Kirstine Stewart’s Life Lessons Know No Industry Boundaries

"The time is now for new styles of leadership, and women are best suited to set the pace." Kirstine Stewart in Our Turn


October 20, 2015 was the release date for “Our Turn” by Kirstine Stewart.  I waited patiently for my local book store to call to let me know my copy had arrived. Twitter was abuzz with details and positive comments about this hot new book on women and leadership. When the call came, I hurried to the book store.  The owner was as happy to put the book in my hands as I was to receive it.

I selected this book to review after reading Kirstine Stewart’s bio on the Advancing Women website. She had been a keynote speaker at AWCWest2015. I knew her book would be at more corporate and executive level than my daily life, but, I was equally sure she had something to say of importance for all women.

I wondered

….does working your way from Girl Friday to the head of Twitter’s North American Media Partnerships transfer to the world of women working in the businesses and companies that research, develop, support, supply and promote the agricultural industry?

…..would her strategies and wisdom apply to women involved in the business of on-farm production? I wanted to find out what the former head of the CBC might offer those who manage businesses from office windows overlooking animals or on a screen in a tractor cab or at a board room table shaped like the tailgate of truck.

As women engaged in agriculture, our ladders of success are unique.  Stewart’s words for her daughter speak to the value of that uniqueness. “What I tell her about ambition, as I would tell any woman, is that success is not just about climbing.  Leading comes from learning, in all its forms, and personal happiness will only be yours when you choose your own ladder.” (p12)  No matter where you are on your ladder, Stewart’s book guides your next steps!

The Details:

202 pages (very manageable)
$29.95 (most reasonable)
9 Chapters, Multiple subsections (all with captivating titles)
Index (11 pages – love this feature)
Numerous dog-eared pages (New copy does not come with this feature, must read & mark important pages)

Reading Response #1 – Dust Jacket Success

Kirstine Stewart’s photo greets me as I open the cover of my shiny new book. The front flap accomplishes its’ purpose.  I am intrigued by the statement “Simply put: the time is now for new styles of leadership, and women are best suited to set the pace.”

Reading Response #2 – Did I Make the Right Choice?

Stewart’s writing is current, honest and impressive.  It’s high profile, corporate and speaks to her experiences at Paragon Entertainment, Alliance Atlantis, CBC/Radio-Canada and Twitter Canada.  I can’t help but wonder how her words will apply to me and my readers. Page 3 has already given me a positive indicator.  Stewart gives importance to working at a bookshop, library and an agricultural museum (Milton??) by including them as early points along her career pathway. She tells how she responded to an ad, in a newspaper, for her first job as a Girl Friday.  The experiences, as she worked her way through university, gave her the skills and confidence to see the job opportunity, take a chance and then apply herself beyond measure.  The successful results of this attitude resonate in all work worlds.

Reading Response #3 – “Young lady, stop ruining your book”

Reading, reading, reading….. I’m turning the corners of pages to mark content I want to reread or quotes I want to include. My high school English teacher would cringe watching me happily ruin the appearance of this book.  Almost every page is provoking my thinking and inspiring me.  No questions now on book choice.

Reading Response #4 – Quotes & Notes

Stewart’s main message is that women have the talents, skills and attitudes that are best suited for the work world of today. She provides practical strategies along with experiences, observations and visionary statements.

I challenge myself to select four quotes to share.  It’s difficult to narrow down all of those dog-eared pages.

Personal Development – “If you never fail it means you are never trying anything new.  Success means you’ve made more right decisions than wrong ones, but you can’t let failure define you.” (p61)

“The idea of balance doesn’t reflect how the world works, or how we truly spend our time.  It’s not about achieving balance, it’s about flow.” (p130)

Family – “Life’s great hat trick-love, kids and career”…”What has to change is the question.  It’s not “How do you do it all,” but “How will we do it all.”  ….”The work-life juggle isn’t a woman’s issue, it’s a family issue-no matter the makeup of that family.  No player scores a hat trick alone; it has to be a team effort. (p102,115,117)

Leadership – “To me, that’s how we need to lead today: being there at the top to clearly express the aims, set goals and expectations, ensure people have what they need to work and then get out of the way so they can get the job done.” (p95)

“The more you act like a leader, the more you learn to be one.  And the more you will be seen as one.  Like strengthening a muscle, it just takes practice.” (p99)

Workplace – “What matters to modern employees is to feel that they’re making a meaningful contribution, that they have purpose and a stake in the work they do, and a certain amount of autonomy in how it gets done.” (p151)  The meeting table isn’t a place to go it alone, but a place where you anchor yourself as part of a team. (p77)

Reading Response #5 – “Dig in your heels & stand tall”

Book finished. Mind full. Wondering.

If you tweet @kirstinestewart late on a Friday night, will she respond?

She does, not once but twice.  She even makes a joke.

I look for a specific quote and find it on page 172. “But today, when it’s not about power but about building connections with employees and the customers you serve, it’s the smartest way to operate.”

Kirstine Stewart is that smart operator.  She talks the talk, walks the walk.

(And “yes”, it was the Ag Museum in Milton!)

-Joan C.

Striking a balance between farming and caregiving

This article is the first in a monthly series that will highlight members of the Ag Women’s Network. AWN is an online group dedicated to connecting and empowering women in agriculture through sharing, learning and personal development.


How one farmwoman is juggling the responsibility of caring for loved ones on the farm and off

By Courtney Denard

Ontario Farmer

CD_Deb KnaptonDeb Knapton is a dairy farmer from Eastern Ontario but like most women in agriculture she’s a lot more than that.

A loving wife and a mother of two adult children, Deb didn’t grow up on a farm but by the time she was a teenager she knew that’s exactly where she wanted to be.

Deb had always been into horses. She started riding when she was just eight years old. At 17 she made the life changing decision to stop riding competitively and take work on a neighbour’s dairy farm.

That decision would go on to change her life in ways young Deb couldn’t even imagine at the time.

“I loved working with the cows so much that it steered my decision to study agricultural business at Centralia College,” Deb says.

Deb calls her two and a half years at college “awesome.” She was involved in student council, sports, and Junior Farmers. It was the latter organization, in fact, that introduced her to her husband Merlin, a dairy farmer from St. Mary’s.

With a similar dream of becoming a farm owner, Deb and Merlin started out by renting a farm in Shakespeare and eventually bought an operation in Almonte in 1989.

“We began by milking 15 cows and shipping cream,” Deb explains. “But it wasn’t enough.”

Sadly, Deb and Merlin were left with no choice but to eventually sell the cows and quota and continue their off-farm work.

It wasn’t the happy ending they had envisioned but the couple kept the farm, a few of the livestock, and the hope that the dairy would be operational once again.

Ten years ago that hope became a reality. Thanks to a lot of hard work and determination Deb and her husband purchased new quota in 2005 and started milking 20 Holsteins.

Today, Deb divides her time between running the farm in a full partnership with Merlin, continuing to work full-time off the farm, and taking care of her family.

She is also the secretary-treasurer for the Lanark County Dairy Producers Committee and has been a dedicated volunteer with 4-H Ontario for the past 15 years.

Like so many farmwomen, a typical day for Deb is never typical.

She has no set schedule and has responsibilities coming at her from every angle. This summer when her 90-year-old father took seriously ill, her load got even bigger.

“It’s really tough,” Deb says. “Until this summer both of my parents were in good health so I had no appreciation. It takes over your whole life.”

“Not that you’re not glad to do it,” adds Deb. “It was just a real wake up call.”

Many farmwomen are facing the same struggle. As aging parents are living longer, it’s not uncommon for women to transition almost overnight from mother to parental caregiver.

Deb says seeking support from other family members and taking it one day at a time helps. Staying connected to the things she loves, like agriculture and farming, is beneficial as well.

This was one of the reasons Deb joined the online Ag Women’s Network (AWN). Coming from a family that doesn’t farm and working from home makes it challenging to reach others in the agriculture community.

“It’s nice to have people who understand where you’re coming from,” says Deb.

Joining the AWN also gave Deb the push she needed to seek a full-time position in the agriculture industry.

After working for years as an accountant and owning her own business, Deb wanted to make the move back to agriculture so when she saw a job opening with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) she went for it.

“I thought no one would hire a 49 year old woman who hadn’t been in the industry for such a long time,” Deb admits, but that wasn’t the case.

Deb has been working as an OFA member services representative since January and loves it. “It’s the best thing ever!” she says about her job and it allows her to work from home, which is a critical part of managing the juggling act she calls life.

“I don’t have all the answers but I’ve got a supportive husband and I love what I do so that’s half the battle.”

Designing a company for working moms

Norah and I in May.

Norah and I in May.

The spring I took part in an essay contest that asked women to write about balancing family and their career, and what can be done to help. I took a lot of input from the events and comments from the Ag Women’s Network (thank you!), and I really enjoyed putting my experience in writing. I didn’t win, but I wanted to share my “so what” part of my essay with you, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

…”Even though all corporations hope to make money, not necessarily raise families, I don’t think it’s a lost cause. Just as Google is the gold standard for employees who value work-life balance, there is a ripe opportunity for employers to become the ‘Google’ for women with families. A smart company could make generous parental leave polices a selling feature to attract top talent.

If I could design such a forward-thinking company, it might look like this: Full top-up pay for the duration of maternity leave. Offer subsidized day care support, and flexible schedule options. Reduced travel demands on parents with young children, or shorten the length of out-of-town work trips.

This company would also support and encourage fathers to take more active parenting roles, and offer a matching parental leave for dads. Managers would encourage and pay for employees to attend networking events and professional development courses while on leave.

Ideally, young men and women would be given multiple opportunities to learn about their maternity and parental leave options. Employees would be encouraged to openly discuss their family plans with their managers and design a career plan that would compliment it.

New parents would also be permitted to keep their company phones, computers and email accounts while on leave, so they can stay connected if they choose.

It may not make their brochure, but small improvements such as reserved parking for pregnant women could help, too.

Most mothers understand that choosing to have a family can mean sacrifices in other areas. But employers could take many steps to soften the impact child rearing has on their employees’ careers, and instead make the experience as joyful and fulfilling as it should be.

Four months into maternity leave, I’ve tightened my purse strings and am surviving on a reduced income. I’m taking part in networking events as much as possible, and meeting up with my colleagues as often as I can. I’ve subscribed to industry newsletters and read blogs to stay sharp, too.

Significant changes may take time, but I believe progress can happen while I’m in my child-bearing years. By my next pregnancy, I know I will still be willing to go into the office on the day I’m in labour. But I hope, if that happens, it will be a moment to celebrate for both my company and myself.”

The winning essay can be found here.

-Kate Mercer

“Balancing It All Without Burnout” Takes Us Back to Math Class

Let’s start with a disclaimer. I like math. I like math a lot. I may or may not have even attended a summer math camp by choice in my youth. I may or may not have still have the t-shirt. Just saying. With that in mind, when our three “Balancing It All Without Burnout” panelists began circling around the idea of the “Balance Equation” it clicked. In April, dozens of ag women gathered in Guelph to share ideas with three panelists who are busy moms, accomplished ag women and were open to a candid conversation about balance. Those three panelists were Jennifer Kyle from Holstein Canada, Nadine Schwandt from New-Life Mills and Dr. Nancy Tout from Syngenta Canada. All three come from diverse jobs covering communications to regulatory and biological assessment. All three are moms. All three believe that the balance equation is important, ever changing and unique to each woman. According to Tout, a serious scientist who first raised the concept at the event, and this Harvard Business Review posting, a personalized balance equation can help guide a strategy for finding balance. So let’s break it down, shall we?

24 hours – (self care) > (external expectations) + (internal expectations)

The weight you give each item within those brackets and the number of items within those brackets are yours to pick. Our panelists all agree that “it’s a moving target” and “changes through life” which means your balance equation will be unique to you. No pressure to keep up with the Joneses (or Justines) here. What kind of things count as external expectations? Things like work, volunteer commitments, ongoing meetings, relationships and so on. What kind of things count as internal expectations? Your hobbies, finances, personal development, holidays, prayer, meditation and so on. What’s self care? Sleep, showers, flossing, getting dressed and so on. The concept here is that there are 24 hours in a day and that’s finite. You need to shower and brush your teeth therefore self care is beside 24 hours. How much time you need for self care will change depending on your job, your love or loathe of fashion, your toddlers’ schedules, etc. Again, no pressure to keep up with the Joneses or Justines, it’s your call. The hard part is on the right. How you fill the external and internal parts of the equation are up to you. Tout says that internal expectations or personal time has a “different definition to different people” and the others agree. A trap to avoid is filling that side of the equation with 24 expectations and unrealistically giving them all an hour everyday. For that, our team of expert panelists say pick your top 5 priorities or 3 must wins and then forgive yourself. According to Schwandt the goal is “giving your utmost without guilt of where you’re not.” She also says “take time to do something that gives you energy. You’ll be better off and everyone around you will be better.” Doesn’t that feel good to read? I see you nodding. Doesn’t that feel good to release that pressure and hear other ag women cutting the to-do list down to size? You’re still nodding. So am I. Next question however is what happens when the balance equation loses its balance? Like the Ag Women’s Network slogan, it’s about support. Tout, Schwandt and Kyle all agree that the balance equation works because of your support network. Whether it’s your life partner, friends or family. They also recommend that you add a person you consider to be your personal hotline for work-related problem solving to the roster. According to Schwandte, you need “a place to park it” when work issues arise that isn’t at home (taking away from family time) or with friends (they will always have your back which may bring in bias). Regardless of the type of support you need depending on why your equation is out of balance, don’t be afraid to reach out. On the flip side, be ready to be the support for other ag women. Our panelists gave a quick sampling of great tips for supporting one another in maintaining their balance equations:

  • Take notice if someone needs help. Introverts in particular are not always quick to ask for help out loud.
  • Openly offer to keep meetings to midday. Practices like that can allow coworkers the ability to meet their family expectations on time like day care pick ups.
  • Respect others’ balance equations. We are all unique and circumstances change.
  • Watch your unconscious bias. It is up to our generation of ag women to overcome the unconscious biases that make finding balance hard. Be a helper and be open.
  • Commitment shows in passion. For example, others’ balance equations may consist of less at-work volunteer committees. That’s okay and not an indicator of less commitment to the company. Same goes for flex schedules.
  • Let people do things their way. If your husband is taking on your household chores for a few weeks while you focus on planting, don’t worry about the t-shirt folding. The shirts are clean and folded neatly. The folding pattern is different than yours but drop it. I repeat. The shirts are clean and folded neatly. Drop it.

Your balance equation is unique. Your balance equation will change. Your balance equation is important. It will help you champion balancing it all without burnout. -SN

Moms with (ag) Jobs

No more canning!

On Tuesday, February 17, fourteen women gathered in a meeting room at the OMAFRA building in Woodstock, ON to talk about maternity leave and how it impacts the agriculture industry.

Although extreme temperatures meant our guest speakers were unable to attend (barn freezes abound!), we were fed a delicious hot meal of lasagne and had an excellent open discussion and were able to reflect on the results from the recent survey that aimed to get a pulse on maternity leaves in the ag sector.

The audience was fairly diverse; two full-time farmers and twelve members of the ag industry, of which four were mothers.

Some interesting issues were brought up from a farmer perspective:

  • There is flexibility to choose whether to continue working on the farm or taking time off and still living on the farm, but many choose to continue working. This means babies and toddlers are taken out to barns and fields alongside their moms.
  • Isolation can become an issue. Mom & Tots events are not easy to attend when you live in a rural area. It takes more time, and also means leaving your work on the farm. Drop in events are easier to attend than scheduled ones because they provide you with flexibility to deal with farm issues as they arise.
  • Ask other families and farmers about rural community programs and co-op child care options.

From an industry perspective, it was fairly clear that most felt uncomfortable broaching the subject of maternity leave policies with their managers or Human Resources, and instead would welcome the HR groups to be more proactive and transparent in their communications with employees. Perhaps giving employees the option to ask questions anonymously would be a good start.

There was overwhelming support from the group to standardize a maternity leave policy across the industry to be more family centred. Agriculture could become the “Google” of maternity leaves – in-office child care, top up support, flexible hours, short weeks in the low-season, job sharing, and more. It could give the industry something to advertise about and tell women from outside of ag, “you want to work here!”.

We also discussed the pressure faced by women in client or customer-facing roles who have to entrust their relationships with someone else for the year they are away. Thanks to social media, customers can still keep in contact with you over your leave, but it also invites them to add pressure for your return. It was mentioned that a more team-based approach to customers could help relay this concern, opposed to a solo-contact approach.

There was an interesting question posed as to how will the rise of contract work (versus a full-time position) alter maternity leave policies. In some organizations, full-time roles are getting reduced and with that maternity leaves. However, other businesses are investing heavily in their people, as they recognize the competitiveness of the industry and wanting to retain as much talent as possible. The next few years will be interesting to watch as the economy flattens and commodity prices stay low.

A comment was made that women who don’t have children need to advocate for those who do, the same going for men. We all want to have the best talent in the industry, which means supporting women who choose to have families and careers in agriculture. This also means women need to stop judging other women’s family decisions, such as going back to work or not going back to work and using the full year of maternity leave or not. Let’s just support them however we can!

As the first generation of women who come back to work after maternity leaves, there are opportunities that need to be explored and capitalized on. It’s no longer an Old Boy’s Club.

We are seeing more men take active roles in parenting which should help reduce the stigma of women being able to have a career and a family.

So, where do we go from here? We need to hear more from women who have had families and returned to their same roles. How did that feel? How were you received? If you had another child, what was the reaction from your employer when you told them you were expecting again?

We also need to make use of support groups such as Women in Heels (please send a link if anyone has local connections).

We can add topics specific to women at ag events and shows such as FarmSmart, for example, how to navigate Employment Insurance while on maternity leave, family planning or child care on the farm. Let’s leave the “canning” and “cross stitch” topics out, though!

Providing a mini-orientation to a woman after returning from maternity leave would help her get reacquainted with any changes that may have occurred over the year and ease the transition for the person who was covering her role, too.

We can also take the opportunity learn about other regions and sectors who have supportive maternity leave policies and share these with our HR groups. We can help develop the systems for us and women who want families in the future.

So, please add your comments if you couldn’t attend and if you have experiences that would help us. The survey results can be found here.

-Kate Mercer