Click to read: Leadership in Conservation: Q&A with Simon Black

Leadership in Conservation: Q&A with Simon Black

An expert in conservation leadership, Dr Simon Black is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, working as a Researcher and Organisational Development Consultant. Simon will be known to many of you as a regular leader of Durrell’s taught programmes in Jersey, as well as leading a module on the PgDip Endangered Species Recovery course in Mauritius.

In a Q&A session designed to help Durrell students, graduates and staff develop their leadership skills, Simon kindly shared his knowledge and advice about the key leadership principles and their application in the conservation field.


What do you see as the biggest leadership problems in conservation?

People haven’t had chance to learn leadership skills. Many haven’t had formal training in management – working with teams, developing teams, setting goals – even things like effective budgeting and financial planning aren’t always formally taught.

Is this holding us back on a global scale and if so, how can we help to improve this?

Yes. We’re in danger of measuring the wrong things when trying to find out if conservation programmes are working, and that’s a leadership issue.

There’s a lot that leaders can do in terms of reorienting the way they think and encouraging innovation, instead of relying on traditional bureaucratic approaches.

If leaders are much clearer about the purpose of what they’re doing and if they learn how to get people to use measures to tell them whether they’re achieving those outcomes and to improve the design of work, I think conservation programmes would become much more effective.

What advice would you give to somebody stepping into his or her first conservation leadership position?

Remember that leadership is about followership – why are people going to follow you? You need to get in your head how you’re going to lead. Think: What is our work about? What is really important? Why do I need people to do the work? Think about how to get the job done and listen to peoples’ opinions and ideas. You’ve got to really engage people – involve them and bring them alongside you rather than dictating what’s going on.

When you have to direct people, tell them in person what you are going to do (with a reason if possible), then (maybe) send them an email afterwards to confirm. Don’t just send the email!

A young leader should seek advice from an existing leader they respect as an informal mentor. Start to read around, too – we’re getting more and more knowledge about what’s effective in conservation programmes. Once you have clarity in your own head about how you want to lead, consider this when you meet people and how you make decisions, how you plan your time, the way you respond to questions and demands, and the type of interactions you have with people outside the programme.

Do you have any advice for how we lead people who are older, more educated or more experienced than us?

Recognise what a person brings to the team. If you have an older person, they’ll bring experience, which might be good or might even be bad; they will often bring skills and knowledge, and you can utilise that. A good start point is to listen to what people have to say. At the same time, recognise that sometimes experience isn’t everything. Knowledge must relate to what is happening now to inform what to do next.

You may need to redirect experienced peoples’ thinking to get them to contribute without assuming they’ve got all the answers. Do that with dignity – make sure you’re respecting them so they feel on side with you and you can work together. To attain that dignified relationship, simply get to know them, what they are about, what is important to them, their hobbies, interests, family, career. Some people will be happy to share this, others less so (and that’s something you need to find out), but build a relationship and establish trust.

If you could recommend one piece of writing to those looking to improve their leadership skills for a conservation programme, which would it be?

Well it’ll have to be one of mine of course! My paper with Jim Groombridge and Carl Jones (2011) looked at a lot of different types of conservation programme and offers clarity about what not to do, before listing a whole range of things that are good to do. It is useful to ask yourself the question: What things can be avoided or eliminated to make it easier for people to follow me and commit to the important things that will help us conserve species and ecosystems?

Simon is inviting Durrell Learning Network members to participate in an anonymous, confidential questionnaire to improve our understanding of effective leadership in conservation. The questionnaire asks you to rate the importance of various leadership approaches using both your personal leadership experience and observations of other leaders. It should take about 20 minutes to complete.

The questionnaire offers an excellent way for Durrell Learning Network members to contribute their diverse experiences to help improve our understanding of conservation leadership. We strongly encourage you to take part and will ask Simon to provide an update on the findings later this year.


Posted 23 June 2017

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