Black Girl... Amish Farm?

(First appeared in WRAL TechWire.)

We're winding down 'Open Book October' and I want to prove that leadership lessons show up in the most unexpected places.

It's the summer of 1994. I'm working three part-time jobs— babysitter to two small boys, customer service rep at an antique store and furniture maker on an Amish farm in Grabill, Indiana. 

That last one is a surprise, right? Well, it's true! That summer I worked for the Sauder family and  made hand-crafted curio cabinets for Bath and Body Works stores across North America. We built, painted, and distressed these beauties until they looked vintage. And my job was to slap the fire retardant coating on each piece before assembly. It could have been worse. 

And, as you might imagine, being the only girl (and Black girl) on team was a bit intimidating at first. Each morning, I would drive the 50 minutes to Amish country and venture down a long gravel driveway surrounded by cornfields to a massive white barn full of sawhorses, 2x4’s and hand tools. But here’s the thing, as different as I was from everybody else on that farm, I never felt like an outsider. Instead, I felt welcomed, valued, and necessary.  

In this “made-for-reality tv” experience, I learned a lot. After 18 years of fending off other people’s biases, it was my turn to adjust my lens. Working alongside the Amish wasn’t a flurry of cultural translation errors, misunderstandings, and me jonesing for a power outlet. The Sauder’s were a lovely, hardworking family with strong values. They had a jumbo-sized trampoline in the backyard for the kids and an outhouse that was tastefully decorated and secured by an RV door. I was surprised and delighted at every turn. This was a place where judgements were suspended and we simply did life together.

How does this apply to leadership? 

Not unlike my experience that summer, leadership should be full of intentional surprises. How so? By choosing, on purpose, to drive down your own unknown gravel road from time to time. That choice might offer the insights or the solutions you’ve been looking for.  Three additional leadership takeaways…

How you lead matters.  

In this case, Mr. Sauder was the equivalent of a team lead or VP of manufacturing. In that role, he took our team culture seriously – because our productivity depended on it. He knew I was the odd woman out, and he didn’t just quietly hope I’d find my way. Mr. Sauder actively cultivated our environment. He paired me with different members of the team so I could learn new techniques and establish my own relationships. He also invited us all to eat lunch together as a team, which was both fun and galvanizing.

Your attitude has a long reach.  

Yes, I could have applied all the grumblings. I could have said to myself, “This stinks! I have to work in a hot, unconditioned barn with people who will never relate to me and with whom I’ll never relate…” But something inside me said, “Wait a minute… this is cool! Who else gets to do this?” 

We all mumble to ourselves at times and complain that we’re misunderstood. We all fall victim to the “same junk, different day” mentality… grumble, grumble, grumble. But in those moments, you are also allowed to say, “Wait! How do I leave my fingerprint on this moment in the best way?”

Stay curious.  

One of the factors that made my experience so powerful was that I was curious. I experienced the wonderment of exploring a new work dynamic, and it paid off. If you have the opportunity, let yourself work on something new despite what your initial bias might be towards the project. Push yourself. Stretch! New experiences offer new perspectives.

Your turn. 

By now you know the drill! It’s time for some thought exercises. Ask yourself: 

  1. When’s the last time you lived on the edge of your view/understanding/perspective? Look at your body of work. What’s on your plate that could use some fresh eyes? 
  2. Who on your team do you have a little bit of a negative bias towards? Invite them to lunch and get to know them. Learn something new about them. Instead of focusing on what rubs you the wrong way, name the distinct contributions they bring to the party. 
  3. Think back to a time when you had a transformational experience. Share it with your team. As leaders, we need to know how to tell our stories. Don’t hide them; your team wants to know how and why you show up the way you do as a leader. If you don’t tell your stories, it’s a missed opportunity.   

This week, take the road less traveled and just see what happens.  

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