Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: No plaid, no beard, no axe — but I still can learn from my inner forester

A forester bores into a tree to determine its age, health and history of water-related stress.
A forester bores into a tree to determine its age, health and history of water-related stress. Idaho Forest Products Commission via Northwest Management Inc.

I was just in Coeur d’Alene at the 15th annual Foresters Forum, a very cool get together for people in the timber industry. They cover topics like wildfire, water quality, silviculture and legal issues.

Now please know that I don’t wear plaid, have a beard, or carry an axe. In my black-leather skirt and scarf, I fit right in. They had no idea I wasn’t a forester until I admitted it.

Seriously, I wore that skirt for a reason — to show that I was a world away from them but that in fact we had something in common they didn’t realize. I was there to help the 200-plus foresters start thinking about doing things differently, building teams and solving problems, just as people in organizations everywhere need to — whether it’s the world of timber, sports or business.

When I was asked to speak to the group, I admitted (as I always do) that I knew nothing about the industry or organizations in it but would like to. So I asked a naïve question: What do foresters do? And it turns out they can teach the rest of us something about building cultures.

Foresters plant seeds or seedlings of trees and nurture them. They try to be sure the environment, including the surrounding soil, helps the trees grow into healthy forests. They watch for trees that become sick and treat them or cull them, to avoid having weak ones destroy the healthy ones. They encourage clusters of trees (forests) to grow, because clumps are likely stronger than a single tree.

Sounds a lot like building a thriving organizational culture to me.

Part of my talk involved having the foresters be creative — a terrible word for people like analytical foresters. Instead, we talked about doing things differently to get better. The example I used was how to stay cool walking about in a climate of 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity — think Miami or Houston in August.

In less than five minutes, the people in the room generated more than 400 ideas. When we got down to what their best were, they had several that seemed like ones that could become real products (e.g., misting drones). Maybe we’ll turn those foresters into entrepreneurs.

My ultimate point to them was that building a culture in an organization — like building a strong forest — is doable, can be fun, and can make for a higher-performing organization, just like a higher performing, or healthier, forest.

Watch out. As a person who enjoys the outdoors from the indoors, I might become dangerous in the wilderness yet. Who knows. Maybe I have a future career planting trees.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University.