What great managers do: Prune

Being a great manager and English gardening have more in common than you might imagine.

If you want to improve your leadership skills, there no shortage of analogies that have been made about great managers.

A great manager is a “coach,” a “captain of a ship,” or even a “human shield.”

However, I heard a more unlikely comparison about leadership made on our podcast, The Heartbeat, when I interviewed David Cancel, CEO of Drift. He told me:

“I kind of think about most of this stuff as English gardening. If you want an English garden most of the work is actually the pruning and the taking care of. It’s not the planting, it’s not the plant selection. It’s this constant pruning. The day that you stop pruning is the day that the garden is full of weeds and overrun.”

I found this to be a brilliant analogy on several levels.

First of all, pruning is a small, seemingly minor activity. You’re not making big, sweeping moves of planting new shrubs or replanting a whole tree. This is also true of good leadership. We often believe great managers must take broad, bold actions. Strong decisions, rousing speeches, uncharted direction. But that’s not really what leadership is. It’s is not lavish, nor massive. It’s small, incremental action that engenders real progress in the long run. True leadership is genuinely saying “thank you” when a team member does a favor for you, or asking “How could’ve our last one-on-one meeting been better?” before you meet with a direct report.

Second, when you prune, you clip away the dead leaves or diseased areas of a garden to encourage healthy growth. A great manager does this, as well. They focus on removing frustrating blockers for their team – be it changing an unrealistic deadline, or deciding to fire a rude customer. They figure out what parts of the team are in decay or lacking in resources. Great managers focus on paring back, and then getting out of their team’s way.

Pruning is also done periodically, only when the season is fitting. If you prune all the time and you can accidentally over prune a plant and deprive it of nutrients. Leadership is similar. Harvard Business Review published research revealed on how managers who are “constantly coaching” overwhelm their team and exhaust them. After studying 7,300 managers, they discovered “employees coached by Always-on Managers performed worse than those coached by the other types.” Constant coaching, like constant pruning, is a bad thing.

However, at the same time, fail to prune consistently over time, and, as David mentioned, your entire garden will be overrun. Weeds sprouting, stems rotting. As a manager, you must be mindful of this. You can’t expect that a single one-on-one meeting with your direct report, once a year, will be sufficient for understanding their thoughts on what could be better about the team. A regular, steady cadence of communication – especially for one-on-one meetings – is critical if you’re to feel connected to your team as a leader. In both leadership and English gardening, “one and done” doesn’t work.

Thank you, David, for making this analogy. Who knew pruning English gardens could be a source of inspiration for us as leaders.


Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

3 thoughts on “What great managers do: Prune

  1. Nice to see pruning analogies show up in management as well. I in general like pruning/gardening metaphor for software development as well (not my find) Guess that is a kind of managing as well, not humans but code 🙂

  2. Oooh, I didn’t realize Know Your Team was spun out of Basecamp.

    Good thoughts, being a manager is difficult work (at least for me)!

  3. Managers have to willing to deliver constructive feedback, but in order for it to be taken to heart a relationships established in trust must be a prerequisite otherwise the words will fall on deaf ears.

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