Annie Gough

September 6, 2022

Trail Tales: A Look at 3 Leadership Journeys

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No two leaders walk the same path. Some have more twists and turns, and some even have obstructions on the trail. Everyone comes to the path with different backgrounds, educations, experiences, and passions. And yet Small Giants leaders tend to have a few things in common: a desire to connect with people, to constantly learn, and to make a positive change with the work they're doing. 

Let's take a look at three Small Giants leaders who have all had different yet equally inspiring journeys, leading them to impact their organizations while also living their purpose.


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Blooming From One-Woman-Show to Leader with a Vision

While few of us have a straight shot of a career trajectory, it’s safe to say that Brandy Hall, Founder and Managing Director of Shades of Green Permaculture, had a more interesting journey than most. 

Brandy has previously worked as a stone masonry apprentice, a farmer, a Waldorf school teacher, and even has a general contractors license. She also worked as the Site and Education Director for a non-profit that had a good mission but not-so-good pay, and so she looked for other means of income. Due to her unique background and skills, as well as passion for permaculture, she would pick up small jobs on the side to help people with their outdoor landscapes, and soon enough she realized that there was enough interest there to build a business. 

All of her previous jobs may seem like an eclectic collection of roles. But, upon closer look, they all blend to make her the perfect person to create a business like Shades of Green Permaculture, which aims to not only design and create beautiful landscapes, but also educate people on the ways in which they can make a positive impact on the environment. 

It’s been 15 years since Brandy began her one-woman-show, and now she has 20 full-time employees, and their revenue has been steadily increasing. She’s grown the purpose, too, by crystalizing it. What used to be a generic statement of helping people to be more sustainable, is now a strong, thoughtful purpose.

“Shades of Green exists to empower people with the tools to address the climate crisis that we face,” says Brandy. Most permaculture organizations focus on the agricultural and homesteading sectors, while she aims to help those in urban homes. “People can do something regardless of the size of land that they steward.”

But, growing the business beyond just herself posed challenges - more systems had to be structured, and managing people became more and more of a prevalent role. Participating in a cohort learning experience like the Leadership Academy proved important in strengthening Brandy’s knowledge of things like hiring and accountability, as well as her own confidence as a leader. 

“Sometimes, the challenges I experience as a leader feel like they’re happening in a vacuum,” says Brandy. But when she reaches out to mentors or her peer group, she’s able to see that other leaders face similar challenges. Not only that, but she gains the knowledge and support of others leaders with a values alignment who have found successful solutions to these challenges. 

Brandy suggests to any emerging leaders to begin working on a strategic plan early, but to also be comfortable with where you’re at in your leadership journey. Nobody can know everything right from the start, and for Brandy, allowing her passions and purpose to guide her way has led to a fruitful destination.


 Torey Carter Conneen Banner 2

From Managing Numbers to People

Have you ever heard the saying that an only child makes a great leader? Us either, but Torey is proving it to be true! Torey Carter-Conneen is the CEO at American Society of Landscape Architects. He credits part of his leadership success with his upbringing, and his desire to interact with people from a young age, while also paying close attention to rules due to being the sole focus of his mother. 

Torey began his leadership journey early on, with a natural inclination towards people, problem-solving, and organizing. He started his career working on the back-end of business as a bookkeeper, and studied to be an auditor. But soon enough he was recognized for his character traits as being leadership qualities, and worked his way up from the more mechanical side of business to the problem-solving and people side.

Prior to his current role, Torey worked for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Center for American Progress, and the Victory Fund and Institute. While these may seem like very different organizations at a glance, at their core, they are all working towards improving lives. Even before he had the language to recognize it, they had a values alignment that he was able to carry from one organization to the next. He said he’s able to speak about them almost interchangeably, because of their mission-driven focus.

“It’s about having the ambition to make the world a better place for a variety of communities,” says Torey. “There’s work to be done across a myriad of organizations.” 

Even though Torey had some natural abilities as a leader, he wanted to grow himself even further. When he went through the Small Giants Leadership Academy and became more involved with the Small Giants Community, it helped him to recognize the aspects of his leadership identity that were working, and where he could improve. It also gave him the language to discuss elements of a purpose-driven business he hadn’t had before.

“It made me much better at explaining my value add and also bringing other people in.”

Torey enjoys the role he plays within his current organization, and how he can play his part in improving landscapes for people and promoting sustainable design to protect the planet from the impacts of climate change. No matter what team he’s a part of, he’s learned to keep his desire to help people at the forefront. 

“It’s not always going to feel like you’re fulfilling your purpose, but hold on to what inspires you to be a purpose-driven leader and continue to fine tune that and follow it,” says Torey. “Let that be your north star.” 


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Gaining Confidence and Community

Sometimes, the best thing to do is raise your hand and advocate for yourself. Melinda knows this all too well. Melinda White is the Director of Claims Management at Zolman Restoration, a reconstruction organization that works with insurance companies to restore houses after disasters such as fires and floods. Melinda came to Zolman five years ago, after spending nearly a decade at State Farm. She saw her new company as a place where she could embrace a more tight-knit culture, and also grow in her career. 

Melinda expressed interest in having a leadership role within her department, and since Zolman had already sent another employee through the Small Giants Leadership Academy, the leadership team decided it could be a good way to set Melinda on the right path. And so, after a year of learning from facilitators as well as fellow participants, she graduated in the Class of 2021. 

“It’s so nice to have the feedback of others from outside of the organization, and more specifically from outside of the industry,” says Melinda. She noted that the restoration industry can be quite insular, and also feel like sometimes, they’re the only group dealing with a particular problem. But after building relationships with people from various industries, she realized many of the challenges she faced were fairly universal. 

Another perk for Melinda in participating in a cross-industry cohort was building relationships with other women in leadership roles. For someone in a male-dominated industry, having those connections proved to be very encouraging. “It’s made me feel less alone and more heard. And the opportunities I’ve had here at Zolman have a lot to do with that.”

Throughout the year of cohort learning, Melinda took charge of initiatives and gained the confidence to implement improvements for her team. She was rewarded for her growth with a promotion to the role of director.

Recently, Zolman acquired another company, bringing their organization to nearly 50 employees. Melinda has been leading the charge on creating an integration strategy for those newly acquired employees to better understand Zolman’s culture and successfully blend into the existing teams. Collaboration is key, and Melinda’s had the support of her colleagues, as well as some fellow Leadership Academy alumni she remains in a peer group with. But she’s in control of developing strategies to ensure that Zolman’s strong, compassionate culture remains intact even amongst growth and change. And she’s doing so with an important sentiment in mind:

“One of the things that I’ve always taken from Small Giants is that people are the most important thing, and things tend to fall in place if you value the people who are in your life.”


SGLA logo for blog blobWant to go on your own leadership journey?

Sometimes, the path of a leader can feel very solitary. But it doesn't always have to. Having a trusted group of leaders who share the same values as you, and have a perspective from outside of your organization, can be huge for growing your skillset, as well as your confidence. Brandy, Torey, and Melinda each found that purpose-driven community in the form of the Small Giants Leadership Academy. We have dozens more graduates with tales as equally as inspiring, and we hope to help even more leaders on their own journeys. So go ahead and dust off your compass, and click here to see if the Leadership Academy is the right path for you.

Want to grow your own emerging leaders? The Small Giants Leadership Academy may be the perfect opportunity.

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About Annie Gough

Annie Gough is a writer who is driven by the power of a good story to bring people together. As the Small Giants Community's Chief Storyteller, she strives to bring out the human element in business, and provide a platform for people who emulate what it means to be a Small Giant and might inspire others to do the same. She has been a Challenge Detroit Fellow, holds a master's degree in Creative Writing from the University of Stirling, and has worked with a broad range of clients on vibrant marketing and copywriting content. In her spare time, Annie enjoys volunteering at the local animal shelter, writing fiction, simulating the cooking show Chopped in her own kitchen, and enjoying the company of her very lazy mutt, Paisley.