An interview with….
Beccy Speight, Chief Executive Officer, RSPB
Was your early life shaped at all by nature?
Very much so. I grew up in a small village in Dorset in the 60’s and 70’s, with four working farms in the village. I had pet newts at one stage and jars of cinnabar moth caterpillars (the orange and black stripey caterpillars of the cinnabar moth) on my bedroom windowsill. My mother knew all the common wildflower names and taught them to us on walks and my father took us camping, fishing, boating and swimming. My brother and I had what can only be described as a free ranging childhood, out from dawn to dusk – sadly the kind of childhood that fewer children have the opportunity of experiencing today.
What career path did you take? Have you ever volunteered?
My career path can only be described as ‘eclectic’! My first degree was in English Literature and I went on to be sponsored through an MBA. I’ve worked in the public, private and third sectors. For five years I was a management consultant, often working on big merger deals. I’ve enjoyed and learnt a lot from everything I’ve done. But in 2000 I made the big decision to move into the conservation sector, putting my back into something I felt mattered enormously. I got the job of running the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire for the National Trust. I was lucky that they were prepared to take a chance on me and I took a huge salary cut to do it. But I was in a position where I had no dependents and so it was entirely my call to make. Since then I have been on a trajectory to get to where I feel I can make most difference to the urgent cause of protecting and restoring our natural world, which is in crisis. I became a Regional Director at the National Trust, then CEO of the Woodland Trust and now I’m at the RSPB.
I have volunteered – once for the Dorset Museum in Dorchester when I had just finished my first degree and then once for the National Trust when I managed to blag my way into shadowing an Estate Manager (I wanted to test out if it was what I really wanted to do) in exchange for helping him carry out a staff restructure. I also volunteered as a student for Nightline.
As a woman what if any barriers have you met and conquered along the way?
I don’t feel as though I have encountered enormous barriers and I’ve often been mentored either formally or informally by more senior women at work, which has been enormously helpful. The conservation sector has changed a lot in terms of gender parity during my time working within it and many of the environmental NGOs are led by women today. Earlier on in my career I encountered some sexism – being paid less that a male colleague for the same job ‘because he had school fees to pay’; being assumed to be my male colleague’s secretary when in fact I was his boss (much to his mortification!); having people look past you for the man who must be in charge when you first meet them.
It's good to see more women in top positions at countryside / conservation organisations, what can we do to encourage more to take the leap (or to stay the course) into upper management?
I think mentoring, both formal and informal, can really help – it helped me. In terms of staying the course, more flexible working opportunities make a difference for both men and women – it just lets people juggle all the demands of their work and personal lives more effectively without feeling they’ve been run over by a bus at the end of the week. Finding the success stories in an organisation and using them to build confidence always helps. I try to listen out for young female voices, who can sometimes get drowned out in a big organisation and listen and give them the platforms of opportunity they need. People did that for me.
It's been said, particularly through covid and lockdowns, that female political leaders are more compassionate, is this just a stereotype or do you think there's any truth in it and if so, does it help or hinder in the conservation sector.
I don’t think compassion is a gender specific quality. But – and I realise this is a sweeping generalisation which won’t be true across the board! - I do think because of the social structures around women, they tend to grow up with relatively stronger social and communication skills and that those skills underpin better collaboration. And better collaboration is definitely something we need in the conservation sector if we are going to be able to tackle the scale of challenge now facing us.
Advice for anyone wanting to rise to the top of an organisation.
Get clear on why you want the top job – if actually it’s just about more money and status, you won’t last the course. In fact, you probably won’t get the job in the first instance. These jobs ask a lot from you and you really need to know why you’re prepared to give it. Broaden your experience – don’t be afraid of moving sideways. Learn all the time. Stay out of your comfort zone. Don’t look down, keep moving forward. Don’t be the one who stops you making the leap if the opportunity comes.
Mountain hike or beach comb?
First wildlife spot or memory?
Dawn chorus or 'evensong'?
Guide book or app?
Favourite reserve / site / location
Litter pick or Balsam bash?
How many unread emails in your inbox? (we assume your work account is spotless!)
Wildlife or nature moment that made you gasp
And finally, the first question every new member of the CJS Team is asked: Tea or Coffee?
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