When I arrived at the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, as director of Landscape Services in 2000, I came prepared to confront the truth of all those national rankings that listed the state of Mississippi at the bottom. What I discovered at Ole Miss was innate beauty and creativity just waiting for permission to grow. But Ole Miss’ grounds were not prepared as they could have been for recruiting America’s finest young minds at the start of the 21st century.
When then-Chancellor Robert Khayat interviewed me, he let me know that it would take time and effort to develop the potential of this campus. He understood that a total college campus experience, including an inspiring outdoor environment, was critical to recruiting top-level students, faculty, and staff to the university. He knew that students’ (and parents’) first impression of the campus would be a major factor in deciding where to go to college.
His goals were big, the landscape budget was small, and so it was critical to look to the people who maintain the landscape to give the university a competitive edge.
Growing “weeders” into “leaders” became the secret sauce that put Ole Miss at the top of several lists. It won four national awards for its beauty, including Most Beautiful Campus by both The Princeton Review and Newsweek. (We affectionately call these awards our four national championships.)
I studied environments, practices, and methods that allow plants to thrive at Auburn University’s School of Horticulture. I learned how to diagnose unhealthy plants and make changes that help plants grow stronger. Learning how to grow thriving plants as well as observing Khayat and other great leaders, I discovered ways to help develop great people and a great team culture.
I learned that having teams participate in the decision-making process has given them greater ownership in what we do. Some of our best ideas come from our front-line staff members. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan kept a quote on his desk that read, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Listening to, trusting, and respecting those I work with has paid huge dividends at Ole Miss.
Leadership practices are sacred at any level in any organization. All across the country, in every industry, leadership development that offers the individual employee the opportunity to thrive on both a personal and a professional level is needed. If employees, whether sitting at their desks, standing on a production line, or pulling weeds, understand that their ideas and investment of time, energy, and skill matter, then the culture of leadership begins to grow.