op-ed: on leadership, writing, and BC wine

op-ed: on leadership, writing, and BC wine

To grow good writers, like good leaders, we have a part to play in an unspoken but necessary social contract in which it’s required of us to hold them to task and provide an environment for them to get better at what they do. And before we unpack this loaded statement, let’s take a breath together. <breathe, please>

The sentence begins with a series of assumptions (the reader is in a democratic place, has the ability and want for good writers and good leaders), and includes an agreed upon definition of ‘good’ in relation to ‘writers’ and ‘leaders’ with a not-so-thinly-veiled layer of morality. A ‘social contract’ assumes the reader is part of a type of a (likely privileged) society, participates in it, and understands the role they play. Further, there’s an assumption we want to improve: on our participation, our status, ourselves as people along that scale of ‘good’ for themselves and the world in which they belong (the immediate and greater).

A reader can infer a lot about the writer from a seemingly simple sentence presented as opinion editorial. Recently I had opportunity to briefly discuss my inherent assumption of the social contract (thank you, Christine & David), that there is one, and how I use it as a lens through which to view my participation and the engagement of others. The conversation was challenging, but not a challenge of my ideas and perspective; it required me to ask questions of myself and in doing so helped me to better see my own lens (read: bias). As a writer, my continued development requires an awareness and it’s something I struggle to remind myself of.

on leaders

While it’s part of our social contract to engage with each other and our leaders (political, employment, community), it behooves us to do so constructively (another term loaded with assumption). On my new writing platform I’ve written about leading with heart (my friend Sandra Oldfield) and I subscribe to general concepts of leadership as touched on by poet and author David Whyte. A strong element of ‘good’ (assumption) leadership is the willingness to be vulnerable, allowing space for those around you to do the work they’re meant to do and, in doing this work, provide breathing room and growth opportunities for those in positions of leadership. It’s akin to geese flying south, each taking turns to lead; if one remained in the leadership space, it would be exhausted and the whole flying V would fail. Geese are emblematic of offering that space, of showing their vulnerabilities (“hey, I can’t do this alone”), of asking for help.

From small businesses to larger corporate organizations, good leadership can make or break its workplace culture and the culture within which the business operates. I have experience with all aspects along this spectrum, from great leaders in small businesses to poor leaders in larger ones and vice-versa. One common fault with poor leaders is an inability or reluctance to see success in others as their own. One universal strength in great leaders is the value they place on the successes of their team, as individuals and a larger group. Basically, good leaders give a damn about the people around them.

on writing

Part of my social contract as a writer involves engaging with my surroundings, looking for, and seeing, these differences. At present my surroundings include a still somewhat fragile and relatively new BC wine industry, growing at a fast rate. It’s an industry I love and believe in, populated largely with people who work tirelessly for something they might not realize in their lifetime. Friends, acquaintances, colleagues put forward a vision larger than themselves and strive to see it – and others – succeed. That’s leadership, from the ground up. A large part of my role is to identify those people, champion for them, and help direct a small light their way whenever I can.

This shining of light on the good in our industry comes with the equally important task of doing the same in the darker corners that we’d rather not speak of. Perhaps it’s part of that hard to define Canadianism where politeness obscures a need for frankness, but I struggle with how to mindfully engage these darker corners publicly – although I have an obligation (social contract) to do so. However, earlier this week I broke free of my reluctance and asked a difficult question in a very public forum. I didn’t expect an answer, although I do expect some attention be paid to it and will follow up.

And so, here is the start of an open correspondence with one of the new leaders in the BC wine community.

Mr. Peller, I’m a writer who pays attention to BC wine. Almost exclusively, as a matter of fact. I have been a small voiced champion of the BC wine industry for 1o years, since I moved to the Okanagan in 2007 and began to write. Like BC wine, my platform is small. And like a good amount writers I have a day job to pay the mortgage because many of those in our BC wine industry who value the contributions of people like me don’t always have the resources to support me with regularity. But here I am.

My commitment to the BC wine industry is in continuing to champion the great things being done by nice people who are good leaders, and now with equal weight I’m committed to holding to task those in positions of leadership within the BC wine community who have the resources and strength to truly lead. People like you and your organization. Your new social contract with the BC wine industry began the moment the physical contracts for your recent acquisitions were signed. Please know this, truly, deeply, and hold it with much gravity.

You are not alone. You have the strength of the BC wine community with you should you choose to engage with it, as good leaders. Your success can be found in those within the community you help to lead, and that happens when we’re united in realizing our collective success.

Before we head down the road of any five-point-plans, we need to look within ourselves to be the community team I know is there. That takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. I’ve seen it in every facet of this BC wine community. I hope you, Mr. Peller, can see it too. I hope you’re willing to be vulnerable. That’s the kind of leader that can help realize the collective success of the most awesome group of skill, talent, and dedication that is within our BC wine community.

I’ll be in touch. My people – well, I – will contact your people.

~ Jeannette

 

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From a Field of Dreams: the road to Area 27

In the autumn of 2013, my website provider and business neighbour inquired if I might be open to taking on a new writing assignment. His client – a private motorsport club trying to build in the south Okanagan – had need for a series of online articles to help attract new members and position themselves in the market. Oh, and Jacques Villeneuve would be involved and my neighbour knew I liked cars. Was I interested? After a three second delay, I said yes.

Almost four years, 94 website articles, and hundreds of international media placements later, the idea that was Area 27 is now a 4.83km asphalted racetrack. Acres of unproductive cornfield (often left fallow) have been contoured and carved into challenging elevation changes with 16 corners and more than one blind apex. It might be the only racetrack where drivers look to the horizon and a mountain to help pick their line through a turn, and it’s certainly the only one I saw be paved over the course of six ridiculously hot desert summer days.

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Writing is an interesting vocation in the days of digital media and insta-sharing. Words have always held weight and they still do. Yet with an increased number of platforms to write comes an increased number of writers attempting to stake a claim on one of those platforms, resulting in a dilution of quality. Finding a channel through which to tell a story might be easier now but it’s more difficult to share that story in a way that matters. This wasn’t part of the request, but it was my task with Area 27.

We decided to add personality to an unknown quantity. Who joins a membership-based motorsport club that is yet to be built? Through a series of member profiles, we got our answers: Asgar Virji, the low-key and quick-to-smile president of Weissach Motors; Daryl Carter, founding member and now semi-retired business coach who lives quietly in Penticton with his collection of vintage American muscle cars; Robert Sinneave, founding member who modifies exotic performance cars, operates an antiques business (although he does more buying than selling), and adopts rescue horses on his Kelowna ranch; Tracy Banner, early Area 27 member and tea blender who has a love for a certain 1991 MR2; Christian Chia, who changed the new car dealership model with Open Road Auto Group (he’s founder and CEO) and happens to love to race competitively.

There are literally hundreds more unique stories of people who, for a variety of reasons, decided to take a risk and put their money where their hearts were. In taking a risk on the track they took a risk on those involved – me included. In the last four years I have met so many people who trusted me to share their story well. Once this group gets talking about why they wanted to be involved, there’s no stopping them. I’m grateful for their trust.

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We shared these and other stories on the website, building a library of information and becoming the primary location for all things Area 27. It established personality for the club. Next, we moved on to the grassroots platforms of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to spread the news. These channels provide writers with easier access to sharing stories and yet all these voices create noise, so the challenge remains: how to make people give a damn and want to read your story. It’s not rocket science, but I can’t disclose all of my secrets here. Sorry. Let’s just say we did it and it worked.

Was it an easy road? No. Did we always agree? Goodness, no. There are dozens of things I would have done differently along the way, but although I’m the one telling the story it’s not my story.

Today, Area 27 has a significant presence in the motorsport world and a substantial measure of awareness in its community. It’s just enough to pique the curiosity of most and call to action those who are avid motorsport enthusiasts. For a private motorsport club, that’s a fine balance to hold. With limited membership numbers almost reached (capacity is 300), I’m satisfied with the presence I helped to build for Area 27.

After almost four years of collecting and sharing these stories, it’s time for me to close the door and make space for others. It’s been an interesting road and one I am grateful to have had opportunity to be on. To those who helped make this possible, I thank you. Each of you knows who you are.

Farewell, Area 27. Enjoy your life on track. I might be departing from behind the scenes but I know we’ll cross paths again.

~ Jeannette

Photo 2017-06-03, 12 17 35 PM (1)

 

(photos taken by me, while under contract with Area 27)

On Writing: career, identity, and redefinition

On Writing: career, identity, and redefinition

 

In the autumn of 2016 I took a full time job with the federal government. Our mortgage was up for renewal and banks look favourably on steady income if, like me, you’ve had a break in what’s considered regular employment (such as freelance writing). So I mined my pool of transferrable skill sets and re-entered the structured work world with what is considered one of the most desirable employers for those seeking financial stability.

I told myself I can do this; I’m not defined by how I collect a paycheque and in my heart I’m really a writer.

There’s a reason jobs like these are described as offering ‘golden handcuffs’ – and no, it’s not a sexy thing. For the most part it’s one of the most secure employment environments, regardless of your skill set, and offers a decent income in some of the more limited job markets like that of my Okanagan community in rural British Columbia.

The handcuff part of the scenario announced itself early on: my time was scheduled with little flexibility (Monday through Friday, set hours); I would be part of a union and unable to negotiate my working conditions outside of that contract; in accordance with a Values and Ethics guideline, I had to disclose ‘outside income’ – my work as a writer – and declare any perceived or potential conflicts of interest. The outcome of this disclosure was that, as a condition of my employment, I had to refrain from lobbying government (goodbye, Free My Grapes) or doing work/writing that could be perceived as critical of government (farewell, writing about meat inspection regulations) or anything that could put me in a potential conflict of interest (adios, long form essay on BC wine sub-appellations). Work I’ve been doing for years.

Sustainable Food Systems Mar 2013
Chefs Derek and Jeff. How can I not write about these two? Really.

I signed the letter, kept the job, and a light inside me began to slowly dim.

What was asked of me is not unreasonable; I agree with all of it. Public servants have an obligation to serve the public. Their salaries are paid by taxpayers (me included), and to have any potential or perceived conflict of interest does not support democratic governing. I needed to ask myself some hard questions. Am I a writer who finds ways to pay the bills, or am I someone who pays the bills and finds ways to write?

In hindsight, taking this job was an exercise in redefining what career means to me and how career is tied to personal success. That meant unravelling the tightly wound perception of vocation as definition of self, value, and place of contribution. It turns out this is more difficult than it appears, considering place of contribution and value, at an early age for many on this continent, are concepts closely fused with vocation.

We do it so frequently it’s barely on our radar. It’s done to us almost daily, sometimes indirectly. There’s an expectation of identifying one’s self in a predefined career path with clarity and intention. The steps we take in our adolescence when we’re busy making poor choices are received as the footprints on what will be our career path. So it’s no surprise when, in our adult years, something as simple as an introduction to a new person can inadvertently focus on what we do – after all, that’s who we are. Or who we’ve learned we’re supposed to be.

It’s been a few years (ahem) since I navigated the network of high school career pathing trails, but I recall aptitude tests and interviews to determine The Path I would take to Become Something. I was interested in literature, so perhaps librarian was in my future. By showing interest in learing about others, maybe counsellor was the right choice. I was creative – had I considered teaching dramatic arts? Among the network of trails no one path shone brightly enough to dim the others. I was fascinated by all of them. My career counsellor was frustrated and asked me to ‘really focus’; I was confused and felt I had disappointed her. The recommendation: first choice librarian, second choice teacher. Off I went with a list of post-secondary institutions that would offer the best education to fit these selections, and a pile of grant/loan application forms.

Recently, a friend asked if I could speak to one of his 10th grade students about what it’s like to be a writer. For months my subconscious self had been struggling with what it meant for me to be a writer and so I was taken by surprise (and flattered). Who am I to engage an inquisitive youthful mind on career pathing? Am I a writer? I felt unprepared and 16 years old again, but this time I’d be speaking with a version of my 16 year old self. Trippy.

I asked her some questions and listened to hers. She has a curiosity about social constructs that manifests in opinion essays and poetry, self doubt, and introspection. Her classmates provide her with perspectives different from hers that encourage her to ask why and engage in dialogue. She wants to express her thoughts, share them with the world. She doesn’t know what career is out there for her, based on this, other than maybe writing for National Geographic and travelling. She wants to travel.

If, when I was 16, I had been able to speak with someone who identified as a writer, the conversation would have been framed with some similarity. So I took the opportunity to share my thoughts as I would have liked to hear when I was 16.

If you don’t see yourself reflected in any of the career paths laid before you, that’s okay. If you’re more interested in who is attracted to certain careers than the career itself, that’s okay too. Be curious. Be a pilot, a physician, a server. Take a job and do it to pay the rent. Aside from learning the foundational pieces of language, what a storyteller needs is more lenses through which to see the world. The broader the horizon against which you filter the world you take in, the better prepared you’ll be to reflect it with your own voice. A career is what you make it, and how you define it. What you do to pay your bills might be different than what you do to be who you are. Don’t choose a path if you don’t want to – you can choose all the paths. Experience the network of trails.

I quit my job.

It was easier than I had made it out to be. I’m a writer, and if I can’t write then I’m trying to be something I’m not. At the tender age of 43, I’m not financially stable enough to throw caution to the wind without a way to keep those mortgage payments happening; I’ve been the majority income earner for the duration of my partnership and that means if we want to pay the bills I need to make a certain amount of money. How I earn that money is up to me; if it doesn’t look like one of the predefined jobs or careers, that’s okay.

Hi. My name is Jeannette. Nice to meet you. I love Canadian literature, baby cows, and advocating in the BC wine industry – among hundreds of other things. What are you interested in?

Joy Road 1.6 Mile 2013
Chefs Dana and Cam, a thousand stories in their hands.