April 1, 2015

Mastering planning for master planners

Landscape design requires many soft-skill talents


When I excitedly strode out of my college doors for the last time, I was armed with a diploma and all the knowledge ever needed for a long, rewarding career as a landscape designer. Or so I thought.

I could name and identify thousands of plants by their botanical names, survey the heck out of any problematic site, solve problems via beautiful designs, develop a business brand, and even market it. Yup, I was on my way to landscaping Easy Street.

But the path was laden with detours and speed bumps, requiring more than a scroll and imagination to proceed. To really excel, a designer needs many soft-skill talents, rarely found in horticulture programs.  Incomparable communication talents to sell ideas, detailed project coordination abilities and productive time management skills all help pave the way to success.

Stop, look and listen
The ability to sell is a career requirement often overlooked by horticultural design students. Ellen Ruddick of Price Landscaping, Moncton, N.B., couldn’t agree more. “A huge part of the design process is to be able to explain the plan concepts in a way that the clients can visualize.”

Even with technological advances like colour and 3D CAD software, nothing replaces, “effective and articulate communication skills … when presenting designs and proposals to clients,” says Chris Mace of Gelderman Landscape Services, Waterdown, Ont.

While most of us left school armed with a list of questions for clients, the knack is in the listening and interpreting of clients’ answers: the detection and use of their hidden clues, identifying the pulse of their passion, and turning that into the one element that will show you heard.

“The ability to listen to the clients’ wishes is probably one of the best skills learned after my schooling,” states John Van Roessel of Greater Landscapes in Calgary, Alta. “The resulting success though has to do with both remembering the details and actually incorporating them.”

Get organized
Equally important is project coordination. Incorporating superior logic and organization skills, the ability to coordinate and stay on top of details, is essential for anyone intending to direct the execution of their designs (which have sold, thanks to your honed communication skills!). Designers with a job on the go may need to effectively organize the crew, the subs, the equipment rentals, the deliveries of soil, mulch, stone, rock and plants. Then, because we live in the real world, we may need to RE-organize the above due to illness, forgetfulness, clients with a mind-change, etc. Meanwhile, we may need to carry on with our other clients’ measures, contract signing, designing and presentations. Then there’s the paperwork.

The ability to handle this without calling in the stress brigade is an entrepreneurial quality that may not be mastered by all. Indeed, underestimating the need for strategic coordination skills can lead to poor execution, and in the end is the difference between surviving and thriving.

Mind your time
Finally, if you have ever wished for a few extra hours each day, take heed. Our daily lives blend into each other as yesterday’s tasks become today’s, and then tomorrow’s.

On honest reflection, additional hours to the day would not solve the problem. The dilemma goes deeper than a shortage of time, but rather a mismanagement of it.  A daily planner used relentlessly helps keep focus on immediate tasks. And what of distractions that devour our energy? Telephone interruptions, crises management, drop-in visitors, or over-dependent staff use up time we don’t schedule at the start of the day.
But let’s not just blame them. Some very common self-developed time wasters, and their antidote, include:
  • Disorganization: teach yourself or hire someone to de-clutter your space, file and schedule logically, and to use a daily planner. You’ll need to clarify objectives and determine the difference between important and urgent.
  • Poor communication: we touched on this already, but being clear saves time and money by preventing mistakes. “For employees, it (effective communication) helps when teaching new policies and procedures, installation methods, safety instructions, etc.,” says Mace.
  • Procrastination: the best way to teach yourself not to ‘put it off’ is to treat your daily planner like a rule book: if it’s written down, you must do it!
  • Inability to say no: the path to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say! Know yourself and your staff, and what is manageable. Ensure what you do, you do well because haste precedes poor work and errors.
Mastering these hidden soft-skills will find you maximizing sales, performing with composure and yes, a enjoying a bit of spare time.

Audriana VanderWerf, CLD, of Essence Design in Barrie, Ont., has worked as a landscape designer and management skills trainer both overseas and in Canada.