"Experiment. Fail. Learn. Try again"

Deborah Gray, Founder of Canela PR

Deborah Gray is the British born Founder of Canela a people-first, values-led public relations agency in Barcelona, Lisbon and Madrid. She leads a team of over 40 consultants delivering high impact campaigns for household names such as the European Commission, Groupon, Sony and Wallbox. Canela has been nominated as the Best Agency to Work For in Europe, Middle East & Africa every year for the last 6 years and was named Best Communication Agency in Spain by PR Noticias in 2019.  Deborah is a recent convert to Essentialism, the disciplined pursuit of doing less and, like many people during the Covid-19 pandemic she took up a new pastime which was possible to do under the lockdown restrictions. She took a look at her (then) neglected garden and almost overnight went from being an occasional ‘herbs-in-pot grower’ to an aspiring ‘grow and eat’ directly from her own garden. Feeling constrained by the boundaries of her own garden Deborah then went on to start up a 1.400m2 Community Huerto (allotment) in her home town of Cabrils. Here, Deborah talks about the similarities between managing a successful huerto and growing a successful business.


Everybody and everything needs their own space. Every seed packet you buy comes with a clear set of measurements written on them. These measurements indicate the distance you need to leave between respective plants for them to grow to healthy maturity. To give you an idea, a courgette plant needs 1m2 whereas you can plant a lettuce every 10cm. This is also true for team members in any organisation. Different people need varying amounts of metres squared of autonomy within which to flourish. If they feel crowded out or overly supervised they will not reach their full potential. Conversely other team members require more coaching and closer attention to be productive in their daily work. Knowing how much or how little autonomy each individual needs requires patient observation.

Diversity is key to successful growth. Companion planting is a method of planting which puts different plants close to each other for their mutual benefit. A tall plant like peas or beans can provide shade for a low growing plant such as strawberries which in turn provides soil cover helping to keep moisture in the soil. One type of plant can deter certain insects that another attracts.  Organisations work in a similar way. All organisations need creative people. But not all team members are creative in the same way. Some people have great, big, bold ideas but lack the ability to develop them further. Whilst others may not have the big ideas, but they are skilled at developing other’s ideas into practical outcomes. These two styles of creativity are complementary and need each other to achieve the best results.

There is an activity for every season. Summer is a bountiful time to have a huerto. I am there in the morning before work weeding, pruning, harvesting, tying up, watering, admiring and then I again at the end of the day, or, as every home worker will identify with, between Zoom calls.  Winter is not so frenetic. It provides a welcome break from the physicality of gardening to take stock, write plans for next year, mend the fences and the watering system empty the compost pile etc. Businesses also have their frenetic times and their more peaceful times, so it is essential to plan accordingly. In my business, the period from Back to School until Christmas is notoriously frenetic due to the lull over the Summer followed by an uptake in everyone wanting to spend their budgets before the end of the financial year and the flurry of activity for Black Friday and Christmas Campaigns.  There is no margin in anyone’s day during this period and to get the most from the team it is essential not to give anyone any unnecessary tasks or projects that could wait until the new year. By contrast April to June is a quiet period. We know that is when our income is the lowest so we plan ahead for that. We know that this time is a good time for training, blue-sky thinking and employee exchanges.

Decide on a strategy and stick with it.  Unless you have copious amounts of land you will need to work within the constraints of a certain amount of m2 to plant vegetables. This means making some hard decisions about what to grow and when. Once you have made those decisions, be patient and stick to the plan, otherwise your huerto will be chaos and the time invested in it will be wasted energy. Similarly with business you always have a finite set of resources both in terms of team and money. Once you have set objectives for the year stick with them. It may take time for things to turn out the way you want them to, but you need to trust that things are moving in the right direction, even if, inevitably things take longer than you would like.  If you know what you’re doing you will get the results you want. Just as when you bury seeds in the ground you may have to wait a while for them to push through the soil. Be patient. The universe is evolving as it should.

Experiment. Fail. Learn. Try again.  I read online about an ancient Chinese watering technique for tomato plants. Block a drainage hole in a ceramic plant pot and bury it in the soil alongside your tomato plants and then fill the plant pot up with water. The water will seep out by osmosis and water the tomato plant directly at its roots. Last season I invested in a lot of ceramic pots and tried that. Epic fail. All my carefully grown-from-seed exotic-sounding tomato plants didn’t even make it to the flowering stage. All that method did was attract a whole load of slugs. This year my tomato plants grew strong and healthy thanks to an automated watering system. Lesson learned. I am now recycling those ceramic plant pots by planting flowers in them and using them as mobile pollinator attractors. In the early days of my business during the global recession of 2008/9 despite being a technology agency we tried to set up a fashion department. We created a showroom and spent hours cold calling and cold emailing on fashion brands’ doors. The results were negligible and despite many hours invested we had very little to show for our efforts. We decided to call it quits and get back to core business. Once we had focussed on what we knew best our business started to grow again.

Nature is the best example of leadership. Seeds soaked overnight and placed in soil and then watered will grow leaves. Given the right amount of water, sunlight, and the occasional fertiliser they will grow healthily and happily and be a source of food for you, your family and your community as well as for insects and birds.  Similarly, leaders who provide the right combination of guidance, training, autonomy, space to fail and diverse skill sets are replicating nature and therefore providing the optimum conditions for everyone to flourish. Creating a people-first environment means that every team member will reach for the sky.

Maresme has a privileged climate. The growing conditions are so optimal in Maresme that it is possible to get three harvests in one year. Unfortunately, much of the land surrounding Cabrils is abandoned and is not being used to grow food even though we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. The sad fact is that many people have simply lost the ability, the know-how and the interest to cultivate food for their own consumption. Part of our philosophy at the community huerto in Cabrils is that we should always grow enough for ourselves and a little bit more for others.  There are seven families involved in the project but we have organised our planting plan with a view to donating any additional produce to Cal Comu, the food bank in Cabrils.

To find out more about what nature can teach you about leadership or for more information on how to volunteer or join the Cabrils community huerto you can contact Deborah at dgray@canelapr.com

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