Sponsored by Longwood Gardens Longwood Gardens

What does it take to be a great leader in horticulture?

Is it your dream to lead a public horticulture institution one day? Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, USA, is looking for high-potential future leaders to join its fellows programme.

The Longwood Fellows Program 2018-19 cohort
The Longwood Fellows Program 2018-19 cohort

The Longwood Fellows Program is a leadership development programme for 'plant people' outside Philadelphia, USA. Following a successful first two years in 2017 and 2018, and while onboading the 2019 cohort, it’s now recruiting for its fourth cohort.

Want to be immersed in the business of public horticulture? We spoke to Dr Tamara Fleming, director of the Longwood Fellows Program, and two fellows who completed the programme last year, about their highlights, top career tips and what they think makes a wonderful workplace.

Tamara, in a nutshell, what is the Longwood Fellows Program and what does it involve?

The Longwood Fellows Program is a fully-funded, 13-month residential learning experience that prepares mid-career professionals for senior-level roles in public horticulture. Essentially, it’s a leadership development programme for plant people!

You’re now on your third intake of fellows, was the second year as exciting as your first?

Yes, absolutely. We had a very diverse group of individuals including two Brits – one from a small estate garden in the Midlands and one who was on sabbatical from a large research garden in Scotland. Aside from the individual on sabbatical, three of the other four fellows have accepted or been offered positions either in the US or UK at the director level. The fourth fellow is in the final stages of interviewing for a comparable position.

Additionally, the initial groups of fellows are applying programme content that is significantly impacting on our industry globally; we’ll continue to document their career trajectories and accomplishments through post-programme, longitudinal studies.

Can you share some of the highlights from the last year?

Watching each of the fellows develop throughout the year is always the main highlight for me. I’m especially proud of the resources they produced for their cohort project – Organizational Assessment Resource for Senior-Level Leaders and for their stellar presentation of the project at the American Public Gardens Association conference in Washington, DC.

Additionally, they successfully completed their two-month field placements at gardens in Singapore, China, and the US (California and Arizona), each working on and producing reports and deliverables relating to their experiences. Finally, they developed and hosted four leadership-related workshops for Longwood managers. Each workshop filled up as soon as it was announced, and the fellows received excellent feedback from attendees.

What future plans do you have in store for the Longwood Fellows Program?

Each year, we refine the experience and content, incorporating feedback from fellows, faculty, and others. This coming year, we’ve included curriculum from Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School. We’ve increased the number of salon-style discussions we have with public horticulture chief executive officers, and we’ve even planned a trip to the Philadelphia Eagles' (an American football team) stadium to learn firsthand from the team’s director of turf about handling largescale events.

What career advice would you give to someone looking to get into the horticulture industry?

Follow your passion for plants; whatever area of horticulture you pursue, pursue it with gusto; and apply for the Longwood Fellows Program – it’s a great way to continue your professional development.

Apply now


Erin Hepfner, now director of guest services at Holden Forests and Gardens in Ohio, and Chelsea Mahaffey, currently interviewing for leadership roles, both completed the Longwood Fellows Program this year. We spoke to them about their experiences, aspirations and career advice.

What made you apply for the Longwood Fellows Program?

Erin Hepfner: I had spent several years in horticulture at the hands-on and middle-management levels and wanted to develop skills that would help me grow in my career and help my ability to have a greater impact within the organisation and community I was working in. I sought skills that would help me elevate public gardens’ endurance and reputation into the future.

I wanted to take advantage of the organisational management and senior-level leadership training that the fellows programme offers to help me achieve my professional goals of supporting an organisation's sustainability and vibrancy into the future in terms of personnel development, community relevancy and local and global mission impact. I sought the training at Longwood Gardens because of its reputation for high standards and professional excellence.

Chelsea Mahaffey: I decided to pursue the fellows programme to deepen my understanding of leadership, to pursue a senior level position and to continue to be a promoter for horticulture as a viable career. While I loved the organisation I was with and I was growing in my role and responsibilities, I realised I needed to have a better understanding of what leadership is and how I could become a better leader for my team.

Longwood Gardens has a rich history of education and I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with those that have trained at Longwood. I knew Longwood Gardens would be able to teach me about what a modern garden leader is and allow me to grow professionally and personally.

Erin Hepfner

Erin Hepfner: "Rather than being taught at, fellows learn through dialogue with faculty and content experts. We’re placed in situations including department immersions and field placement."

Is it everything you expected it to be?

EH: I anticipated the programme to be a robust professional training scheme that offered management and leadership techniques, finance coursework, governance lessons, and organisational strategy content. We were quickly exposed to content such as organisational culture and behaviour, topics that revealed that great leadership is equal parts organisational strategy and developing and supporting people and teams around you.

Another way my expectations were exceeded was that we spent a significant amount of time learning about ourselves as leaders, so as we progressed through the curriculum we were able to understand how our unique tendencies or traits fit into particular situations. We were also given feedback as to how to alter our actions to be most appropriate to different scenarios.

The programme is considered immersive. Rather than being taught at, fellows learn through dialogue with faculty and content experts. We’re placed in situations including department immersions and field placement, and the cohort project fosters opportunities to practise the curriculum content.

CM: The programme provided an immersive experience to learn about leadership. Whilst I was expecting the course curriculum to range from budgeting to governance, I was not expecting to be immersed in such a culture of openness and honesty. I could talk to any of the leaders at Longwood or other local public garden leaders to learn from their experiences. The programme shed a lot of light on how transparent, friendly and open the public garden world is.

Can you tell us about some of the best bits?

EH: The best bits for me include reflecting and finding the lessons in unexpected opportunities. There’s a lot of self-discovery which can be delightful and challenging, but all worth the growth that occurs in 13 months.

In general, the programme exposes fellows to people and practices that aid in leadership development and provides opportunities to practise the techniques and lessons learned. The curriculum includes hosting dinners for regional and global cultural institution leaders and content experts, as well as attending conferences, and provides exposure to a global network of people who are eager to support fellows’ education and career progression.

The two-month field placement is also an exciting chance to travel to a new garden and explore your newfound leadership skills, putting them into practice by supporting and contributing to the host organisation while also learning from them.

CM: The best part about the programme for me is that it is customised for the individual! While I was in a cohort of five professionals and we immersed ourselves in group studies, we each had different learning experiences tailored to our needs. I was able to focus on what I really wanted to develop - from hard skills such as fundraising to soft skills such as good communication skills. Also, the programme was very flexible to accommodate my needs.

Any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

EH: Improving one’s leadership ability requires self-awareness and ‘benchmarking’ one’s strengths and areas of growth throughout the programme in order to improve as a leader. I intentionally wanted to overcome my quiet and shy nature which certainly has its place, but there are times when my team or people around me need me to be more outgoing. As a cohort we worked together to help each other overcome challenges and offered each other support. Throughout the programme there were many enjoyable professional events where I could practise being more outgoing. I can now honestly say I enjoy navigating crowds and speaking up in groups.

CM: Yes! There is a great deal of reflection of who you are and how you show up as a leader. Acknowledging areas for growth, whether you are ready for it or not, was a great challenge for me. I was able to have a better understanding of what I need to work on. For instance, one of the things I needed to learn was asking for help. It took a lot of time to understand great leaders are vulnerable and don’t lead a team alone. I faced several personal challenges throughout the 13 months, each allowing me to grow as a person and a leader.

Chelsea Mahaffey
Chelsea Mahaffey: "A wonderful workplace has a culture of trust. When the staff and volunteers trust each other, it is amazing to see what they can work towards in harmony."

What do you think makes a ‘wonderful workplace’ in horticulture?

EH: A wonderful workplace is one where people are excited to show up to work and are eager to exercise and develop their skills while working on behalf of the organisation. To me, this includes providing staff with clear expectations, conveying to staff that they are empowered and valued, knowing that professionalism and excellence are a way of life, and celebrating creativity, ideas and unique perspectives.

It is the job of senior leadership to foster, model, and hold people accountable to participating in a great work environment so that it becomes a way of life within an organisation.

CM: A wonderful workplace has a culture of trust. When the staff and volunteers trust each other, it is amazing to see what they can work towards in harmony.

What advice would you give to someone considering the fellows programme?

EH: The fellows programme is a life-changing experience. If it has piqued your interest in any way, consider it, or contact the programme team to ask questions. The staff are supportive and helpful, so you can feel comfortable seeking information. The programme seeks diversity among the professionals - there isn't an ideal candidate per se; if you are curious and want to positively contribute as a leader to cultural institutions, consider applying to the career and life changing Longwood Fellows Program!

CM: Start with the why. Why do you want to be a public garden leader? And revisit that question often. If you know why you want to lead, the programme can help you get there.

Where next for you?

EH: I will be relocating to Ohio as Holden Forests and Gardens’ director of guest services, where I will be leading and supporting the teams who support and facilitate the guest experience of the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the Holden Arboretum.

CM: While I am still in the process of finding my next big adventure in the public garden world, I am looking forward to finding an organisation that is the right fit for me. I will continue to be an advocate for horticulture and public gardens as a fulfilling, lifelong career. The programme has set me up to succeed. I am glad I invested the past year into developing myself professionally and personally.

Exciting times ahead for this year’s Longwood fellows. Would you love the opportunity to join a programme that will enable you to grow personally and professionally, with a view to preparing you for a leadership role in horticulture? Applications for the 2020-21 Longwood Fellows Program open from August 1 to October 31, 2019.

Find out more and apply for the Longwood Fellows Program


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