Read about 7 timeless business lessons Todd learned by caring for a Bonsai.

Picture of Todd Herman

I never thought a plant on my desk could teach me lessons about business and life – yet, it did.

The Bonsai Story

I've always been fascinated with bonsai – and especially how people can be so dedicated in tending and pruning them so that, over many years, they become miniature versions of their full-sized relatives.

I don't remember when I got my first bonsai – most likely, a birthday present from my wife or mother when I was in my late twenties or early thirties. My first one was a juniper.

As I recall, I took good care of the plant, carefully watering it, and trimming it periodically. Then, for some reason, its foliage started drying out and dropping – slowly at first, and then accelerating, until the plant was a goner.

While I was saddened by the loss of that plant, I was still hopeful for better results – so, over a period of about 5 years, I tried maybe two more evergreen bonsai. What I learned – an evergreen plant like this can reach a certain "point of no return" and nothing can be done to save it.

Image of Juniper Bonsai by

For a while, I gave up on bonsai – until a friend gave me one for my birthday. This was a different type of plant, one called a "money tree plant." She told me legend holds this type of plant brings you good luck – something everyone can always use.

This bonsai lasted 5 or so years on my office desk. It, too, reached a point of no return, and nothing would revive it. I bought a replacement, and early in 2014, this second plant succumbed after 4 or 5 years.

In April 2014, I received my third money tree plant as a gift. This one looked great in the nursery, and I was told to give it plenty of sunshine and water – yet problems began a couple weeks later. I took it back to the nursery a couple times.

  • The first time, the plant was dropping yellow leaves – the advice was Water Less, so I followed the advice until ...
  • The second time, the plant was dropping new growth – now the advice was Water More, which helped until it began dropping yellow leaves again.

So, a third trip to the nursery. This time, I talked with Peter, the man who'd helped me pick it out. He and several other experienced garden staff took it out of its pot and examined it – the roots had not grown out much, likely due to the soil. Making a new soil mixture with improved drainage, they re-potted my plant and suggested leaving it with them several weeks.

Image of Todd's Money Tree Bonsai

A few weeks later, I went back to see Peter and my plant. He said searches of Internet sites on plant care gave contradictory advice on caring for this plant! Based on his reading and experience, he suggested:

  • Watering the plant less frequently and then only around its edges, forcing the roots to grow toward the moisture,
  • Providing extra humidity for the leaves.

I asked Peter to keep it in "the plant hospital" until it stabilized, and he agreed.

After a couple weeks, Peter called and told me the plant looked great, and I could pick it up whenever I liked! I went in and found Peter, who showed me the now-vibrant plant. I took my plant and a new soil moisture tester to my office, and returned the money tree to its rightful place.

I'm very grateful to Peter, who generously shared his hands-on experience to resolve contradictory advice and to restore my bonsai to health!

The Bonsai Lessons

How do I relate lessons from my bonsai experiences to business?

  1. Routine Tending and Careful Observation Are Essential – My plants frequently had problems when I was off my routine - for example, when I was on vacation, or when my "To Do" list was overflowing. By deviating from my normal habits or working too many hours, I was not able to carefully observe the plant – either I didn't look at it at all, or I wasn't able to focus when I was tending to it.
    • In Business – In your work, how often do you get off schedule by being out of the office or having an overflowing "To Do" list? When that happens, you're probably focused on catching up on the urgent tasks, and fail to tend to the important tasks.
    • Read More"Tyranny of the Urgent"
  2. Pruning Is Essential – It's tempting to let plants like these grow how they like. Yet, that goes against the goal of keeping the plant's size in check. I prefer a fuller, lower-growing plant, so I learned to prune shoots which grew out at certain angles.
    • In Business – How often do you review your business processes? Chances are, not frequently. Until the last 9 months, I hadn't either – yet, once I did, I found numerous opportunities to use Technology and improve Process to help my People perform better, saving money (Cheaper), shortening cycle time (Faster), and reducing opportunities for errors (Quality), and thus increasing my business results and ROI.
    • Read MoreDanger – Evolved Processes!
  3. The Right Tools Help – For years, I'd had a mister, measuring cups, and small pruning shears. These are essential, yet the newly acquired soil moisture tester might be the best tool of all.
    • In Business – Resources can make all the difference in the world! Even with great attitude and solid aptitude, a person can only do so much with the available resources. Are you providing your employees with the skills and technology to let them do great work?
  4. The Right Environment Helps – Soil that drains quickly and a moisture tray mimic conditions in the plant's natural habitat.
    • In Business – Many times, the state of the economy drives a company's environment.
      • When the economy is strong and a business is growing, a good environment generally comes naturally – everyone likes to be busy and to know they've helping the business move forward.
      • Even when the economy is soft and a business just has to muddle through, cultivating the workplace to encourage a positive outlook and focusing on what you CAN change, versus what you CANNOT change, sets the best environment possible for the circumstances.
    • Read MoreWhat I Can Control Is...
  5. Conflicting Advice Needs to be Resolved – Water less. Water more. The latter seems correct, given the plant grows in swamps – yet, the balance tips the other way when you understand that, even in swamps, there are locations set back from the water, or locations with sandy soil.
    • In Business – What do you do when you get conflicting business advice? Often, a short meeting with someone having a track record of success will reveal the assumptions behind the conflicting advice, and thus enable a better choice.
    • Read More25 Lessons in 25 Years
  6. A Competent and Committed Specialist Can Beat "The" Expert – Peter was not "the" expert on pachira aquatica, yet he was a competent and committed gardener who took on my plant as his own special project. Might I have searched and found "the" expert on money tree plants? Sure – yet, I bet that person would not be anywhere near as committed to addressing my problem as Peter was.
    • In Business – In business, how much better off are you getting "the" expert in a field, versus a competent and committed specialist? Many times, we've seen companies go for "the" expert in a field and be disappointed, eventually calling us in to get the job done.
    • Read MoreImplementing the Big Picture
  7. Boots on the Ground Beats Remote Presence – In addition to having the needed aptitude and a great attitude, Peter was available – in person, and just when I needed him. He could poke his finger in the dirt, feel the texture of the leaves, and take the plant out of the pot. You can't do that over the Internet.
    • In Business – There's an old joke among consultants – the higher billing rate you want, the more willing you need to be to travel to get it. While you might get good advice from someone remote, the ability to closely observe the situation is significantly limited. What I've found – there are intangibles you can pick up only by being on site, and are impossible to assess by someone at a distance.

In Closing

Are the lessons I learned from my bonsai only about plant care? No – as I've demonstrated, these same lessons apply to business, and to other areas of life as well.

"I am building myself. There are many roots. I plant, I pick, I prune. I consume."

– Wendy Rose, HOPI / MIWOK, from "Elder's Meditation for September 19"

Does your business have yellowing leaves? Perhaps it's dropping new growth? If so, I'd like to hear from you – just call or email anytime.

Sincerely yours,


Todd L. Herman