How to be an Effective Ecologist | Neil Middleton

Neil Middleton is the author of  the ‘The Effective Ecologist’ which covers the stuff that no-one told you about at university – how to develop your office-related and business skills to succeed in your career as a professional ecologist. An effective ecologist is someone who …

  • Behaves professionally and fully understands how to operate with positive effect within the business in which they work.
  • Communicates appropriately within their team and with customers and suppliers.
  • Works within the prescribed systems, processes, methods and agreed budgets.
  • Has the vision to anticipate when a problem is looming and takes meaningful action to prevent the issue arising.
  • Listens well and understands precisely that they are being asked to deliver.
  • Completes their tasks on time and at the required level of quality.

Neil has over 35 years of experience within the service, financial and ecological sectors, performing a variety of leadership, managerial, technical, customer service, people development, consultancy, marketing and financial roles. He is the managing director of two companies operating within the UK, and a co-owner of Echoes Ecology Ltd, an ecological consultancy he established in Scotland in 2006.  He has a constant appetite for self-development, as well as seeking to develop those around him. Hence the inspiration behind this book, in which he shares his experiences thoughts and ideas as to how best you can perform successfully in your role…

Where did you find the inspiration to write ‘The Effective Ecologist’?

When I began to write this book I was managing director of Echoes Ecology Ltd. I started to think about this book after a lot of successful and un-successful experiences with interview candidates and staff members. I also had learned a lot about managing successful teams during my career (having learnt from many good and bad decision that I had made myself). I felt I had good business skills, and could see things from the perspective of the employees and employers.

Previously, I worked for many years within another service sector environment (Insurance and Finance), and the main difference with the ecology sector is the presence of guidance on non-technical and technical skills in what you have to do, with training courses, methods for identifications of species, courses for software programmes, courses for the application of statistical techniques.

However, there was nothing aimed at our sector as to how to be a good member of a team for example. This was frustrating to me as I knew there were skills that people could acquire and develop beyond their technical knowledge, that could help then greatly in achieving a successful career. Therefore, I decided to try and assist matters, for those who were interested in being better informed, by writing this book. I was very fortunate, because I found very quickly the opportunity to publish with Pelagic Publishing in the UK, who I had worked with on a previous book.

Who is the book targeted at?

When I decided to write “The Effective Ecologist”, one of the first questions that I had was what kind of people can be helped by this book in order to be a better employee, or a better employer. Indeed, the people, who could benefit by this book, can be anyone who considers a career in the ecology sector, and secondly, anyone who is employed in the sector at any level (e.g. graduate, principal, senior, business owner etc.).

I thought in this way because a manager must also be aware of how to be an effective employer in order to share suggestions and select the right person for a role in the first place.

“Many ecologists are good at the technical stuff, but they have never be trained on the non-technical aspects of managing or being managed by others”

The book tells a lot about the different skills, which can be helpful during the career path of an ecologist, can you summarize the most important capabilities to succeed in the office environment?

I have been asked this question a lot of times, and each time I give a slightly different answer, depending on my thoughts that day.

However, in any business environment the first necessary skill is communication. You must be able to communicate, to say when something is going wrong, to receive and give tasks effectively etc. You must be able to assess whether or not something fits well for the business. For example, from an employee’ perspective, when you are receiving a task, you have to accept the task to get the job done to the required level. But this is only possible, if your boss has communicated the task in the proper way to you in the first place. If they did not communicate it well, you are less likely to able to achieve a successful result.

Understanding the task allocation model is crucial, and this can be considered as a secondary skill, within communication skills overall. If you are not able to comprehend your duties, you can miss the task and potentially suffer the consequences. Very often a boss who doesn’t communicate effectively needs managing upwards by the employee (another good skill to have, if needed). There is a whole chapter within the book dedicated to communication skills within an ecology environment. If you only ever read one chapter within the book, this is the area where most people fail, when they do fail. Almost everything that goes wrong in workplace setting either relates to poor communication, or a failure to communicate at the right time.

Another point is that you need to be very organised. For example, you need a diary. But only one diary, in my opinion. This is because your life is not split neatly between work and private appointments. Work impacts upon personal life, and personal life impacts upon work. The two things are regularly needing to be cross referred against each other. To have two separate places to record what you can do with only one moment in your life seems illogical to me. Indeed, you can be only be in one place at a time. So, all your appointments must to be in one place, in one diary, in order to not have conflicts or confusions.

Next, number four, document everything. This can be helpful in order to demonstrate to someone that you have carried out what was agreed, within the time scale required (i.e. respecting the deadline). This can help to prevent misunderstandings when receiving tasks for example, and therefore prevent something not going to plan. By documenting all conversations of relevance with your boss, colleagues and customers you are also demonstrating that you are organised, and controlling matters professionally.

Finally, a fifth skill is the capability to receive feedback from others. In order to do this, you have only to say: “Thank you for your advice. Please, I want to receive more feedback about other things in the future”. You must be always grateful about feedback, because if you are negative towards hearing it, people can stop to help you in the future, and it’s your development that then suffers. Thus, you have to always to accept feedback (positive or negative). Say: “Thank you. Can you give more please?”. It’s tough to do this a times, but the rewards if you take everything on board can be very beneficial.

So in summary (i) communication, (ii) task allocation, (iii) organisation, (iv) document everything that matters, and (v) receive feedback positively always.

Which was the hardest part during the drawing up of “The Effective Ecologist”?

The hardest part, first of all, was deciding that I was going to do it. The answer was: writing a book. I realized that this activity required a lot of time, a lot of energy, and also, at the end of the process, I will get feedback from people who will read the book, and they can tell me what could be wrong, or what should change etc. Therefore, a lot of work.

Secondly, the other hardest part was going through proof reading stage. At the end of the initial writing we went into three stages of proof reading, with very precise and thorough people challenging my words and my thoughts.

This can be a bit frustrating, as you feel you have finished the job, only to have to keep starting over again and making changes. There are many authors who find this part of the process very hard and fight against it apparently. From my point of view, it is the part of the process that takes something which is hopefully already quite good and makes it much better. So all I do is keep saying to everyone involved, thanks for the feedback and keep giving me more, because together we are making things happen.

To conclude, define in few words what exactly means to be an effective ecologist …

In order to be successful, and pursue a career in the ecology sector, first of all, in addition to your technical skills, you need to understand the species with which you are working; and you have to acquire good practical experience in relation to your technical knowledge. For example, I can read a lot of book about snakes, I will then know a lot about this species, but this knowledge is not enough, as it. Your knowledge must be combined with practical experience, in order to about the subject. Technical knowledge and practical experience are two completely distinct things, that must be in balance.

Furthermore, at the same time, you have to be an effective team member. For instance, you could be the most experienced ornithologist in the country, but if you are not able to arrive in time for meetings, if you do not respect deadlines, if you do not accept feedback well; consequently, you will not be a good fit in most teams, and ultimately you could lose your job. There, take into account this triangle: practical experience, good technical knowledge, and being a good fit within the business team’s environment. This, in conclusion is essential to define what it means to be an effective ecologist.

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