Faces of the Industry: Karen Wilkinson - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Faces of the Industry: Karen Wilkinson

Karen Wilkinson says entering the landscape industry was the greatest leap of faith she could have made for her career. She says when she was presented with the opportunity to become a leader, she was very hesitant and frankly, scared.

“I found a passion and a great sense fulfillment that makes each day unique,” she says. “I’ll never forget the moment I was doing a landscape audit on a retirement center we maintained. As I was approached by a husband and wife who were residents of the center, I braced myself for what I thought was going to be a list of items they deemed deficient. To my surprise, they shared what the landscape grounds meant to them, the joy it brought and how meaningful it was. They were able to clearly express the feeling the landscape gave them. That was my lightbulb moment and I was hooked!”

Wilkinson has been in the industry for three decades now. She started out working for a small landscape company that went from 35 employees in1990 to over 350 by 2005.

“I was able to serve in multiple roles, learning the business from the ground up that included what it takes to grow a business and a clear understanding of the importance of relationship building with team members and clients,” she says.

At the start of her career, Wilkinson says she was fortunate to have a strong female leader who was her coach, mentor and became one of her closest friends.

“She invested the time to challenge me and pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Wilkinson says. “She saw qualities and potential in me that I hadn’t yet realized. The life lessons she taught me set me up to be the leader I am today.”

Now, Wilkinson is the regional vice president of the Northwest for LandCare. In the next five years, she wants to continue to expand her skills and those of who she works with. She especially wants to increase the number of women that have a rewarding career in the landscape industry.

“I cannot express clearly enough how much I owe Mike Bogan (CEO of LandCare) for changing the direction of my career and stretching my own preconceived limitations, I got very comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable!” Wilkinson says. “He continues to coach and mentor me to think in new ways and to continually raise my bar. He is our strongest advocate to help, support and dedicate time and resources to WIN – Women’s Initiative Network at LandCare.”

Wilkinson says WIN exists to help women personally and professionally grow and achieve their goals. She wants there to be a line at the women’s restroom at landscape meetings and conventions.

“Currently, there is no line,” she says. “This needs to end now. It’s my mission to get more women excited to be in the landscape industry and create that waiting line for the restroom at future meetings!”

She says over the past 30 years, the industry has made progress towards diversity, but it’s not enough.

“Three decades ago, I endured inappropriate comments and behavior,” Wilkinson says. “I’ve dealt with pay inequities. Early in my career my boss told me that men needed to make more money because they ‘have’ to work – while women ‘choose’ to work. It’s frustrating to be told that women are emotional, but males are passionate when their behavior is the same. One of the hardest obstacles to overcome has been being heard. In meetings, I can bring up an idea or suggestion to have it politely discarded and a male team member will say the same thing and it’s found to be brilliant.”

Some of the challenges were self-inflicted. “When my four sons were young, it was difficult trying to find the balance,” Wilkinson says. “I put unrealistic expectations on myself.”

“I used to think it was just me, but while working with other women in our industry, I found I wasn’t alone,” she adds. “We need to be more confident that what we bring to the table is important and should be valued. I want part of my legacy to be that I helped our future generations of women in the landscape industry be as successful as they can while also educating both males and females in the opportunities we have to change our own subconscious and/or conscious biases.”

Wilkinson encourages other females considering a career in the green industry to find a company that embraces the value of diversity and aligns with their values.

“Surround yourself with strong women and mentors,” she says. “Don’t hesitate to speak up – have confidence that your opinion is important and valued. Remember to help other women along that way. If you want to stand out in an industry – then the landscape profession is for you!”

As for her favorite part of working in the industry, Wilkinson says she loves how landscaping can change how people feel. She is passionate about getting to know people and understanding how to positively impact them, whether it’s a client or employee.

“At the end of the day, how we make people feel is what they will remember,” Wilkinson says. “I also love that our industry changes people’s lives. I get so much satisfaction and fulfillment seeing team members continual learning and progressing in their careers.”

This article was published in the Nov/Dec issue of the magazine.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.

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