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How Planting a Leadership Garden Transformed my Business

My journey from an ill-fitting job and a side gig, to a life-changing experience leading a workshop in the pines of Idaho.

Planting a Leadership Garden
Planting a Leadership Garden Learn More

My journey from an ill-fitting job and a side gig, to a life-changing experience leading a workshop in the pines of Idaho. I was planting a leadership garden.

April 24, 2017 – Rapid Workshop Planning

As I board the plane to DC, everything is a blur.

10 days ago, I’d celebrated my last day at the City of Portland Revenue Division. I’d worked there for nine years, but I never felt like I fit in. The final three years there were particularly brutal, working in a position that was equal parts stress, anxiety, and boredom.

The job was like an ill-fitting suit with a scratchy collar. When the collar started to choke me, I decided to go even though the future was largely blank and unknown.

About a year ago, recruiters started calling relentlessly. I built a website to help me find a new job. When friends started asking me to build (and fix) their business websites, Women Conquer Business (previously called Foster Growth) was born. I ignored the recruiters after that.

And now it’s do or die time for Women Conquer Business.

But I can’t think about that now. Today, I have an itch that needs scratching. Six or seven months ago I’d applied to speak at a weeklong summer camp for adults and children.

Not only was my proposal accepted – somehow, I was the lead presenter. But I chose not to think about that. It freaked me out.

What the heck is a Chatcolab (it’s a 70-year-old leadership laboratory in a recreation setting for kids and adults)? And why did I fail to plan the event until a week before the materials are due?

In that moment, I deeply lamented my lack of curiosity and planning amidst the 50-60 hour weeks I’d put in to balance my job and fledgling company.

With a deadline of April 30, I armed myself with leadership books and in-flight internet to plan a 5-day leadership workshop for planting a leadership garden.

Leadership garden handout - self-awareness, gratitude, collaboration
One of the handouts I created during my rapid workshop planning sessions. It wasn’t until after I submitted the handouts to Chatcolab that I realized the principles outlined here would change the course of my life – and my business.
June 6-9, 2017 – Amalgamation of Leadership Ideas and Principles for Planting a Leadership Garden

After submitting the worksheets and citations to Chatcolab on April 30, I’d spent the past month sitting with the workshop I’d created.

It suddenly became clear why it was time to leave the City. The core leadership principles and values described in my workshop – self-awareness, gratitude, collaboration – differed from many of my leadership experiences there.

It also differed from many of the principles I learned while getting my Master of Public Administration in Leadership & Management.

My curiosity drifted to 21st Century Leader. What does 21st century leadership look like?

When I attend local networking events (e.g., Women with Moxie or eWomen Network) women business owners often speak from a heart-centered place of abundance, collaboration, and gratitude.

I needed the spirit of Portland women business leaders to come through at Chatcolab. That would help me for planting a leadership garden.

It was not lost on me that these women entrepreneurs are either Millennials or the mothers of Millennials. Millennials are deeply committed to leaders who value self-awareness, listening, and teamwork.

I also needed FUN. Adults know how to have fun, right? Right???

I decided to combine my earlier experiences as a camp counselor with the soft skills from my leadership workshop – self-awareness, gratitude, and collaboration.

Whiteboard with leadership workshop mapped out
Planting a Leadership Garden : The whiteboard in my office was filled with leadership activities and other plans leading up to the workshop.

I spent the week finalizing a detailed plan filled with activities that I’d hoped would get people up and moving while at the same time reinforcing important leadership concepts.

Thank God for YouTube, Joann Fabric and Dollar Tree.

Things were really starting to come together.

Jen McFarland and Jean Baringer at Chatcolab
My first time at Chatcolab, pictured with Jean Baringer, who was celebrating her 50th year at Chatcolab.

I didn’t realize leadership was one of my passions until after I arrived at Chatcolab.

June 10-16, 2017 – It’s Go Time! “Planting Seeds: A Leadership Garden (Planting a leadership garden)”

When I arrived at Chatcolab, I realized my workshop embodied the spirit of an outdoor leadership laboratory. My aspirational goals, fuzzy concepts, worksheets, and activities were completely untested.

I was also immediately faced with the reality I’d pushed to the back of my mind – I was the lead presenter.

Pinecrest cabin at Chatcolab
Once I saw the beautiful lakeside cabin my husband and I would be staying in, I realized the great responsibility I had as the lead presenter.

We were staying in the only lakefront cabin with a private bathroom. Everyone knew who I was and wanted to help me or know more about me.

I also learned that there were no prisoners at this workshop – if people hated it, they could leave at any time. Oh man. On the 5th day, I could be all alone. … Although I was fairly certain my husband would stick it out. Sigh.

And yet, I felt quietly at ease.

There were no sleepless nights.

And I didn’t feel like I was working. I noticed that during the planning too. Everything just seemed to make sense. Like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. This feeling confused me because I’d rarely felt this way during the past nine years.

That’s not to say that things didn’t go wrong.

I wasn’t really prepared for an age range from 30-96. When I stood in front of everyone the first day I truly wasn’t sure how it would work.

There were activities that people had done before.

I accidentally left the music on after the activity finished.

Sometimes I didn’t have enough time for a full debrief after group activities.

I did my best to take it all in stride. I was constantly experimenting and tweaking my approach.

Suddenly, this mostly perfect week was coming to an end.

Only one more session.

Gratitude jar from leadership training
Chatcolab gratitude jar with one of my favorite notes of gratitude, or at least one of the most clever. To whoever did this: YOU ROCK TOO!

Throughout the week, I’d asked everyone to contribute to a gratitude jar. On small pieces of paper, everyone at camp wrote down what they were thankful for – at camp and beyond. My intention was to use the gratitude jar to create group projects at the end. It tied into the other concepts we’d explored such as listening, reflection, trust, and collaboration.

I thought it was a fitting end to the week. Until I didn’t.
Lake at sunset, Chatcolab
The view from the dock in front of our lovely cabin, Chatcolab, June 2017.

I was exhausted. I stared out at the lake. It felt like it was staring back at me, beckoning me to tell it what was next. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I wanted to completely abandon my plans for the last day.

It was difficult to beat away the self-doubt. so many questions. Was it hubris? Was I too consumed in my own curiosity? Or was I beginning to learn and understand the beautiful people I’d connected with for the past few days?

I stayed up late completely overhauling my plans for the last day. I decided that to emerge as great 21st century leaders we needed to understand the generations leading up to today. And what better audience to understand generational differences, than a group ages 30 to 96?

I think the thing that most struck me was the impact the media had on every generation – except for Dolly, 96, the sole representative of the Greatest Generation.

Dolly could’ve easily spoken about the Great Depression, or other ‘global’ experiences taught in history books.

Instead, when asked about her formative experiences, she shared what it was like growing up in rural Montana. She personalized a question that many of us chose to generalize.

I’ll never forget what Dolly shared that day. I will never forget the room as Dolly spoke. You could hear a pin drop in there.

After the session, people were buzzing about generations.

I was so glad I changed things up.

As a trainer, I am still reflecting (lamenting) what could’ve been:
  • Option 1: sticking with the gratitude jar as the ending; or
  • Option 2: leading off the entire training with the generational piece and using it as the framework around the challenges we have stepping into a 21st-century leadership model that reflects and supports the values of Millennials (Generation Y and Z); or
  • Option 3: the generational training at the end was a perfect wrap-up.

For Chatcolab, I’d stick with Option 3. In the future, I’d likely restructure the content to fit Option 2.

Now What?

It’s now two months after Chatcolab 2017.

Chatcolab shook things up. I changed. My business changed.

I appreciate seeing the Chatcolab activities used in classrooms. It’s truly awesome to have that hope fulfilled.

I’m still sorting out how Women Conquer Business is changing – and more importantly – how to articulate the ways my business will evolve in the coming months and years. One thing is certain: I realized how much I enjoy speaking and learning from groups.

I’m beginning to understand and believe I can make a positive impact to more than one person at a time.

I’m giving myself grace. I only recently realized leadership is my passion. It’s simmering and slowly infusing itself into my business while I continue to build the business I have – helping small and medium-sized businesses create websites and show up big online.

So many changes on the horizon – I can’t wait!

Whatever Happened to the Gratitude Jar?

The gratitude jar is still intact in my office. I can’t bear to take off the wrapping, which will transform it back to a plain, white bucket.

It’s impressive to see the gratitude and awareness on display.

Children were grateful for friends and family. Adults were grateful for camp and nature.

All I asked was for people to pause. Take time out. Reflect on your life’s joy and abundance.

And people did just that.

Post-it notes with gratitude car - Responses from the Chatcolab gratitude jar
Planting a Leadership Garden : Responses from the Chatcolab gratitude jar.
Close-up, post-it notes, gratitude jar
Close-up of notes written and placed in the gratitude jar.

Now that I am back in my “normal life” I understand the challenges I face – and how hard it can be remembering gratitude.

It’s hard to remember abundance when we’re constantly reminded of scarcity, not only in the media but within ourselves – what we have versus what we want (money, time, etc.).

That’s when I stop, pause, breathe, and recognize that although I’m still planting a leadership garden, my life is already blooming with abundance.

I hope the same for you.

Give yourself a break. Be grateful. You’ll be an amazing leader.

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