In ten years, Plant World had grown from a one-person venture into the largest nursery and landscaping business in its area. Its founder, Myta Ong, combined a lifelong interest in plants with a botany degree to provide a unique customer service. Ong had managed the company’s growth so that even with twenty full-time employees working in six to eight crews, the organization culture was still as open, friendly, and personal as it had been when her only "employees" were friends who would volunteer to help her move a heavy tree.
To maintain that atmosphere, Ong involved herself increasingly with people and less with plants as the company grew. With hundreds of customers and scores of jobs at any one time, she could no longer say without hesitation whether she had a dozen arborvitae bushes in stock or when Mrs. Carnack’s estate would need a new load of bark mulch. But she knew when Rose had been up all night with her baby, when Gary was likely to be late because he had driven to see his sick father over the weekend, and how to deal with Ellen when she was depressed because of her boyfriend’s behavior. She kept track of the birthdays of every employee and even those of their children. She was up every morning by five-thirty arranging schedules so that John could get his son out of daycare at four o’clock and Martina could be back in town for her afternoon high school equivalency classes.
Paying all this attention to employees may have led Ong to make a single bad business decision that almost destroyed the company. She provided extensive landscaping to a new mall on credit, and when the mall never opened and its owners went bankrupt, Plant World found itself in deep trouble. The company had virtually no cash and had to pay off the bills for the mall plants, most of which were not even salvageable.
One Friday, Ong called a meeting with her employees and leveled with them: either they would not get paid for a month or...