Nine Tips on Retaining Talented Members of Your Company

Cultivate Town Hall 2019 retaining employees

Panelists in the Town Hall forum at Cultivate’19 included (l-r) John Kennedy, Lauren Kirchner, Lloyd Traven (moderator), Tammy Behm, Mason Day, and Chelsea Mahaffey

Many regular Cultivate attendees know that one of the best presentations to attend each year is the Town Hall forum. Each year, the forum covers a topic critical to the future of the horticulture industry. This year’s topic, retaining talented team members at your company, was no exception.


As many growers have witnessed, it can sometimes be tough for new employees to find their role in a business where mid-level staff has been in place for years. So, as a business owner, how can you make your new employees feel so valued that they can’t afford to leave (when you can’t afford to lose them)?

As in the past, Peace Tree Farm’s Lloyd Traven moderated the forum addressing this topic. Also, as in past years, it featured a star-studded lineup of both experienced and emerging industry leaders not afraid to speak what’s really on their minds. This is why, per usual, no panelists can be quoted directly following the forum.

This year’s panelists included:
• John Kennedy, Owner of John Kennedy Consulting
• Lauren Kirchner, Director of Sales and Marketing at Spring Creek Growers
• Tammy Behm, previously with Greenscape Gardens and now Owner and Managing Director of May Pop Shop
• Mason Day, Co-founder of GrowIt!
• Chelsea Mahaffey, a Fellow at Longwood Gardens

Here are nine take-home messages and insights shared by this year’s forum panelists.

It’s Time to Flatten Your Organizational Chart

If there’s one mantra that emerged from the town hall discussion, this was it. As one panelist put it, the next generation of employees needs to feel comfortable talking directly to leadership, and this won’t happen if your company relies on the same organizational structure of management and staff that it has always used.

Eliminate Your Assumptions About Generations

On a similar note, one panelist said their company has stopped using generational terms such as millennial. “There are too many differences within each generation that it’s important not to generalize,” said one panelist. “You need to acknowledge generational diversity and start with a blank slate when bringing in a new employee.”

Acknowledge the Voice of Non-Family Members

There are many challenges in running a family-owned business, not the least of which is how to recognize the value of non-family members. “Make sure the voices of non-family members are heard,” said one panelist. If you are a family member within that business, you must also be able to identify, when problems come up, whether they are due to the natural struggles of a family relationship, or whether they are truly business-related.

“If your employees are constantly seeing family members fighting, they may be less likely to stick around,” said one panelist.

“Top Closed, Sides Open”

One panelist explained that you should view your company’s management like a tent, where the top is closed, but the sides are open. In other words, while there may not always be room for an immediate leadership position, you can always encourage career development within the rest of your business. At the same time, your company should avoid the “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” approach.

The Best Ideas Do Not Always Come From the Top

“The top people in your management team need to be able to acknowledge that they may not have considered a good idea presented to them,” said one panelist. In other words, be open to suggestions, and don’t dismiss what might be a great idea just because you did not think of it first.

“Maybe even reward your employees for coming up with a new idea — even if the idea ultimately doesn’t work,” said another panelist.

Have a Reason for Saying No

When it comes time to saying no to a suggestion, make sure your reasoning is fact-based, rather than emotion-based, one panelist said. Otherwise, you may discourage future idea generation.

Don’t Force New Employees Into the Wrong Role

You may have just hired someone who has a life-long love of plants, but just does not have the skills to connect with people. In these cases, be willing to seek out roles that best suit his or her talents. “Plant people aren’t always people-people,” one panelist noted.

Diversity is the Cornerstone of Progress

This isn’t just a quote from the television show “The Office.” It should also be an important philosophy within your business.

“Many of our new people ask about diversity and inclusion when they are interviewing for a position,” one panelist said. “As a whole, our industry does need to bring in more diverse people. The question for your business should be, how can we promote and celebrate diversity?”

Create a Culture of Feedback

At the end of the day, if your employees feel like they are unable to offer feedback without repercussions, the odds of retaining them are low.

“By encouraging feedback, you are also creating a culture of both ownership and accountability,” one panelist said. “For many new employees, making them feel valued gives them a great reason to stay.”