In my most recent post, I promised I would explain what flowers, mushrooms and toadstools have to do with leading transformative teams in state government. Without further ado, here are my next two leadership lessons.
Lesson #8: Teach employees to be “flowers,” not “toadstools.”
Any leader who has achieved even modest success in any size organization knows that much of that success comes directly from how well they have chosen the people with whom they work. They also know the negative impact and missed opportunities that occur when they hire someone who doesn’t contribute or—worse—drains energy from the organization. And I think we’ve all witnessed individuals who have secured accomplishments at the expense of an organization’s psyche and energy. These successes must be measured against the opportunity costs with which they were achieved.
To this day, I identify and manage types of employees using a metaphor I learned from Sister Eileen Kelly in my high-school theology class. Sister Eileen sorted her students into three categories:
- “Flowers” contribute to the overall atmosphere of the classroom, pollinating others’ thoughts and actions with their own.
- “Mushrooms” do nothing positive or negative. They just sit there, growing in a vegetative state, neither contributing nor detracting from the class.
- “Toadstools” are the third and most dreaded status. Toadstools grow, but not in a good way. They are toxic—a threat to those around them.
I revisit Sister Eileen’s metaphor when talking with employees about how I expect them to operate in the organization. I expect every member of the team to look beyond their own jobs and consider how they can be “flowers” contributing to the success and well-being of the team. That starts with the individuals you ask to join your organization. It sustains through the message that all team members convey to each other about acceptable and encouraged behaviors. And it works best when all members focus on the team—and quickly nip any “toadstools” in the bud.
Lesson #9: Support employees’ growth—even if it’s outside the organization.
As a government leader, you have an obligation to support your employees and help them grow personally and professionally. Yes, that includes growth opportunities that may go beyond your organization.
When I was Comptroller in Massachusetts, we were an office of 120. I made a point of personally meeting with each new hire. During these meetings, I always reiterated that each employee’s personal job satisfaction was important to me and that my door was open when there was something in the organization that interfered with that job satisfaction. My assistant knew to prioritize these meetings when employees requested my time, making this a genuine offer, not a mere platitude.
Another key message I shared in those meetings: “When you’re ready to grow, if growth isn’t available in our office, feel welcome to look for other opportunities—and ask for help making the move.” While I hoped they would remain in government, I truly believed their professional growth should come first.
In my next post—the last of this leadership series—we’ll reflect on why it’s important to spend some time with Jerry Garcia.
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