What my garden taught me about leadership
It is that time of year where we are pouring over final seed plans, checking our inventory of seed pods and lights, deciding what and where we will plant things and it got me thinking about how much I have learned from gardening and growing things. Several years ago, when we lived in the city, we started growing some fruits and vegetables - we had a postage stamp size yard, so we had three garden boxes that took up the whole space and we happily planted tomatoes, peppers, berries, onions and herbs. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that I wanted to grow some of my own food, and I wanted to be able to enjoy that satisfying experience of enjoying the results of those efforts.
Well, as you might imagine, it was a mixed bag of results. The birds and squirrels were so grateful for the strawberry plants that we clearly planted for them and I was quickly reminded of my grandpa's strategy for picking tomatoes when they were green and ripening them on the windowsill after more than one tomato was taken from the vine, one bite in it and tossed to the ground. But we grew carrots prolifically and, for reasons still unknown to me, the critters left the black raspberries alone and we grew them successfully that first year - only to learn that red raspberries will take them over in year two, eliminating any black raspberries for the future.
Over the years, we have continued to grow flowers and food, transitioning to more than 8 acres of property, where we have even more land to explore, learn, fail and succeed in growing every year! I have grown in appreciation for farmers and growers and producers because it really is a labor of love and patience and resilience. So, what has gardening taught me about leadership?
The best results come from early investing, constant care and a willingness to recognize when something is not working and we need to shift gears.
It is surprising still to me how much the process of growing food relates to being a leader. For our climate, much of our growing and producing takes place between mid-May and late August, yet the process requires us to start in early February for seeds, the soil has to be tilled and turned well before anything goes in the ground, to get our best starter plants, we have to know when the various greenhouses put out their plants and time our buying to being able to get them planted and those are just a few examples of steps we have to take in order to enjoy the results in the garden months later. The same goes for leadership, we have to invest early in our processes, to ensure that we are designing them for sustainable success. We cannot just turn around tomorrow with expectations of results - our best results come from those early investments in the process.
The care that goes into growing food is intense - light, temperature, water, air and environment are all factors in the success of growth and failing to calibrate for any of them can take the starter of success and have it die off pretty quickly. As a leader, we have to consider the environment, the people, the resources and the tools that are there and how we show care to best utilize them if we want to get strong results. Failing to show care throughout the process of leading can cause people to quit, clients to make a change, customers to find other solutions or a work environment that makes it hard to recruit and retain the best talent.
The ability to identify what is not working and pivot is critical and something that I struggled with early on in the garden. What I have learned is that the ability to know when to pivot is important to overall success. As a leader, learning how to assess the situation and make the hard decision to move on is often the difference between a good leader and a great one. While it is not fun to till up plants that did not produce, leaving them there to drain the resources that the thriving plants need puts a strain on everything. The same is true with our teams and our business. We have to learn when to stop draining resources for something that is not going to be productive.
The power of AND - growing food is fun AND hard. It is rewarding AND challenging. It is art AND science.
You will hear us talk about the power of AND pretty often and it is because it is such a powerful shift in language. The recognition that something can be both/and instead of either/or reminds us to fully embrace the 50/50 of life and to not let our brains take us off course because part of the experience is what we perceive to be negative.
If during the growing process, I only focus on the "negative" feelings - this is hard, I don't know what I am doing, I cannot keep the birds/squirrels/moles/deer from eating everything, those thoughts will both rob me of the joy that is also happening and will keep me focused on one side of the experience.
Being willing to learn from my failures is truly the key to my success.
We talked in our last blog post about why failure is key to success, you can check it out here, but it is worth talking about again. When something did not grow, or did not turn out the way I had planned or hoped, it would have been easy to focus on what did work, celebrate what did grow and keep repeating those things for success. Taking the time to learn why something did not work - was there too much moisture or not enough, did I plant things next to each other that did not work together, did I move too fast in putting them in the ground or not fast enough - was the real key to finding and sustaining success.
The same is true as leaders - while celebrating success is important, allowing failure and being willing to learn from it is critical to sustained success. I have learned so much from failing throughout my career and that learning was a result of setting down shame and judgment and giving space to curiosity and candor. Learning to explore the failure, ask questions about it and not rush to shift to the successes are all actions that help both acknowledge the failure and be open to learning from it so that I can show up as a better leader.
As we plant the seeds for the garden this year, I am full of hope, excitement, nervousness, fear and the openness to see what blooms, what does not and what I can learn from all of it. As a leader, I know that the seeds I am planting are taking root, and while they will not all be successes, they will all have value, and that is one of the best lessons I can take with me.