Conservation Careers advice from WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini

This week Conservation Careers speaks to the top person in global conservation – WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini. He shares his passion for wildlife, his career story of how he started out as a volunteer for WWF and ended up as their Director General, and provides advice and hope for people looking to start working in conservation today. “People who want to work in wildlife and environmental sustainability don’t need necessarily to be biologists and natural scientists”, reveals Marco. It’s a must read!

What inspired you to work in wildlife conservation?

I was born with a deep passionate and fascination for wildlife and nature. I always knew I wanted to spend my time studying and conserving nature. It all became clearer when in the early ‘80s I read a book called “The Biophilia Hypothesis” by Edward O Wilson.

It made the case that humans are fascinated by nature simply because we have been evolving for almost all of our natural history immersed in nature. So, we’ve developed a strong curiosity, affiliation and empathy for nature as a survival adaptation.

Some people have a particular experience in the course of their life that triggers that passion for nature. But my fascination and passion for nature started very early. When I was three I created, a museum in my bedroom of dead bugs, stones, leaves and all sorts of natural things that I would collect in the garden. I was born with that strong empathy for nature and it has only grown stronger!

You joined WWF as a volunteer when you were twelve, and now you are the Director General. Looking back at the journey between those two points, what where the key steps in your career?

It has really been quite an extraordinary journey. Hard to believe almost! The funny thing is that it was totally unplanned!

First of all, my early volunteer work was super important because it gave me the confidence that anybody could do something about the environment. I really believed I could change the world by joining a group of like-minded people that had the same passion, I had.

Then of course, you grow up and the reality is more complex than that. I think another key step was my scientific studies and the early period in my life when I did field research with the Natural History Museum of my city, Livorno.

Another great experience comes from the fact that I have always liked to write and speak about the value of nature to people and on conservation issues, particularly to the public or professional sectors far removed from the environment. I learnt a lot during my work as a science journalist, talking about wildlife and conservation. I had the privilege to write for major newspapers in Italy, and also was the ‘expert’ in a prime-time TV program on wildlife. Great fun and many lessons learned from the interaction with the public, including the basic rules of social marketing needed to engage and influence change in attitudes and practices.

Another extremely helpful experience, I realise now, was when for family reasons I had to take over the family business. I learned about the importance of customer service and listening to your customers so you can actually meet their needs and their requests. You develop a very special mind set and it turned out to be extremely helpful in managing stakeholders under very different circumstances.

The final important career experience was in the field. This has guided me deeply through my career, taking me from local, then national to an international level all around the world. Managing projects, programmes and campaigns requires, not just understanding the theory, but also the reality on the ground: ecological, social, political, economic and emotional. And the critical importance of understanding the challenges and aspirations of the local people as the only way to achieve real and durable change at the ground level. The local economy, and the people who drive it, is often both the problem and the solution. My volunteer work, research, relationships with people, the communication dimension and the field experience are all key areas where I learnt a lot and which helped me develop.

You seem to have moved very much from local based conservation in Italy to into international conservation with BirdLife International and now with WWF International. Was this a deliberate transition moving from local to international?

The local dimension is really exciting and tangible and it continues to inspire me, even today. Even when I moved to an international role I have always kept in touch, as much as possible, with campaigns and field projects. Ultimately change happens at the local level: in places and with people. It is a crucial to connect with the ‘real’ world.

But from the beginning, I held a view that nature and the environment is a connected global thing. I was always fascinated by tropical nature too. So, I guess that understanding, that feeling, has created a favourable foundation for me to then accept jobs that moved from local, to national, to international.

One thing that perhaps would not recommend to anyone is that my career has been totally unplanned, and rather driven by passion and desire to contribute more. I moved from volunteer to campaigner. My first job was as a campaigner was for a large awareness raising initiative in Italy in 1980 when awareness of the environment was extremely low. Then I moved from the Head of the Private Nature Reserve to Director of Conversation to CEO, of the national organisation. I was then invited by BirdLife International to become global Program and Network Development Director, and finally I became the CEO of BirdLife. And now I am the Director General of WWF International.

I accepted new challenges that went in the direction that I wanted to see, particularly opportunities that allowed me to deliver or facilitate the delivery of greater impact. This is what I have always been focussed on: impact and change. And wherever I worked I tried my best to drive the organisation and its people and partners to focus and be obsessed with results.

WWF is one of the biggest movements for wildlife on the planet. You have a network over 6,500 staff and many projects running at any one time across the globe. What is it like to be the Director General of WWF?

My job is essentially to bring together a diverse group of people around the world, their energy, knowledge, competence and passion around exciting transformational ideas and high impact programmes. To create a local-to-global flow of ideas and actions that cut across geographies, issues, sectors and supply chains. Particularly today, when the urgency to address environmental degradation – basically climate change and loss of nature – has never been greater and more crucial.

Where we can adapt locally, unite globally and be bigger than the sum of the parts and really achieve magic – that’s when incredible energy comes together.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I have always been fascinated by networks. I have also always worked in NGO networks, never in an individual stand-alone organisation. What I enjoy most is the power that the networks can generate.

What I enjoy least is the fact that in my position, you are exposed to inconvenient and terrible truth of the decline of our natural systems and the suffering that causes to people. Yes, the nature conservation and human development agenda are essentially one and the same. We are not going to achieve prosperity and equality in a degraded natural environment.

In the last fifteen years, the whole paradigm and my thinking has completely changed. While I am still crazy about wildlife, I feel today my job is as much about wildlife and nature as it’s about people and our children.

That has been a major transformation for the whole conservation movement. Today, the divide between people and nature, and between development and protection, is just futile and false – the distinction is not real.

We are all connected and what we do to protect the environment, we actually do to protect people.

What is the best piece of careers advice you have been given?

I think the best advice I have received and I would give to others is to be absolutely true to your personal mission and make sure that it is the same as the organisation you work for! Every time you have a difficult moment or you celebrate a success, remember why we are here and how you should behave, communicate, plan, or manage in order to achieve your goal.

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For example, imagine a big organisation like WWF – you can easily be distracted by how much we grow, the amount of funds we raise or how much publicity we get… These are not the goals for an organisation like WWF. These are crucial tools, but must be translated into impact and results. Achieving our mission where people live in harmony with nature, is the goal. This is the only reason people work for WWF, this is why I decided to work for WWF: its fantastic potential to deliver impact.

A second lesson is about partnering and working with others. When you work for an organisation you may see others as competitors. This is very possibly true. But there are ways to turn competitors into partners. Overcoming the sense of territorialism and competitiveness is hard but one way to do it is to think bigger, of the bigger wins we could achieve in an alliance rather than alone. Then the added value, the co-benefits become apparent.

By the way, WWF mission requires collaboration and partnerships; we always have to think back to my earlier point about delivering our mission. Isolation is not the right recipe to achieve change at scale.

Be true to the mission all the time, do things that are actually better for the mission, not the organisation alone, and think about partnerships and collaboration. These are the two big lessons learnt in order to be better.

Also I’d encourage people to get field experience early on. Whether you are a social scientist, interested in sustainability or if you are a biologist interested in population dynamics or conservation. Whatever your field, try to find an opportunity to actually have field experience. And preferably in rather complex and difficult conditions. The best lessons come from the ‘real world’.

Expose yourself to different cultures in the process, so that you also stretch your mind. Try to understand other perspectives and other realties, from the ones you are familiar with.

There are a lot of people seeking to get their first job in wildlife conservation. What do you think these people need to do to give them their best chance of securing their first job?

The situation today is dramatically different from even just a couple of decades ago.

There are many more opportunities. Opportunities for work are much more diverse in conservation than before – from academia, non-profit organisations (like WWF) to government agencies and increasingly businesses.

People who want to work in wildlife and environmental sustainability don’t need necessarily to be biologists and natural scientists. That is the big difference from just twenty years ago.

Today a diversity of competences is needed to achieve sustainability in the environmental arena and wildlife conservation the reality is so much more complex and interdependent.

In the eighties, we thought that protecting wildlife was about protecting areas where wildlife live; perhaps reduce hunting, trapping and trading. Today, we know that in order to really be effective in protecting wildlife, we still need to protect natural places and unsustainable resource use But even more impactful is the need to address the drivers behind habitat and species loss: direct financial resources away from environmental degradation, ensure good governance and planning at the landscape level, influence markets, consumption and production and develop the power of our economy based on energy that doesn’t pollute or warm the planet.

All this stuff creates an opportunity for people from all sorts of disciplines to be able to work in wildlife and environmental conservation fields like never before.

My advice would be, to think about if you want work within the environmental sphere, choose a stream of work and a discipline that could contribute to it but that also reflects your passion. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a technical, biological science.

What do you look for in a WWF candidate? What are you looking for? What makes people stand out?

I look for three dimensions.

The first one is the passion for the mission. For somebody that works at WWF, whether it is a receptionist, a scientist, product manager or a financial accountant, his or her productivity and quality of job and performance will be hugely enhanced, if it is fuelled by passion for WWF’s mission where people live in harmony with nature.

The first question I ask is about motivation. If that answer is wrong then we start on the wrong foot. We ask the question in a subtle way, to really explore deeply why people apply to WWF rather than looking for another job.

The second dimension is skills. You need a proven track-record, or – also very important and perhaps more exciting- to prove your ability to grow in the area that you are applying for. You need to know what you are talking about and have enough experience for the job that you are applying for. But sometimes it’s even more powerful to have someone that comes with different experience but can apply it to a new field in a certain job. This is how often innovation comes about.

The third important dimension is your individual profile. An organisation like WWF has to work across the world, sectors, industries, supply chains and government structures with diverse players. We’re looking for a personality profile that includes, listening skills and a constructive approach, and also a predisposition to understand different perspectives, including cultural differences. These are critical to forge the internal and external partnership and teams that we need to have in place to deliver high impact.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I hope I have given insight that could help people realise that, with the right will, skills and attitude they can apply for any position at WWF or others.
We do definitely need people, there is no doubt.

We continuously need people at WWF and in the environmental movement of organisations and agencies. And people should consider WWF, not just as an endpoint but actually as a transition point as well. Many former staff of WWF are now in governments, institutes and businesses.

A position and experience, particularly for young people, in WWF could help them develop an understanding of big societal and environmental issues that could benefit them during their career, whether it be for another NGO, government, business or academic institution.

So, I leave you with this last message, look at WWF as an experience to grow, not just an end-point in your career.

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