Earlier this year, I was invited by TELUS in Montreal, QC, to share my professional journey and research initiatives at their Women’s Leadership event to an engaged audience of past winners of TELUS’ CHLOE Awards for Leadership Excellence, Emerging Leaders, Champions of Diversity and Community Engagement. Part of this presentation was to share lessons on leadership; these are the seven I chose from my own experiences.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable
My primary research focus is on women in urban forestry and how we can support our ever-expanding involvement in our field through diverse networks and strategies. I believe everyone has the right to feel heard and that people need to get uncomfortable to effect meaningful change. To that end, I’ve learned to question my own biases and to become more self-reflective and open-minded to new and unconventional ideas. Ways in which I’m learning this is by working with diverse and interdisciplinary teams, such as the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition Shade Policy Committee, participating in non-traditional partnerships, and engaging in cross-cultural collaborations, such as my experiences with the US Forest Service Office of International Programs – see article: “Look More Closely, Think More Deeply: Experiences from the 2017 US Forest Service International Urban Forestry Seminar.”
- Communicate considerately
People may not remember what you say or do, but they will always remember how you make them feel – whether it’s hopeful, helpful, needed, supported or heard. When you’re communicating, practice effective dialogue and listen to what others are saying to understand where they are coming from before passing judgment or trying to formulate a response. A few years ago, while sitting in a strategic planning meeting, I was on the receiving end of an aggressive confrontation. Unfortunately, no matter what I said or how I tried to understand this person’s position, he was more intent on placing blame and making false accusations. I later learned that his wife had passed away that same week. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour, however it does explain it. Listening intently to people with an open mind does not mean you need to agree with them. However, their perspective may shed some insight on your own biases. Once all sides have presented their cases, then an informed discussion can begin. So be kind and be conscious of your filter; don’t speak poorly of others, it makes you look dishonest; and be professional, but be human!Studies show that three things motivate people: competition, collaboration and curiosity. Learning to understanding people’s motivations is helpful in determining and explaining their behaviour, and offers one pathway to more effective communication.
- Communicate Creatively
Most industries are good at sharing ideas amongst themselves because they speak the same language, but how can we bridge that gap to find common ground across disciplines? I am an advocate for creating new and innovative ways to share ideas and stories: whether it’s through film, creative writing, or art installations. As an example, the objective of my film, Women Branching Out: A Diversity of Careers in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry, produced in collaboration with Fleming College, is to profile women’s work in our industries and to inspire and encourage more young women to enter the fields. Similarly, in 2013 my film, Partners in Action: A Shade Policy for the City of Toronto, explored the 12-year journey of the City of Toronto’s UVR Working Group by profiling members, discussing the policy, presenting examples of shade in Toronto, and demonstrating the necessity of multi-disciplinary collaboration for skin cancer prevention. This film won the 2014 Canadian Dermatology Association Public Education Award. Since then, the film has been screened at various conferences and community events and shared across multiple platforms. The Chair of our Board has received calls from municipalities across Canada who want to develop their own shade policies.
- Follow your instincts
Do what you love and follow your instincts even if people try to discourage you. When my colleague and I were organizing the Urban Forests & Political Ecologies Conference (UFPE), we were met with strong opposition from the very people we thought would support us. There were subtle indicators that we were elbowing our way onto someone else’s turf. At the conference we organized an urban environmental art exhibit as part of the event; we’d never done anything like that before, but we brought together a great group of women and made it happen! From this we secured a book contract with Routledge to publish the edited volume, Urban Forests, Trees and Greenspace: A Political Ecology Perspective, the first text of its kind engaging with urban forestry through a political ecology lens. In the years following, I had the opportunity to integrate many of the transdisciplinary concepts from the UFPE conference into the scientific programs of the Canadian Urban Forest Conferences in my work with Tree Canada, which has since been well received. Had we listened to those who discouraged us, none of this would have materialized.
- Have a Plan B
If you couldn’t work where you are tomorrow, what would that look like for you? Make a list of ten companies or organizations that inspire you and stay on top of their activities. Make a list of your hobbies and the things you love to do – if you could leave it all behind, what would you do? Be a baker, a florist, a writer? Earlier in my life, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing quickly proved to be a career choice that first needed a more solid source of income to support. I had always been interested in environmental sustainability and so I embarked on graduate school, and my career shifted to urban forestry. As a voracious reader, I spent the next several years completing a Master of Forest Conservation, and then a PhD in Environmental Studies while pursuing professional development opportunities, joining various networks and contributing to various boards as a Director. Now I actively try to bridge my creative writing and arts background with my urban forestry career. Be engaged in your own life and think about transitions, pathways, and extension services for continuing education.
- Let it Go! (“GEPO”)!
Years ago, one of my colleagues used to frequently say to me, “GEPO” (Good Enough Push On). Having a Type-A personality, this has been a difficult concept to grasp; I’m still working on it. During the final year of my doctoral work, as I was struggling with finalizing my thesis (because it needed to be “perfect!”), one of my mentors said to me: “In the course of your academic career, this is going to be the worst piece of research you’ve ever written, and you need to be ok with that because you’re only going to get better.” At the time it was just enough for me to let go of my inhibitions and write everything I had wanted to get out. I submitted my thesis shortly thereafter. There’s something to be said for letting things go. Perfection is subjective. And when we hold impossibly high standards, we may miss the larger picture, personally and professionally. Understanding, evaluating and prioritizing my personal and professional aspirations has helped me make better choices and find a balance. No one looks back and says, “I wish I had worked more” − I try to make this point more concretely when discussing downsizing in one of my previous articles, “On selling our house: rethinking priorities.”
- Respect the past and the future
There’s a growing culture of shorter attention spans, and the need for things to happen now– a tugging urgency and immediacy. I think it’s important to remember the history of things and the people who came before us who have years of knowledge and experience – not just technical knowledge, but understanding how to navigate the social and political arenas of each aspect of our industries. Throughout my career, I’ve had mentors, both male and female, both personal and professional, who have guided and shaped my perspectives and decisions. I did not always listen to them or ask for their input, and years later, when in a bind, I found myself wondering what they would have said or done differently. In contrast, now being at a mid-point in my career, I believe we have a responsibility to nurture the younger generations and provide support when possible; whether it’s a call for advice, a reference for a past student or employee, or influencing change through our work in various ways. I believe that if someone isn’t willing to give you even 15-minutes of their time, then you really have nothing to learn from them. There’s a growing appreciation for apprenticeship and mentorship. Thus, it’s important to respect the past and those who are still connected to the evolution of storylines we sometimes find ourselves entering at a mid-point, as well as the future of evolving processes and leadership.
People often ask me: Who is the next generation? For my field in urban forestry, the characteristics that I’m seeing include: entrepreneurship; creative thinking; certainly more women; a more informed appreciation for diversity (both applied and social); an appreciation, desire and demand for more work-life balance. I’ve seen how some of my previous students have now achieved the things that they sought 5-6 years ago: once example includes Sarah, a dynamic, motivated and exceptionally bright young woman, who had an affinity for wildlife conservation and birds in particular – she now works as a Biologist with the Alberta Conservation Association.
I’m grateful to TELUS for the opportunity to speak with an audience unfamiliar with urban forestry and arboriculture to share what these industries encompass and more importantly how they impact society at large. I believe that transdisciplinary engagement and collaborating across multiple scales can help build democracy. I hope to continue to exchange insights with those who want to share ideas, lessons and experiences.
By Adrina C. Bardekjian, MFC, PhD
Thank you to Michelle Sutton for edits on this piece!