Julia Marton-Lefèvre: Making things happen

Julia Marton-Lefèvre is the Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest conservation membership organization, which brings together states, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, scientists and experts in a unique worldwide partnership. She is the longest serving Director General, and has led the organization for over 7 years. Julia shares with us what she thinks of her job at the helm of IUCN as well as some tips for those looking to start a career in conservation. Women, take a look at her advice for aspiring female leaders! 

Julia Marton Lefevre

Credit: Laurent Villeret-Dolce Vita

Did you always know you were going to work in environment protection field? What made you choose history and biology as subjects in university?

I don’t see myself as a specialist in conservation. I have 1,000 specialists working for me in IUCN offices around the world, and 11,000 experts in IUCN’s 6 commissions. I am the CEO, the chief conductor if you like. The role of the Director General is a policy role – it’s a political role, it’s a diplomatic role, it’s a communications role. The Director General has to be able to say to the journalists and the ministers and others if you are interested in the fate of bees, I can tell you the exact expert who will tell you more. If I know you want to talk about bees with me, I’m not going to speak as the bee specialist, that’s not my role. I would get briefing notes and a specialist. 

My job is to make sure that the mission of IUCN is carried out.  Why did I do history? I always thought that understanding where we come from would help us figure out where we are going and how we are going to get there. I chose Biology because I love science. But obviously I couldn’t decide (between the two subjects) then. Those two subjects really help me in this kind of job now, but it wouldn’t have helped me if I had wanted to become a conservation specialist. This particular job is kind of different too.  

Obviously, I didn’t know I would become the head of IUCN, but in all of my career, I have been in the job of making things happen. 

What advice would you give to those who are starting out in their career and thinking of going into conservation?

Volunteer, offer to be an intern in organisations like the IUCN. It would be even better to start at the local level first – your country, the national level or where you live.  Interning and volunteering is a great idea, although not everyone can afford that. It’s good to start young. I know how hard it is to get a first job so it’s very good to have internships and volunteer experiences on your CV. 

And what kind of advice would you give to those who want to make a mid-career switch to conservation?

It’s very tough today, because of the job situation.  But get to know people, join networks where these conversations are happening and apply for jobs! 

How do you think this sector has changed over the years? 

The conservation world has realized that presenting nature just because we love it isn’t enough. We have to show that nature is our life-support, it provides solutions to some of the global challenges we face today, whether it’s climate change or biodiversity loss, food security, poverty. And the sector has finally realized that this is the way it has to present it. 

What is the best part of your job?

I think it has to be the people; working with so many people who are so passionate and committed. And I am a real internationalist so for me to travel all over the world is very comforting. But we need to go beyond that, to establish a larger movement. 

What is the part you don’t really like?

I like it all! But the most frustrating part is that we are losing nature, we are losing biodiversity as we speak. So we haven’t been able to pass on the message in a way that makes a difference in terms of the way decisions are made at a political level – that’s frustrating. But we keep trying. 

Has it not been as impactful as it could have been?

Yes. That’s right. That’s because I think it’s only been recently that the movement has decided that it needs to speak in such a way that political decision-makers realize that they have no choice but to take action. Conservationists are not just a bunch of tree-huggers and birdwatchers who are not really important for the decisions that they have to make – that this is essential for our well-being. 

You have been Director General of IUCN for 7 years – the longest serving Director General. What do you think has been your greatest achievement?

I think I have taken conservation and the message of conservation outside of the “ivory tower” and the rather closed community of the conservationists and brought it into the political arena at all levels. At the global and international level, and at the UN, national and local level. And I think I’ve really made the movement more international. It really used to be a very Anglo-Saxon organization and it no longer is. 

What advice would you give to women who aspire to be leaders in this sector, and have to balance family life?

Just do it! And stop thinking about how few women there are out there, by being there, being positive and having your voice heard – not aggressive because men have to get used to us! But don’t act like you have a chip on your shoulder like we are in a minority, because we are! Just get on with it, do a good job. And by showing you are doing a good job, there will be more and more women who will have the courage to join and will be invited to join. 

But some women tend to put families first and that sometimes gets in the way…

Well, I don’t think it should. It’s a matter of organization. If a woman wants to be in a responsible, professional job, she’s going to have to decide how to organize her life to do it. Otherwise it’s just not going to work. It’s a decision. There are other jobs too – jobs that are only from 9 to 5. And choose the fathers of your children well! 

What kind of music do you like?

I like opera. I was sort of raised in an opera house in Central Europe and my uncle was the chief conductor. My favourite opera is Don Giovanni by Mozart. I think in a way, my job is like a chief conductor. My task is to make all the divisions play together in harmony. 

What is your favourite movie?

(The 1987 Danish drama film) Babette’s feast! 

Julia Marton-Lefèvre speaking about valuing nature


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Karen Sim

About the author

This post was produced by Conservation Careers Blogger Karen Sim Clerc. Karen is passionate about nature and nature conservation. She has worked in the defence and government sectors in her native Singapore, as well as at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, before deciding to pursue a career in the environment. She has volunteered and worked for the WWF in tiger conservation, and has spent the last 2 years in the sustainability sector. Her main interests are in wildlife trade, global warming and its impacts, and sustainable agriculture and consumption.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Policy Advocate