Was that Chick-fil-A by chance?

Jeff: Yeah, it was. How did you know?

Brandon: You mentioned the Chick-fil-A owner or CEO in the foreword in your book. But I just remembered that restaurant being in the book somewhere. So I figured that was it.

You have this concept – and I think you trademarked it. It’s called Landscape University. I thought it was genius. I want you to tell listeners what this is. Why did you even create it in the first place?

Jeff: Landscape University was for a couple of reasons. I was being given more and more responsibility. I mean, we have about 30 people here on the main campus, and I was getting into the golf course and I was getting into the airport, and I needed to be able to have consistency. I needed to get the quality of our work to stay consistent. But I also needed opportunities for our people to grow. I needed them to be trained and developed in a way that I knew was correct. So what we did is we started developing classes and we let our staff be a part of this, where they helped develop the classes, where they have input in the classes.

What came about was a tremendous amount of ownership of Landscape University by our existing employees. They embrace the concept because they’re thinking, “When I’ve got a new person to train, it is so much easier to train them when I have this nice curriculum already put together.” We’ve created our own PowerPoint and we’ve created our own short video to put along with it.

Then when we go out into the field to actually work, they’re already up to speed on how to maintain the quality and the way we want to do things. I’m amazed, Brandon, how much time it has saved me. It has just been – I mean it has given us more time. It’s like sharpening an axe. You’ve got to take a little bit of time to sharpen the axe.

Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening the axe.”

Brandon: Yeah.

Jeff: That’s what Landscape University does. It just makes us sharper.

Brandon: What kind of curriculum do you have in Landscape University?

Jeff: Oh, well, it’s fun. The first level is all about your orientation. It’s an on-boarding process where we introduce new people to our culture and what we’re all about. We go through our Landscape Creed. We go through our vision of cultivating greatness. Then we go through some of the HR things that you’ve got to do – policies and all those fun things.

But then the second level gets more into what we’re doing out in the field, those core classes that everybody is going to be involved in. It may be silly things. But how do we deal with keys in our organization? Because we share a lot of equipment. So we have to have some ways we don’t lose keys. We go over simple things like that. What we do is we ask our supervisors and our staff, “What do we need a class in? What is it that you’re getting frustrated about?” Maybe we develop a class on how to put out pine needles or mulch around trees and those types of things.

We just keep working through. The next level 300 gets more technical in mowing. We’re real particular how we want our staff to mow, edge and weed. There are certain things we want to make sure that they’re doing and not doing.


So we’ve taken pictures. We’ve shown them the good and the bad. I’m telling you, how to put a lawnmower blade on, making sure you put this side up going in versus upside down. I’m telling you, it has made us so much more efficient and it’s just really simple communication that has really helped us.

Brandon: Do you have anything that’s leadership-based to elevate people who may be at contributor levels too?

Jeff: Yeah. Level 500 gets more into leadership. I do a class called Leader to Leader every month and everybody attends that class and then our HR department has some classes. We incorporate those into our Landscape University. Communication classes, what it takes to be successful, all these types of different topics and the classes are short. Each class has a little quiz. So everybody has to go through and pass the quiz.

Then we get into specialized equipment. We’re getting ready to get into trees and to level 700. If you want to be a supervisor, we’ve got classes for that as well. So we’re trying to cover everything that we’re touching in our department in these classes and in Landscape U.

Brandon: I’m going to make an assumption that you probably don’t have a hard time finding leaders within your people because you are taking the time to develop them. So they probably want to keep on growing and elevate to new levels. Is that assumption correct?

Jeff: I’m going to say yes and no because sometimes people do not like to lead their peers. They want to be liked but they don’t want to be the person in charge. So, you know as well as I do, if you’re going to lead people, it’s harder to be their friend.

Brandon: Yes.

Jeff: So what I find is it’s hard for some people to give that up.

Brandon: For those people who don’t want to become leaders, have you done anything to really strengthen their ownership over their role or their specific areas? So that way, they’re sort of leading within themselves.

Jeff: Absolutely. We have some classes based on knowledge, so we’ve got the technical part. But then they’ll also have a role in leading our students in a mentoring program. So they are assigned a student, or maybe a new person, and their job is to make sure that they get on-boarded in the Landscape University principles and standards, and teach them that way.

We’ve had students come back to tell us how much they’ve enjoyed working here because they were treated like a human being. They said things like, “We experienced such respect and really appreciated how the men and women in your department respected us as young people. Didn’t talk down to us, didn’t put us down, but really even asked our opinion on things and sought our feedback.” So yeah, everybody has a role in that.

Brandon: I’m sure a lot of employees who may be listening to this would say, “Wow, you provide a lot of professional development opportunities.” I mean like a structured training program like that, it’s hard to come by I think with a lot of employers. Have you ever run across employees of yours that just don’t want to take advantage of those development opportunities, who sort of want to come in and do their job?

Jeff: Well, anytime you start something like this with an existing group of people, you’re going to get pushback. And the way we dealt with pushback was to let them be a part of it. That worked really well because initially when we talked about it, yes, we had people going, “Oh, we’re too busy. We don’t have time for this. We’re not going to do this.” But when we kept asking them, “Well, what do you think the new person needs to know? What are some of the things that have frustrated you out in the field that we can do better?” Well slowly they start seeing the value in this, and really, we owe it to them to give them this type of training, so that they can do it right, safely and enjoy what they’re doing and go home safely to their families every day.

So we have found that of those who initially didn’t enjoy it, some of those people are no longer here and some of them got it and came on board.

Brandon: I want to bring up a line from your book that I just totally resonated with. It was under the section Titles Don’t Make You A Leader and you wrote, “A leadership title will get you respect to your face, but you have to earn it to your back. You will earn respect with or without a title by the way you handle yourself and treat others.” I couldn’t agree more with that statement. So in your mind, how did you earn it as a leader?

Jeff: Well, the very first day, the very first week in the month, I had to do something that was just so simple, but a lot of people overlooked, and that was to actually walk up to our staff members, extend my hand, shake their hand, look them in the eye and say, “Good morning. Good morning, Brandon! How are you doing?”

Then start the conversation and listen and be involved in their day. I didn’t stay in the office all day long. I was out there and being able to compliment them on their work, train them out in the field, and then I had to share my passion for what I wanted to do. This is where people I think a lot of times make mistakes. They don’t share their passion for what they do. I love what I do, Brandon. I love taking an ugly property and making it beautiful. I love seeing people go from point A and get high and above in their levels.

So I started talking about, “Why can’t we be the best of the best? Why can’t we be like Disneyworld is to the resort culture – just the best?” So we kept planting these seeds in our staff’s head and I showed them. I believe that we could. And I took them to other places and showed them. I went on field trips. We went all across the southeast looking at places, building relationships, asking them about things that they saw. What did you think about this place? What was your observation?

We built that core leadership group and we kept expanding that. Even today, we’re doing leader to leader classes where I’m involved, and every single person has access to me. Make the organization as flat as possible.

So to me, you just never stop cultivating that culture. Then you learn that by watching nature. You got to get out there and water. You got to get out there and plant and you got to feed the culture to what you want it to be.

Brandon: You made the parallel between growing plants and developing leaders and for plants to be healthy, you got to do regular pruning and maintenance, water, all that stuff. But with leaders, what do you need to do? I mean it sounds like you’ve really figured that out. Give us some tips on that.

Jeff: Well, you’ve got to cast a vision. You’ve got to do something bigger than Brandon and Jeff. So why don’t we become the best of the best, Brandon? Can we be the best possible university in the United States? We never had done that. Well now, we have five national championships that say we are the most beautiful campus in America.

So that’s the first thing is get people to think bigger. And then you’ve got to accept your role, whatever you’re doing. And then just realize you’ve got to be the best at it. So if I’m picking up trash as a leader, I’ve got to make sure that person picking up the trash realizes how important that is.

So we talk about 62 percent of prospective students will make a decision based on the cleanliness of the campus. So you’re not really picking up paper. What you’re really doing is helping recruit the next doctor who’s going to cure cancer, because they may decide to come here because of what you’ve done.


You’ve got to believe that and you’ve got to continually talk about that because people forget about it. So that vision is higher. You take them somewhere with you. It’s a trip together because if they’re just a cog in a wheel and we’re just working until Friday and we’re just trying to get through – take another bite out of the apple, people are just here for a paycheck at that point and there is no passion in a place like that.

I don’t know about you, Brandon. But I love to work with people who love to work.

Brandon: Absolutely.

Jeff: Yeah, want to be the best at what they do.

Brandon: And not only that, but just like tied to the outcome. They feel like they’re making a contribution to the greater purpose of the organization.

Jeff: That’s right. I had a lady, after I was speaking in a large organization, come up to me and she was like, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand how it is that you can get your staff to have so much excitement and pride in what they do.” It kind of hit me. I was like, “I’ve been so close to it for so long, I don’t always see that. Maybe I take it for granted.”

But we started figuring that out. What we have to do is give them ownership. We have to let them have a voice at the table. If you’re not willing to do those things and let them have some voice at the table, it’s not theirs. So when you leave, they’re not going to work hard. They’re just going to say, “Hey man, let’s just do enough to keep from getting fired,” right?

Brandon: Yeah, exactly. Earlier, you brought up the landscaping creed that you created, and even in the book you outlined the entire thing. So basically it’s kind of your vision, your principles that you’ve developed. How do you make sure this sticks? Do you talk about it on a regular basis? Do you integrate it with some other practices that you have? I would love to hear that.

Jeff: So the cool thing about Landscape University is that we’re constantly growing ourselves here. You’ve got to fertilize and water. So one of the things we did is hire a speaker, Terry Johnson, who was a local guy, who was a Green Beret, and he heard all these things we were doing. We were just birthing Landscape University.

He goes, “Man, you guys are great!” He goes, “But what you guys need is like the Green Beret, the Special Forces. You need a creed.” I’m like, “Man, I do not need a creed. What is a creed?”

So I let it sit there. But it was a seed that didn’t go away. It started growing in me and about four to five years later, I facilitated a group discussion with our entire department. I said, “What do you want to be known for, Brandon? What do you want the new person to know when he comes to work for us or she works for us?” and these people said, “We lead by example. We adapt and overcome.” They started saying these things. We’re writing them all down on these big Post-its, and we were coming up with all these great ideas, and guys were getting so excited. They went home that night, several of them, and wrote a landscape creed.

We took this and made it a process where we eventually hammered out the creed. And then you say, “How do we keep it fresh?” Well, every Monday morning, we have a meeting, which our staff now leads. I used to lead the meeting, but I don’t lead it anymore. I’m developing leaders, right?

So they’re leading the meeting and we say the Landscape Creed together. We will talk about maybe one line before we get started or I will just remind people a little bit of our history, where it came about. But it may be something as simple as, remember, everybody on that campus is watching you all because of your great reputation of how you work.

People love what you do out there and they love how you win national championships. All right. Everybody. Here we go. Then we will start the Landscape Creed together. What has been great about the Landscape Creed is when we’re doing job interviews, I have the candidate read the creed out loud and tell me what it means to him or her. You start finding out if they’re a good fit or not.

Brandon: What I love about this is that, not only do you involve your employees on a regular basis with your creed and restating it and making sure it sticks, but they actually helped you create it. Could you imagine what it would have been like if you just stuck yourself in a room for a day and wrote it yourself and said, “Hey you guys, here it is. Here’s the creed.”?

Jeff: You’re right. I was teaching Landscape University. I teach it to other people, and I teach it to real estate groups, I teach it to businesses. But I really teach it to other college campuses. And one time, a guy came to my course three years ago and he pulled me aside during break time. He says, “We’ve got to talk.”

So we go back in and sit down. He said, “Look, I’ve got a Landscape Creed. I mean I’ve got the Landscape University completely written. But my staff is pushing back and will not do it.” So I asked him. I said, “How much did you involve your staff in creating it?” He said, “I didn’t involve them at all.”

Brandon: That’s a mistake right there.

Jeff: You missed the first 30 minutes of my teaching. But yeah, because it’s not theirs, and you don’t want to have to take every single thing everybody says and put it in. People just want to be a voice. They want to be able to talk. You’re going to have a point person who filters and makes it all sound good and that’s what we did too. But everybody had ownership in it and that’s what people want.

Brandon: So the million dollar question, the title of your book Growing Weeders into Leaders, so you have this distinction between what the weeder is and what the leader is. Can you define that for us?

Jeff: Just think in terms of attitude. A weeder is that person who’s looking for a paycheck. That’s all they’re looking for. They’re looking maybe for a pension. But they’re absent of any passion or any purpose.

A leader has a purpose in why they’re there. It’s bigger than a paycheck. Yes, they want to take care of their family. But they also want to do something great with a team of people. We’re all just a small part of something really unique and special here. So that’s what a leader is. They take people along with them on the journey.

Brandon: I mean I’m sure you’ve hired weeders before. Is there a way to move them from a weeder to a leader? I mean that seems like the premise of your whole entire book. You can grow them.

Jeff: That’s right, that’s right. I’ve inherited weeders, and it’s fun to watch the process. Sometimes they’re sitting on the fence. So many times, they just sit on the fence. They’re waiting to be led by someone. And your negative leaders will lead them or they will be led by the positive leaders.

What I found when we started doing what we’re doing, we gave the positive leaders so much. I don’t want to use a horticulture term here. But we gave them so much water and fertilizer that it just grew that positive atmosphere. The negativity sort of got shaded out and it died. It just kind of went away. It got crowded out.

So it’s what you water. It’s what you intentionally want to grow. For me, I needed a culture where people provided tremendous results in a tremendous product with very few people. And I didn’t focus on the results. At first I did, and that was a mistake.

What I started focusing on was the culture and the people and then they naturally produced the fruit which was the results.

Brandon: I wrote down a couple of things from the section about moving the employees from a weeder mentality to a leader. You had some great ideas. You had field trips, bringing in speakers. You sent them to conferences, meetings. Like Monday morning stand-up meetings, setting goals for each employee. I mean that’s beautiful. Job shadowing, having a library of books. Those are amazing resources.

Jeff: Yeah. But, you know, if you don’t do it, if you don’t drive it, it won’t happen. Because most people don’t gravitate toward growth. They tend to gravitate to as little as possible that they have to do or can do. So when I bring the energy to this type of culture, they see that that’s the way we measure wins. We measure the win by how we’re moving the needle outdoors, but how we’re moving it with each other. Are we getting along? Do we compliment each other? Are we working for everybody to be successful? That’s how you measure your wins.

Brandon: I couldn’t agree more. Well, Jeff, thank you so much for being part of the podcast. I was on Amazon earlier and I saw that your book on Kindle was $7.99 at the moment. I would encourage people to go get that. It’s a good book. It’s a nice, easy read. Hard cover, it’s a beautiful-looking book. It’s nice to actually hold it in your hand too. So I want to encourage people to go get that.

Anything else you want to say just about what you’re doing? Any other things you’re working on?

Jeff: Well, I’m excited about the book. It just came out. We’re having great reviews. We’re doing a lot of speaking now. But also I teach a one-day leadership class. I just wanted to provide that for your listeners. If they want that one-day leadership class that we do, a lot of the things that you and I talked about, I have the PDF on that. I would love to just share that for free with your folks.

Brandon: Oh, thank you. Yeah.

Jeff: Yeah, that’s at

Brandon: Awesome. I’m going to put that right in the show notes. That way, people can just get a quick link to that.

Jeff: Yeah. I’m hanging out at and that’s all my social media. I really enjoy the growth process of developing and growing people. A lot of fun.

Brandon: Well, we appreciate you Jeff. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Jeff: Brandon, thanks for having me.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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