Monday, April 20, 2015

Lead Through Example

The textbook definition of leadership is the action of leading a group of people or an organization. At the 30,000-foot level that definition covers it, but when you are the ground level where snow is pushed and ice melted, leadership has a far wider and more relevant meaning. “Leadership is about being a role model, a coach and a mentor,” says Jason Dickey, director of operations for Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. “Knowing when to step in and when not to, and, most importantly, supporting and putting your people in the best position to succeed.”

Born and raised in Minnesota, Dickey moved to Ohio when he was a sophomore in high school after his father was transferred for work. The move to the Buckeye state was offset by the fact both his parents were Ohio natives, graduates of The Ohio State University and their families lived in the state. “My dad was offered two options when he told he was getting transferred and one of them was Cleveland,” Dickey says. “It was a pretty easy decision at that point.”

Dickey was a standout hockey player in Minnesota and took his talents to a Cleveland-area high school powerhouse. He renewed his hockey career at Penn State University, but realized that a future in the sport was not in the cards.

He returned to Cleveland and enrolled at Baldwin Wallace University and earned a degree in accounting while still enjoying lacing up the skates in recreational leagues. It was during college that Dickey had his first exposure to the snow industry working for a local snow removal outfit.

Following graduation Dickey interviewed with several accounting firms, but could not see sitting behind a desk doing tax returns or auditing books for the rest of his career. In his first industry job, Dickey worked both inside and outside combining his accounting skills and his enjoyment of being out in the field where the action was. “I enjoyed the challenge of clearing multiple parking lots during a major event and the satisfaction of getting the site ready to go for the client by the next day,” Dickey says. “I wasn’t going to find that in accounting.”

Dickey credits working with three different snow and landscape management companies for accelerating his learning curve as a leader. “Each company approached their operations differently and that has been very beneficial to my development as a leader,” says Dickey, who on occasion still jumps behind the wheel of a salt truck to relieve one of his crew during a major snow event.

While managing both the landscape and snow divisions for Schill puts a lot on Dickey’s plate, he makes sure to follow a lesson learned early in his career and that a leader must be able and willing to do what it takes to get the job done. “You can’t lead without having the knowledge and being able to transfer that knowledge,” Dickey says. “The biggest failure in leadership is not supporting your people.”

Dickey says giving employees the right equipment, personnel, training and account information is the responsibility of a leader, and if you don’t, then you have set that person up to fail and the fault belongs to the manager. “How you carry yourself and perform during a major snow or ice event is important because your employees’ eyes are on you,” Dickey says. “If you have your act together and display confidence, your team will pick up on that and respect you for it.”

Earning a teammate’s respect is nothing new and is something the former college hockey standout learned from his first coach – his father. “My dad was my first hockey coach and my role model,” Dickey says. “He was a Vietnam veteran who was very open about what he went through. He taught me that nothing is handed to you in life and that hard work is the recipe for success.”

At Schill Grounds Maintenance they follow the mantra of “being hard on the process and soft on the people.” If something goes awry during an event, instead of pointing the finger, they take a wider view and look at the process to see where it may have come up short.

Just like in athletics they go back and “look at the film” and review the steps that led up to the event and where the process can be strengthened or adjusted. “We have several large property management companies with properties scattered across Cleveland’s diverse snow areas,” Dickey says. “There are different processes for each location and we always want to be able to communicate why we handled an event a certain way at one property but a different way at another.”

Dickey says no two snow events or clients are exactly alike and that is why the process is continually reviewed and improved.

When asked to describe his own personal leadership style, Dickey says it is an ever evolving work in progress. “Early on in my career I felt the need to be very hands-on and I did that to earn the respect of the crews I was managing,” says Dickey. “You are only as strong as your weakest link and I would work with the new guys or ones who needed a little extra help to get up to speed with the rest of the crew.”

Today, Dickey sees the bigger picture and focuses on making sure the processes that are in place work for the benefit of the client, company and employee. “I am always asking can we do it better and did I do enough to put my people in the right position to succeed,” he adds.

As a company that prides itself on establishing and adhering to sound operation processes, the ISO certification process is one that Dickey sees as an opportunity for Schill and the industry to raise the bar on standards and professionalism.

The ISO 9001/SN9001 quality management certification process addresses various aspects of quality management within a company and set standards that need to be met. The standards provide guidance and tools for companies that want to ensure their products and services consistently meet customer’s requirements, and that quality is consistently improved.

Companies seeking the designation must provide extensive documentation and submit to a pre-assessment inspection as well as a final audit. Dickey says Schill has gone through the pre-assessment and is working toward its final audit.

“Earning the ISO certification will not only help our company but the industry as a whole,” he says. “We want to dispel the ‘one guy in a truck’ perception the industry is sometimes stuck with and focus on the important role snow and ice professionals provide to clients.”

For Dickey and Schill, raising the profile of the services they provide and the value it brings to the table is evident with one of the company’s largest clients. The mixed-use center in suburban Cleveland features more than 1.5 million square feet of retail, residential and office space spread across nearly 100 acres.

And the complex continues to grow with the addition of a hotel, additional residential and retail space, and the construction of greeting card giant American Greetings’ corporate headquarters.

Dickey says his team has earned a seat at the table with the developer as plans are being made for the facility’s expansion. They are sitting in on meetings to discuss the impact the expansion will have on the facility’s snow and ice management plans and if there are design elements that can be added to maintain a smooth operation even during the roughest of Cleveland winters.

From the location of plant beds and trees in parking areas where snow often needs to be piled to the location of drains to allow for piled snow to melt, Dickey and his team’s advice is being incorporated before construction begins.

“When we started with the account five years ago they wouldn’t have given pre-planning for snow a second thought but after committing to educate them on what we do and how and why we do it we have earned their trust and confidence to help them manage this aspect of their growth,” Dickey says.

Jason not only leads his team for Schill Grounds Management, he also leads in life, says Kevin Gilbride, executive director of the Accredited Snow Contractors Association. “His on-going commitment to youth hockey in the greater Cleveland area is unmatched,” Gilbride says. “As a winter sport, you can only imagine the challenges Jason faces, but he is committed to leading in all aspects of his life.”

When Dickey is not overseeing the diverse operational requirements of Schill’s snow and landscape operations, he can probably be found leaning over the boards coaching his son, Brennan’s, youth hockey team or along with his wife, Heather, watching his daughter, Kaylee, play travel softball.

“We all work hard to enjoy family time and coaching or watching our kids play is something I enjoy very much,” he says.

When asked where he sees himself in five years, Dickey says he plans to be working to help Schill Grounds Management continue its growth but also be in a position where its employees are growing right along with it.

“We have unlimited opportunities to grow and need to further develop the processes and people to tap that potential,” Dickey says. “It is our job as leaders to make that happen.”

Jeff Fenner is a Cleveland-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

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