Leadership Learnings from the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference



Photo Credit: Debra Murphy, 2014
Photo Credit: Debra Murphy, 2014

I’ve learned a few things about myself as my career in agriculture media has evolved — I thrive on face-to-face interaction, retain more information if I discuss a topic with someone else (or re-write notes) and that the more I learn about farming and the agriculture industry the more I feel there is to know and the more I want to learn it. The combination of these things means that a conference like the inaugural Advancing Women — Leadership in Agriculture conference, held this week in Calgary, has left my brain full to bursting.

In my role with Real Agriculture, I attend many conferences. All have value, but often in different ways — I may learn about current research findings in agronomy, or take in a market outlook for the global pulse trade or, conversely, some conferences are just really big reunions, where I spend most of my time catching up with farmer friends I haven’t seen in a year.

But this conference was very different. This conference was a combination of all the things I love about my job, plus a tidal wave of top-notch speakers who offered their perspective on several aspects of professional development. From goal setting and over-coming challenges, through networking and communication tips, to the value of both personal and professional financial literacy. In short, instead of just covering the conference, I was participating in an event that was challenging me on a much broader scale. I’ve come home with a head full of ideas and goals and fire in my belly.

Now the tough part begins. How do I integrate a day of learning and inspiration into meaningful change in my career and personal life? After all, that’s the goal of any professional development exercise, is it not? Step one is sharing some of the things I learned — the beauty of the day was that yes, it was a conference full of women, but the subject matter is universal, thus, here is my list for all of you:

  1. JoAnne Buth, former president of the Canola Council of Canada and current Canadian senator, shared her wonderfully-meandering career path and some of the wisdom she’s gained along the way. She related that aspects of professional conduct are in her nature, but that choosing words carefully, being a thoughtful listener and learning to deal with opposing personalities are learned skills. It’s imperative to be willing to modify your behaviour to effectively manage people. She related a story of feeling the pressure to always be “on” and feeling like she was always on stage. Her mentor replied, You are always on stage, conduct yourself a accordingly. I’m not self-absorbed enough to imagine she was talking directly to me, but her words hit home, let me tell you. I’m not known for being quiet or keeping opinions to myself. I could learn to zip it now and again and listen more.
  2. On the subject of networking, Courtenay Wolfe, former CEO of Salida Capital, shared the importance of saying yes to other people’s requests, asking for what you want no matter how out-there it may seem (if you don’t ask, the answer is always no), and following through. Wolfe stressed the importance of doing what you say you will do. Most people don’t. People will remember you and be primed to also reciprocate, perhaps not directly with you, but with those they interact with. And what goes around comes around. Say yes, follow through and put yourself out there — you never know what amazing things may come your way through a chance meeting.
  3. Endeavor to learn new things about yourself. Angela Santiago, CEO of the Little Potato Company, based near Edmonton, never intended to even work in agriculture, let alone head up a successful primary-production-based company. She had several great insights into professional growth and the value of outside perspective on farm management decisions (I’ll post my interview with her shortly), but her personal story of the importance of challenging yourself and learning about yourself continually struck a chord with me. I’m quite honest, I think, with my strengths and weaknesses but Angela’s insight has encouraged me to find ways to stretch my boundaries a bit more — keeping within my personal values and ideals, of course.
  4. Have goals, share them wisely and don’t get bogged down by the details. Eventually, yes, you’ll have to outline achievable and measurable steps to reach your goal, but you may not have all that figured out from the outset and that’s OK. If we all did, we’d have achieved everything by now, wouldn’t we? In other words, some goals may be very long-term or personal. Some may be very lofty and if you shared them widely, you may end up too discouraged by the negative feedback to pursue the goal. Finding the balance between asking for mentorship or coaching on goals while also protecting them from well-meaning but negative feedback will be a challenge.

I could go on, of course, but some of my take-home messages are for me only. It will be very interesting going forward to hear from other participants and what their take-home messages were, their action item list and whether or not they will now ALWAYS carry business cards.

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