Blog / A Tree Worker’s Climb to the Top, Lifting Others Along the Way
May 03, 2023
A Tree Worker’s Climb to the Top, Lifting Others Along the Way
From entry level to c-level, President and Chief Operating Officer Dennis Brown’s career is a case study in the ripple effect created by empowering employees
A case study in the ripple effect created by empowering employees
If you asked Dennis Brown about his career goals when he joined Lewis as a tree trimmer in 1991, he would have told you that becoming the company’s President and Chief Operating Officer was the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, he says, “I had no designs on advancing through the organization.”
He also might have said he just wanted to make the most of the opportunities that each day presented, doing the best job he could for Lewis and its customers. But over the next 30-plus years, a different story unfolded. “I was offered opportunity after opportunity, and I was equipped to take each one of them along the way,” Brown recalls. “I was empowered to grow with the company. Today I feel responsible for providing the same positive environment for every Lewis employee.”
Power to the People
As he moved from frontline worker to general foreman and through the company’s ranks, Brown found that Lewis’ management not only wanted him to succeed but were committed to removing barriers that kept him and his team from making decisions in the field. The management team included him in decision-making because of his expertise and judgment. This level of empowerment meant that Brown and his team could thoroughly engage in their work, functioning more efficiently. As Lewis promoted him to area manager, division manager, regional vice president, senior vice president, and then President and Chief Operating Officer, this approach enabled Brown to be a major contributor to Lewis’ growth. And it may be no coincidence that over the duration of Brown's time with Lewis, the company has grown from a Northeast regional player to one of the largest vegetation management companies in the United States.
Dennis Brown discusses how empowering employees is essential for the company’s success.
Brown believes this level of empowerment is essential for the company’s success. “For one thing, the physical environment we work in is so variable,” he says. Brown will tell you that no two trees, locations, or set of working conditions (from weather to wildlife) are the same.
That means workers can’t be hamstrung by overly prescriptive processes. “We have to be able to react and adapt quickly. We need to move large resources and entire work groups very easily to respond to storms in an efficient and responsive manner. Empowering frontline workers to make decisions is the only way to get the job done right.”
Empowerment is Good for Business
Empowering frontline workers to make decisions is the only way to get the job done right.
Brown’s leadership style reflects the corporate values he has helped shape over his 30-plus years with Lewis. Among his top priorities is unleashing the full potential of every Lewis employee. It starts with hiring the best talent. “Lewis has taken a dynamic approach to reaching outside and bringing talent into the organization. We also rely on ‘feeder pools’ of talent from within the organization. We work hard to bring the right people onto our team and equip employees to be successful and ready to move onto their next role if that’s what the employee wants.” An example is the company’s military recruitment efforts which Brown has spearheaded over the last ten-plus years adding more than 20 junior military officers into Lewis’ leadership ranks, teaching them the industry and leveraging their leadership skills to drive the company’s success.
According to Gallup, Inc., this level of empowerment is good for business. A report published in January shows that profitability increases by 21% per year when team members are more engaged and empowered. The reverse is also true: unempowered employees can cost companies. According to Workhuman, a Massachusetts-based employee recognition firm, American companies lose between $450 to $550 billion annually because of low employee engagement.
Here to Serve
Dennis Brown riding with a crew leader
Not surprisingly, Brown views himself as a servant leader, a style of leadership that prioritizes the growth, well-being, and empowerment of employees. Popularized in the 1970s, servant leadership aims to foster an inclusive environment that enables everyone in the organization to thrive as their authentic selves. Whereas traditional leadership focuses on the success of an organization, servant leadership puts employees first to grow the organization through their commitment.
When implemented correctly, servant leadership can help foster trust, accountability, engagement and improved business results. A study reported in 2019 from Triune Leadership Services discovered that servant-led companies report annual pre-tax profits of 24.3%. The S&P 500 came in at just 10.2%. Servant leadership is practiced in companies like Nordstrum, Marriot International, The Container Store, and construction giant Balfour Beatty.
Staying Humble, Curious, and Challenging the Status Quo
At its core, servant leadership is about humility and curiosity. It begins by acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and being willing to learn from people throughout the organization. It’s providing guidance without micromanaging, being curious, encouraging questions, and exploring different perspectives. “Humble leaders are curious leaders,” Brown says. “They value input from others to guide decision making. They understand shortcomings and failures and apply learning to overcome them.” Brown believes curiosity creates space for creativity and innovation, laying the groundwork for a more adaptive, innovative organization.
Curiosity is also about challenging assumptions. At Lewis this means challenging the status quo, a quality that’s key to Brown’s management style. “Challenging the status quo means that we're bringing all the power and thinking within the organization to solve our problems, and we're not settling for the way that we've solved them in the past.”
Safety and Just Culture
Humility and curiosity are crucial to two of Brown’s primary responsibilities: employee safety and delivering just culture. At Lewis safety is a way of life, critical for frontline employees who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Utility line clearance workers are in the same risk category as firefighters, police, and loggers. Mistakes can have very serious consequences.
Dennis Brown accepting UAA Partner in Excellence award for Lewis at Trees & Utilities Conference 2022
A lot of corporate cultures focus on blame when things go wrong. The concept of just culture stresses that mistakes are generally a product of faulty organizational principles rather than the responsibility of those directly involved in them. When errors occur, people ask, “What went wrong? How can we help?” This approach helps to create an environment where employees feel free to report errors and allows everyone to learn from mistakes. Honest human mistakes are seen as learning opportunities for the entire organization and employees might be offered additional training and coaching. The result? Human performance can expand beyond error management to building adaptive capacity and a culture of continuous improvement that is necessary for highly variable work.
Challenging the status quo means that we're bringing all the power and thinking within the organization to solve our problems, and we're not settling for the way that we've solved them in the past.
Just culture also fosters individual accountability and promotes a learning organization. At Lewis, this means frontline workers are hyper aware of their assumptions. When challenges arise—and they do on a regular basis—workers are encouraged to stop and ask a teammate for help, call their general foreperson, or bring in a new team member to put “fresh eyes” on the situation. After-action reviews are another way to assess an event. Teammates will take the time to discuss what went well, any surprises they encountered, and what they might do differently. Brown’s commitment to just culture can be seen in incident and close call reviews where he consistently thanks workers for talking about accidents and near misses, making comments like “our system failed you” and “you made us better today” when workers share their stories.
Companies implementing just culture reap a wide array of benefits, according to HSE Network, a leading health and safety publisher in England. Businesses report an increased sense of trust between employees working at different levels of an organization, a drop in operational costs, and a reduction in the total number of accidents.
Next Level Up
In the end, Brown believes empowering employees creates a ripple effect that elevates Lewis from good to great. “It’s a ’next level up’ mentality that prepares team members to step up when work, or life, throws them a curveball,” said Brown.
The concept of “next level up” comes from Lieutenant General Harold (Hal) Moore, who led his inexperienced 7th Calvary into combat in the Vietnam War. Moore (the subject of the movie We Were Soldiers) believed that there was always one more thing he could do to increase his troops’ odds of success, and one way he did this was to train his soldiers to learn the duties of the person two levels above them. He knew that instilling a culture of learning and mentoring was essential to preparing his troops for the harsh realities of war that undoubtedly lay ahead.
As an avid reader and student of military history, Brown applies a similar approach to business. “Embracing a ‘next level up’ mentality helps employees deliver on the Lewis customer promise to listen to our customers, meet our commitments, and deliver a hassle-free experience – even under the most challenging circumstances,” concluded Brown.
It also teaches employees that anything is possible. Because anything is. They see it every day in Dennis Brown.
Embracing a ‘next level up’ mentality helps employees deliver on the Lewis customer promise to listen to our customers, meet our commitments, and deliver a hassle-free experience – even under the most challenging circumstances.
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