Sophia Shaw, Chicago Botanic Garden
Speech May 6, 2016
I gratefully accepted the Chicago Horticultural Society Medal at a farewell dinner in my honor hosted by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Board Chair Bob Finke, and Board of Directors. Following is an edited version my remarks in which I first recognize colleagues and family and then explain some of the long-term leadership factors that make the Garden special.
I am deeply honored to receive the Chicago Horticultural Society Medal and be recognized at this dinner tonight.
Thank you all for taking the time to be here; it’s a treat to come together at the Chicago Botanic Garden on this perfect spring evening.
I want to begin by recognizing my partners in this labor of love at the Garden:
Barbara Carr, Will Hagenah, Dick Thomas, and Tom Donahoe: thank you for hiring me and thank you to the search committee that promoted me. Barbara, you are a brilliant mentor and I would not have flourished without your guidance. You all took a chance on me—a person without CEO experience, a woman with two very young sons. Thank you for trusting in my abilities, and thank you on behalf of other young women who dream of a getting a chance like this;
Thank you Will, Susan Willetts, and Bob Finke for your leadership as my board chairs and your support as friends, and thank you to every member of the Garden’s board of Directors;
Thank you to the six remarkable Woman’s Board Presidents with whom I served and to every member of the Woman’s Board; to eleven amazing Guild Presidents, and to every member of the Guild; and to ten hardworking President’s Circle Co-Chairs;
Thank you to all of the commissioners and leaders of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, most remarkably President Toni Preckwinkle and General Superintendent Arnold Randall;
Thank you to all of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s staff and volunteers, led by the exceptional executive team of Kris Jarantoski, Tom Nissly, Greg Mueller, Jim Boudreau, Harriet Resnick, and Jennifer Schwarz-Ballard. I also extend my thanks to Angela McSharry, Lynn Abrahamson, Sandra Williams, and the entire development department and acknowledge my friends and colleagues, the leaders of the Do North partnership: Kate Lipuma from Writers’ Theater; Sheridan Turner of Kohl Children’s Museum; and Welz Kauffman of the Ravinia Festival.
With all my heart I thank my family for their love and support: my brother Al and his wife Kylee, who were married at this very spot; my father and Mary Sue Glosser; Jon and the entire Siskel family; my mother and Bill Weber; and Saly Chendea.
And to you, Nathan, Jonah, and Art Collins, I feel overwhelming gratitude. I feel so fortunate to have you three by my side every day, especially now as we build a consulting business and as I take on a role as an Adjunct Professor of Social Impact at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Business.
And thank you, Jean Franczyk, for taking the President & CEO baton.
What makes leadership at the Chicago Botanic Garden special
Before giving up the bully-pulpit, I’d like to share what I believe are some factors that make Chicago Botanic Garden leadership—your leadership—special.
While there are many things that make the Garden special, the driving factor is the way it has been led—by everyone here and those who have come before us. I am going to highlight eight reasons why I feel this way:
1. We have always had a clear vision and strategic plan—and now we have it online for all to see.
2. Our strategic plan has never been just a list of projects, but rather we have been guided by an overarching set of values.
Projects are tasks that need to get done; values and dreams get us up in the morning and make our lives—and the lives of those we touch—meaningful. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we are governed by our belief that gardens are important, that they play an essential role in health and happiness, and that gardens and healthy habitats are essential to sustaining people and wildlife on our planet. Our visitors and partners respond positively to our clear and demonstrated effort to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life.
3. We have maintained for over forty years an unwavering commitment to the highest aesthetic and quality standards.
These standards underpin all we do. We have adhered carefully to our master site plan, insisting always on impeccable architecture, horticulture, and maintenance. Our water garden on nine islands was modeled on the Imperial Chinese water garden called the Garden of Perfect Brightness; this goal of finding “perfect brightness,” here or at a Windy City Harvest site, even for one moment, inspires us.
4. We are devoted to deeply ethical decision making—we always ask, “what is the right thing to do” and then do that, even if that is hard.
5. We have put the customer at center of our actions.
6. We have committed ourselves to extremely conservative financial planning.
While other institutions started building projects without enough money to finish them, or borrowed more than they could afford to pay back, we have taken a more conservative course. This focus got us through the market downturn post 2008 and has positioned us as a trusted leader in the civic community;
7. We exhibit consistent dedication to the long-term.
The metaphor I think of here is that we invest in the whole lifespan of long-living trees and people: there is no short-term frill, thrill, or silver-bullet that can replace the importance of taking a long-term view. This approach requires a lot of planning, and optimism that seeds planted today—whether they be literal seeds, science and conservation projects, or ideas shared with visitors, partners, students, or donors—will eventually yield fruit.
8. And finally, our Chicago Botanic Garden leadership is special because we know in our bones that our actions, small and large, and our decisions—minute and subtle or sweeping and brave—add up, matter, and are felt by our visitors and those who invest in our institution.
Perspective and Conclusion
To conclude, when I began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2006, our sons were 1 and 2 years old. Not even saplings! Now ten years later they are young men, growing strong.
While their growth is be more noticeable than ours (I hope so!), the subtle changes of the adults in this room are every bit as important. Over the course of these ten years, everyone here has both celebrated joy and suffered loss of some kind. And during this time, we have experienced the pressures of being a son or daughter, mother or father, sibling, partner, citizen, and friend, all the while trying to keep our own body and mind healthy and strong.
So, isn’t it wonderful—in this world where comfort is very much needed—that the Garden is always here for us? That it can help us heal in moments of pain and also amplify our moments of happiness? Both excite and calm? During my lowest and highest moments, you and our beautiful Chicago Botanic Garden were there; this job, this place—all of you—renewed my spirit. Here, we can take solace in the predictable unpredictability of nature, the beauty of both blooms and blizzards, and know that at the same time we are doing good for the Earth and for each other.
I will finish where I began, and thank all of you who are here this evening—as well as to thank those who couldn’t be—for your unwavering support and kindness. And again, thank you, chairman Finke, for your partnership for planning this special evening.