Throughout 2023, we talked to over 35 Lewis GFs about frontline leadership in the utility vegetation management industry and beyond. Their comments were thoughtful, insightful, and inspirational. Here’s a summary of what they had to say.
Thoughts from the Frontlines of Vegetation Management
Check your ego at the door
Walter Miles has been a General Foreperson (GF) at Lewis for 14 years. He has always enjoyed the outdoors, so utility vegetation management work was a natural fit. In his early days of leadership, he made the mistake of letting the power go to his head. He found himself talking to his employees in ways he shouldn’t have and being more inconsiderate than he had been in the past. And he paid for it—Walter says he started losing employees. Fortunately, experience humbled him, and he realized his role was not about degrading or scolding people. It was about teaching and coaching. If he could give some advice to a new GF, he would tell them to leave their pride behind and approach situations not as a “boss,” but as someone there to help others succeed.
Many other GFs would give that same advice.
Over the past year, frontline leadership has been an area of emphasis at Lewis. As one of the nation’s leading vegetation management companies with a distributed workforce of over 4,000 employees across 27 states, it’s vital that leaders in the field, namely General Forepersons, feel empowered to make their own decisions, pivot when issues arise, and confidently lead their teams to achieve the success of our utility partners and their customers. To learn more about what GFs go through to make this possible, we talked to over 35 of them from 19 different states across our service area and asked them what frontline leadership meant to them, what qualities every GF should have, and what advice they’d give to newly promoted GFs.
We found that most GFs believed frontline leadership isn’t a noun, but a verb. It’s all about supporting, guiding, and bringing out the best in their employees—what Lewis calls, “Leadership in Action.” When we asked about the qualities every frontline leader should have, good communication skills and empathy were popular answers. And when asked what advice they’d give to new GFs, the most common answers had to do with checking their ego at the door.
What does frontline leadership mean to you?
At the beginning of this year, we talked to GF Christopher Williams and asked him for his thoughts on the meaning of frontline leadership. He used the phrase “influencer of outcomes” to describe his role, saying being a frontline leader meant coaching and guiding employees and taking responsibility for their potential actions by prioritizing safety. Almost 30 other GFs we talked to over the course of the year agreed. A majority of our GFs believed spending time with their employees and fulfilling their needs, as well as bring out the best in them, was an integral part of frontline leadership.
Manuel Camargo, a GF in our Illinois division, says it’s his job to prepare his employees for what lies ahead, whether that means ordering new supplies in a timely manner or advising them on the best way to complete a job. We also heard strong consensus on the importance of being a good role model, including being an example of our values for employees and our utility partners and their customers. Being a good role model means understanding Lewis’ Operating Principles—acting with integrity, improvement-minded, inclusive, respectful, responsible and trustworthy—and putting them into practice every day.
Nick Polhamus, a GF in our Michigan division, says he doesn’t expect his employees to do anything he doesn’t do himself.
“If I show up every day on time, I expect you to show up every day on time. If I do my job, I expect you to do yours,” he says. “If you expect one thing from your employees, you need to be doing the exact same thing.”
15 GFs agreed with Nick.
What qualities should every GF have?
“We’re not an individual crew. We’re a whole division. My strength is their strength, and their weaknesses is my weakness. We work together.” Alfonso Pina
One of the top qualities many of our GFs mentioned as a must-have was good communication skills. A GF wears many hats, one of which is disseminator of information. A GF needs to be able to take messages from our corporate and operational leaders and relay them to their team in a way they will understand. This includes providing clear communication for a workforce that represents many cultures and languages. Being committed to inclusive communication not only builds a stronger team, but also a safer workspace.
Prioritizing listening is another big part of being a good communicator, according to our GFs. Rocky Brashear, a GF in our Michigan division, says he encourages new employees to speak up and share their thoughts on things like how to complete projects safely.
“If someone has an idea, you don’t shoot it down. You listen to what everybody’s got to say,” he says.
Another quality high up on the list? Empathy. A good portion of our GFs said understanding and compassion are needed to effectively lead their teams. Brandon Kendzierski, a GF in our Connecticut division, knows that even personal matters can affect the way an employee performs on any given day. That’s why tries to put himself in his employees’ shoes instead of jumping to conclusions.
“Our job is to lead by example, but with compassion as well and an understanding of what our people going through,” he says.
What advice would you give to a new GF?
The Number 1 piece of advice our GFs had to offer new and up and coming frontline leaders was all about pride. Twenty of our GFs mentioned advice that had to do with letting go of pridefulness and perfectionism. Gabriel Estrada, a GF in our Texas division, says frontline leaders should expect to make mistakes—it’s part of the job. But with every mistake comes a learning opportunity.
“Understand that when you’re coming into a GF role, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to make good calls, you’re going to make bad calls,” he says. “You have to know that there will be better days. It’s going to be better. Just keep learning.”
Our GFs also said a person’s pride may keep them from asking for help or admitting when they don’t know something. That not only keeps a GF from a valuable learning experience, but it also isolates them.
Alfonso Pina, a GF in our Georgia division, says he keeps in communication with the other GFs in his area, along with his supervisor, and talks to them about everything from the problems he’s facing to mistakes he’s made.
“We’re not an individual crew. We’re a whole division. My strength is their strength, and their weaknesses is my weakness,” he says. “We work together.”
The next most popular piece of advice from our GFs was about getting to know your employees. That included building trust and making sure they have everything they need to succeed, from tools and equipment to the knowledge and skills required to turn them into Lewis’ next leaders.
“Get to know your team,” says Tim Truex, a GF in our New York division. “Find out their strengths and their weaknesses, and what motivates them and demotivates them.”
There’s no doubt that frontline leadership comes with its challenges, but if you asked a GF if the hardships were worth the successes, you’d probably receive a resounding yes from the Lewis employees we interviewed. The best frontline leaders know that every job is in service of a greater purpose, and at Lewis, that purpose is helping our utility partners keep the power on for their customers and working tirelessly to restore it when a storm knocks it out.
Walter Miles says he thinks about that purpose all the time and especially considers the vulnerable populations who depend on power for health and medical reasons. Although Walter had to learn a few lessons the hard way, he says he has no doubt he’s on the right path.
“You know when people ask if you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? I wouldn’t even change it,” he says. “I’d pick the exact same industry, just how God played it out.”
“Understand that when you’re coming into a GF role, you’re going to make mistakes. You have to know that there will be better days. It’s going to be better. Just keep learning.” - Gabriel Estrada