Jerry Gaeta has come a long way as a successful leader since he first started as a naive 24-year-old Clemson University graduate. Back then he possessed a lot of energy, little experience and an Italian upbringing while leading his own landscape contracting business in Charleston, South Carolina, that he operated until 2003. Today, he is a green industry business advisor and coach helping business owners increase their performance and quality of life.

Gaeta was chairman for the development of the Landscape Industry Certified Technician program in South Carolina and represented the Palmetto State in the founding group, developing the program for the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (now the National Association of Landscape Professionals). He was also awarded South Carolina Nurseryman of the Year in 1991, being the first landscape contractor to receive this award.

Internationally, Gaeta has consulted and lectured for the green industry in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Guam, on budgeting, overhead recovery, estimating and bidding, managing work crews and overall business management and planning. For 17 years, Gaeta has worked with Charles Vander Kooi and Associates as a senior associate.

“I am truly blessed,” says Gaeta. “Since graduating college, I have lived the American dream. I’m active in my church and am a big family man, having been married 40 wonderful years. I raised three great kids who are doing wonderful things.”

Here’s what Gaeta has to teach us about “we” vs. “I,” gaining respect and keeping open communication channels.

How would you describe your leadership style and why does it work?

I was always open and honest with my employees. My job as an employer was to create a better life for them. I tried to create relationships where procedures were put in place, training was ongoing, metrics were followed and hard work always lead to substantial rewards. I acted as a mentor and consultant. I believed in empowerment where employees took ownership over their own areas of responsibility. I created work environments where teamwork took precedence over “I” work. I led with questions, encouraging employees to come to me with them. If there was a problem, I asked employees how they would handle it, then discussed best options. As an owner and leader, you are ultimately the one who takes responsibility for the problem. If my employees made a mistake, I asked, “What did you learn from it?” and not “Whose fault was it?” The important outcome was to solve the problem so it wouldn’t happen again.

How do you work at becoming better at leadership?

Everyone can be better. The best thing to do is to keep open communication channels. I attend peer groups and training seminars like the GIE+EXPO. I consult with specialists and receive mentoring from my peers.

Who are your leadership role models and why?

Charles Vander Kooi, who unfortunately passed away this March, Dr. Gary Oswald who teaches leadership training, and President Ronald Reagan. I also look at other New Jersey landscape contractors, including Mark Borst, Borst Landscaping, and Joe Palimeno, Ledden Palimeno, who possess great leadership styles to emulate. And, finally, I rely upon the many role models found in the Bible.

What leadership books inspire you and why?

“Lead with Authenticity, Discover and Develop Your Own Leadership Style” by Dr. Gary Oswald. This book helps you discover your leadership style. I also recommend “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie that I read in a leadership course in the early 1970s. I still use this book today.

What, as a leader, have you done that gives you pride and why?

Keeping in touch with my past employees. I find they were proud of what we did. I am leaving a legacy of people whom I was responsible for changing their lives. Any way that I can help increase the professionalism in our industry and increase public awareness that we are more than grass cutters or people who work in the dirt is why I have taken these industry leadership roles. We need to get more young folks excited about being landscape contractors because it provides self-satisfaction when you step back and see what has been created and all of the good it does.

What leadership words or quotes inspire you most and why?

The first one that comes to mind is JFK’s: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” As a leader in America today, I approach leadership as a process to develop what is good for all of us, and not just what is good for me.

If you were to give young leaders one piece of advice, what would that be?

Respect is earned through your actions and how you handle yourself. If you want your followers to listen to you, then they have to respect you. If no one likes you, ask yourself why. If they respect you, they will also like you. Lead by example.

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