Podcast: Dr Mike Clarke | RSPB

In this podcast episode we’re speaking to Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB. An organisation with over 1.2 million members, 2,000 staff and 13,500 volunteers, the RSPB is a Goliath in the conservation industry and needs no introduction. Mike became a member of the RSPB at age 12 and has worked professionally for them for over 30 years, of which the last 10 have been at the top of the organisation. 

He recently announced his intention to step down from the role. We talk about why he took this decision, what he’s proud of achieving and what next. We also discuss where his passion for conservation came from, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities in the sector in the 21st century and where things might be going into the future.

And finally, we discuss the practical careers advice he would give to budding conservationists in the early stage of their career, and those seeking to switch into nature conservation from a different sector. It’s a feature-length, fascinating and thoughtful, reflective episode…



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Audio Transcript

NICK: Thanks again for finding the time to chat today. Your career at the RSPB, well your relationship with the RSPB, started when you were 14 years old, is that right, as a volunteer?

MIKE: 12.

NICK: 12! Is that right?

MIKE: Yep, yep, yep.

NICK: And you’ve worked for the RSPB for 30-ish years. You’re clearly passionate about nature conservation. Where did that passion for nature, for conservation, first start?

MIKE: I don’t know where it first started, I know where it was unlocked. I obviously had an innate interest in nature and wildlife and birds were very visible, you know, kind of accessible part of all of that, so it kind of got to the stage where I was about 11-12 and clearly needed, you know, kind of looking for I might explore in my own things that drive me and actually, I know this sounds, you know, completely cliché, but a friend of my mum joined me up to what used to be called the Young Ornithologist Club, you know it’s now our Wildlife Explorers of RSPB. And I grew up on… at the time it was the largest housing development in Europe, so on the edge of London, south east, it was into Kent but on the edge of London, so really if you look at a map of London it’s on the edge of the grey bit. And so you know, I’d kind of got to a point where I was reading… and it was very hard at that stage, no internet, relatively few books, very few magazines, especially for young people so it was one of these things where I was starting to read about wildlife and places to visit, looking over the Thames Estuary, very important wetland area, you know, one of Europe’s most important wetlands and you know, these were places that actually I later found, you know, I could see from my school, but frankly they might as well have been on Mars, and the thing that joining the Wildlife Explorer…

YOC group as it was at the time, is it put me in touch with other young people, who had the same passion and basically it kind of unlocked that world in terms of just physically being able to access it, going on trips, finding other people. And it just really, I look back and it’s like, you know, the very original Wizard of Oz film where Dorothy is in this black and white world and she steps into colour, that’s how it feels in my childhood. So RSPB did a huge amount to kind of just unlock that worlds for me. And then I think the thing that probably influenced me quite a lot, because I… through my school career and indeed when I went on to university, it was quite scientific but I think what it also did is quite early on, I got involved in volunteering, initially through the RSPB but before I left school, I’d been a residential warden on one of the Pembrokeshire islands, looking after a little tern colony in Kent and you know, done a range of things and I think that really showed, I guess sowed the seed that you can take action about what you care for.

So that’s kind of, by the time I got to go into university, I decided, I wanted to do zoology, I’d been absolutely captivated by some of the kind of, I suppose, what we now call species ecology, you know, sort of research was underway, but also I decided I want to work in nature conservation. So that sort of really set me off on the kind of trajectory, really.

NICK: So you decided you want to become a conservationist. Here you are as Chief Executive of RSPB. What have been the kind of stepping stone moments to get to where you are now, all the way back from as you were choosing your zoology degree?

MIKE: Yeah. I think the first thing to say, all the stepping stones, there’s a very big dose of luck in these things and I never had a career plan and personally I don’t believe people who do, so you know, I think it’s one of these things of, you need to take the opportunities that arise. I suppose I am someone who does look for challenge and wants to explore new things and explore more about myself and I think if you take that approach and take the opportunities, things happen. I was very fortunate – I went to Oxford so I was kind of linked up with the Edward Grey Institute and you know, it’s a fabulous time to be doing…

NICK: The birding institute.

MIKE: Absolutely. Fabulous time to be doing zoology at Oxford but at the end of that, you know, I’ve been through the early stages in my career… it was pretty tough so I mean I finished at a time when Margaret Thatcher was imposing massive public spending cuts, you know, jobs, you know, it was massive unemployment, and I decided that the best thing to do was further academic training. At that stage even doing a masters was looking a bit challenging as to what you’d get at the end of it, so I thought, well I’ll go for something longer and went for a PhD. And at the time, the Nature Conservancy Council, which was our government agency for conservation at the time, was sponsoring PhDs and there were two.

And so I basically decided to go for those and one of them was very birdy, and I had been really quite, you know, kind of bird-obsessed as a teenager and I went for that and didn’t get it. The other one I did get was working in the New Forest and that actually was just wonderful, because it was a massively unstructured PhD, and it meant though that I became a… very multidisciplinary. So it was looking at how the wetlands, the peatlands in the New Forest had developed since the last ice age. And so actually at the time we didn’t realise it but we were looking at what’s called paleoecology and paleoenvironments and actually it’s all about how climate change has affected vegetation and nature in the last 12,000 years so it’s now very topical. Maybe I’d have been on a different trajectory…

NICK: As are spending cuts, by the way.

MIKE: Yeah, yeah absolutely. And so that gave me a lot of opportunity, I did, you know, research with Soil Survey, a lot of botany, a lot of invertebrates, but also you know, still keeping a lot of interest in birds and wildlife more generally. So that was a massively beneficial training.

NICK: You think that stood you in good stead?

MIKE: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we can come on to this. I personally think at the moment, while there will continue to be a need for ecologically environmentally trained scientists in nature conservation, do you know what? Right now, I think you can come from just about any discipline, any walk of life because fundamentally, nature conservation is about how society operates. So there’s huge opportunity in all of that, but that was my background. I think the thing that’s most important now in that is not so much, and I do have the benefit of, you know, of quite a wide… very wide base in terms of environmental science.

I think the thought process, so I think academic training just critical thinking and analysis important, but the other thing that’s important to me, particularly as a Chief Executive, you kind of have to represent the cause to some degree, and I think increasingly the role charities have is about values and what’s important in society as a whole and so having, you know, some hinterland where I know what a storm petrol smells like, you know, it’s that kind of connection with nature, and that can be anything. You know, it can be the nature you’ve explored in your back yard or you know, the plant near where you live, but having that direct connection and understanding I think is hugely important and allows me to talk to, you know, essentially anybody whether they’re… you know, they are someone starting out in their career, other 12-year olds like I was, or whether I talk to, you know, really quite powerful individuals in business and politics. And you’ll find some of them, they’ll say to me, I was a YOC member once. And it’s having that connection. And I think that’s as important as anything, it’s that, you know, very direct, visceral, emotional connection to nature, it’s a very important part of, I think, demonstrating why we care.

NICK: And I guess maintaining that connection once you get higher up in your career becomes more challenging. And quite interesting something you just said though about the conservation industry perhaps now being open to many different types of people beyond just the kind of traditional scientific base. What does the conservation industry look for now, what do you look for in the RSPB when recruiting new staff? What are the sorts of skills and talents that you’re looking to kind of attract to the organisation in this year?

MIKE: Well actually probably about as many as there are talents and skills out there. I mean I know this is probably not a direct answer to the question, but I think the point is, I mean in a sense – look, we know what the problem is. The technical fact, not only do we know what the technical problem is, we know quite a lot of technical solutions that are needed in terms of… by which I mean the fundamental relationship between how humanity is consuming natural resources, you know, fundamentally human consumption is a big driver is now, well in fact it’s becoming the driver of planetary change, and that’s the point. But also we understand how that needs to adapt, to broadscale, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what is happening in the world and there’s a big gap between the evidence and the action required.

Now closing that gap is not a simple technocratic scientific exercise, it’s a political, social, economic exercise and I think one of the attributes the RSPB has is speaking to the public as a whole and by virtue of having quite large-scale mass support, you know, that is the platform from which we can do that. And so in order to do that, I mean we will be recruiting people who’ve got creative skills, who you know, who actually are just really good at talking to people. You know? That is as important as having, you know, the latest cutting-edge scientists and we need both. But it’s a completely 360 you know, activity and well, people come into the organisation for many reasons. People stay because they’ve got that commitment and passion to the cause.

NICK: And when you look at the conservation industry and all the organisations and charities that are out there globally, the RSPB is arguably the biggest, I would say.

MIKE: Yeah I mean it might depend on how you measure those things but certainly turnover, you know, kind of visibility, the degree of public support we have, we’re comfortably in, I’d say, the top 10 international organisations but of course increasingly, I very much think about us and organisations now as an ecosystem and you know, I think the boundary… in fact, increasingly I think the boundaries between organisations and institutions will blur and need to blur. But in a sense, the bigger partnership movement that RSPB is embedded in is BirdLife International and you know, that actually in terms of our role in civil society, that BirdLife International partnership is the largest civil society network in the world in terms of the number of countries we encompass, by which I mean grassroots organisations in nearly 120 countries in the world. And indeed, over half of those are not with a, if you like, a single focus on birds but, you know, increasingly more than half the network are quite explicitly, you know, there for nature as a whole and that indeed is very much the direction of travel I think we’re on.

NICK: What makes the RSPB so successful, so significant? Turnover 1.2 million members, so on and so forth. And what advice would you give to say the smaller BirdLife International partners even, you know, what should other organisations be doing that you guys have learn that, you know, leads to success and growth and scale?

MIKE: I often look back to our roots because I think some of the reasons why we are as we are now really have their origins in 130 years ago, you know, when we were formed and ever since and I think it’s realising that however much you might care, and are absolutely seized of the need to do something, you know really to get change it’s only gonna happen when you convince others. And so being willing to start with where is the audience? Who is your audience? What is it and how do you make yourselves relevant to that?

And how do you reach out and carry other people with you? Which sometimes means being willing to not necessarily do things in your own image, but do things that will play for others as well. And I think the decision was really made very early on at the RSPB that we needed to carry public opinion with us, and that actually we’ve always been really about system change. In modern language, you know, one of our first international campaigns with our German partner four years before the First World War was on international trade. And it was actually about birds of paradise of south east Asia, which was a campaign in 1910.

NICK: Round hats.

MIKE: Yeah, so the thinking about how you make yourselves relevant and looking outwards I think have been always written into our DNA and that remains the case now.

NICK: And do you seek to attract support from people who are already leaning towards nature conservation or are you looking to find people who have currently no interest and convert?

MIKE: I think in terms of realistically where you start in getting support, you know, clearly you start with those nearest you and you work outwards as it were. I mean, in recent times and since I’ve been Chief Executive, we’ve deliberately tried to think about looking at those people who their lifestyle choices, everything shows they’re interested in and care about nature and yet they’re not engaged, they’re not supporting any conservation organisation and what is it we need to do to be relevant to them?

You know, that’s quite a challenging place to be because it can be uncomfortable for you as an organisation but to do that, but frankly I think there’s a bigger issue here which is, you know, I think we’re at a stage where we have to think about how we make the whole environmental agenda relevant to those who don’t see it. So it kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier that looking into the next decade, we’re at a point where if action isn’t taken, we are gonna see planetary-scale disruption and collapse of functioning of ecosystems and you know, flows of biodiversity around the world. And ironically, this is already identified by the World Economic Forum as pretty much the top 5 biggest, most likely threats to the planet. So why is it that business people and politicians are not acting as if they believe that? And I think this is actually about how… we’ve in a sense, the intellectual argument has been won, you know, just on a technical basis. It’s how you frame that and indeed how we shift people’s values, the people who don’t share our values into a place where actually the normal expectation of society is that you do take the environment into account. And you take it into account because we all depend on it.

And so that increasingly is gonna be the challenge, it’s the audience that isn’t where we’re starting from and we all have to think about how we do that. Now we can’t do that directly, but what we can do is start thinking about how we, together with others, change social attitudes more. I mean, that’s essentially the journey we’ve been on and RSPB’s been a significant part of that over a century, is you know, people’s attitudes around the world now to nature, are quite different to where they would have been 100-150 years ago. But that’s got to shift again.

NICK: Are you hopeful for the future right now, given everything you’ve just said?

MIKE: I really am, because I think the issue at the moment is, as I say, that decision makers don’t give enough priority to nature. I’m of a generation, so when I describe my early career, you know, alongside that was, in fact we’re having this interview just before Christmas – 50 years ago this Christmas Eve was something that even now, the hairs go on the back of my neck when I start telling you about it, and I was 8. And I saw Earthrise for the first time and no one else on the planet had seen it before me. We all saw it at the same time, those of us that were glued to the television when Apollo 8 came around the other side of the world… around the side of the moon and saw our world. Now a point about that is we’ve been, on the last 50 years, a generation that is starting to understand we live on one home. And I know this is a cliché but, you know, actually to understand this is one system and it’s connected and we have to work together in terms of the impact we’re having – I think we’re now of a generation who, if you like, that’s established.

They start their world view… my world view was coloured, you know, the generation I grew up in, you know, and the adults, the people who had power and agency, didn’t have that world view. We’re now in that place and linked to it we also have a much more connected view of the world socially, through digital media and the web and everything else. I think there’s a whole set of reasons that make me believe we’re in a period of social flux, both domestically but globally, that actually we were in the late 1800s after the Industrial Revolution when charities like mine were formed in response. I hope and I believe we are gonna see generational shift in the way that perhaps did happen when I was in the 1960s baby, you know, the kind of almost social revolution that took place then. I think there’s every prospect we are gonna be seeing a new generational shift and fundamentally, that’s about what people regard as the basic standards and expectations of what’s the right thing to do in society.

I believe that is coming, I mean I’m not just saying that out of, you know, idle speculation, I talk to people who take an interest in kind of social trends and attitudes, psychoanalytic now and there’s a lot of reason to believe we are seeing a… and people talk about a millennial generation, actually it’s more about the digital natives, the people who’ve grown up and the way they form the view of the world and people who are now thinking about they’re, you know, on that career path, and you, those people, you out there are the ones who are gonna have power and agency in the future, you have got the ability to utterly change that social fabric and conservation leaders will be part of the people who weave into that pattern. You know, the new threads that will change that. Right now I really believe that we just need to empower the next generation and get out of the way, frankly.

NICK: Sounds good. Let’s talk about you as Chief Executive and what it’s been like. Why did you decide to go for the role in the first place? What attracted you to the job?

MIKE: Probably until about a year or so before, you know, the actual advert went out, I hadn’t even really thought about it a great deal, I mean I’ve been very lucky all the way through my career. And a year in my early stage of my career, I spent more time in wellington boots out in the field than I did indoors. And I love that, it’s a very deep part of me, being in nature, but at the same time you get to the position perhaps, or people can get to the position, where you can make a bigger difference for what you care about by actually sacrificing some of that and moving away from it.

When people say, where do you work I sometimes say Platform 3 at St Pancras Station because you know, I spend an awful lot of time shuttling around in and out of London or going elsewhere and that’s because a big part of my job is actually influencing through other people. You know, there’s a few things I can do directly but not very much, you know, most of it is influencing through other people. But the point is, what you hope is you can have a bigger influence and a bigger effect. And that has been the trade-off in my career, is really making those stages and I guess it was the opportunity that I might have a bigger influence by becoming Chief Executive, which has, you know, certainly been the case for me, it’s been a fantastic period in my career so…

NICK: What have been the highlights of the last, say, eight years or so? What are you proud of either individually or collectively achieving, you know, through your tenure?

MIKE: Oh gosh. I think actually one of the highlights in terms of just, I suppose, the role I play, has been to play a very active part of helping Birdlife International, you know, at an international, global level. I think, you know, for RSPB I actually am very pleased that, and this matters when I see politicians and businesspeople that growth for nature… you know, support for nature conservation as shown by RSPB membership has grown the most in the last five, six years than it has in the similar period leading up to our million members campaign and it’s been incredibly important in all the political and economics, you know, volatility we’ve had to look a politician in the eye and say well, you know, don’t tell me people don’t care for nature conservation, our membership is growing the fastest it has for, you know, two, three decades, it’s the highest ever, membership loyalty is as high as it’s ever been. And you know, this is more about the failure of politicians to connect with people who care than it is the fact that it isn’t out there.

So that’s been important. I think also realising that we have our purpose is absolutely embedded in how we can contribute to actually at the moment the Convention of Biological Diversity, so we’ve aligned and modernised our purpose to reflect our contribution to global conservation, and I think then reflecting that into the fact that, you know, birds will always be one of the most visible and accessible parts of nature but actually we’re here for that wider mission, if you like, but of course if you stare that challenge in the fact, which I think we have been doing, we have to recognise that we can’t do that on our own and if we carry on just simply doing what we do, we’ll get the same result so this is about change, it’s about collaboration and I think those themes have been very important through the time I’ve been Chief Exec.

NICK: You feel RSPB’s in a better place now than perhaps, you know, when you found it, if I can put it like that?

MIKE: What I’ve said earlier, I think we are in a very big period of deep change. I think charities and the way they operate are gonna change very substantially. I think we will need to put a lot more emphasis in how we… we’re moving out of the period, if you like, of the idea of some kind of superhero institutions where, you know, essentially you’ve got an elite that run those and everyone else gets their support and they go off and have the impact for you and then maybe, you know, might remember to tell you.

Increasingly as I said earlier, changing social attitudes, everybody can do that. You know, you can demonstrate it in your day-to-day life and by supporting and working together. So our challenge is, how do we ensure we have impact at scale at the level and based on the science we do, but how do we do more of that by enabling others to have the impact rather than simply doing it ourselves? And that’s gonna be a very big challenge. So the main thing I do is just catalyse this organisation for changing more, that’ll be a good result for me. Because I think we are probably on the maybe of the two, three biggest phases of change in the last 130 years that needs to happen, not just for RSPB but I think for charity sector and financial conservation.

NICK: Where do you see RSPB 10-20 years from now then, if things are evolving and changing so fast, projecting forwards, you know, what will RSPB look like 20 years from now?

MIKE: Well I think we have a huge opportunity because we have the ability through digital media to connect people together in a way that, if you like, that kind of social connectivity of people who care coming together. You know, caring community of people can change the world. And we can do that at bigger scale now, so you know, previously and when RSPB started, we actually were involved in the social media of the Victorian period in the late 1800s. Christmas cards, charity Christmas cards, we invented, you know, as a means of social media. But that’s the point – it was very analogue, personal, direct, one-to-one. With digital social media now you can do that at scale. So what I hope is we will find a way of having a much more ownership of the charity at scale, bigger membership, very collaborative, having impact but in a way that feels in a sense more like it would have been before you actually even had a professionalisation of nature conservation. And that, you know, these are really big shifts but that is where I think social trends are taking us and technology is taking us and also it’s where we need to go if we’re gonna shift the dial.

NICK: And thinking about that, we’ve seen some examples of that in recent years haven’t we? So with BirdLife International, the RSPB played a key part in a nature… a Nature Directives campaign which is an online petition where BirdLife partnership within Europe and central Asia, or particularly Europe obviously, petitioned online to maintain the strength of the current Nature Directives and won significantly with several hundred thousand.

MIKE: You know in many ways, the importance of international collaboration, that then gets turned by governments into you know, formal collaboration, has probably been, you know, a theme that’s run through a lot of my career and in recent times ensuring we have, you know, we retain that has been massively important so the Nature Directives campaign. After the Second World War, very early on, a number of what are now BirdLife partners came together, including from Germany, it was the first time they’d come to an international meeting, with a vision of having a continental scale of network of protected areas. Well that is now the Natura 2000 network in Europe, 27,000 sites and you know, that was one manifestation of what was at stake.

Now the interesting thing, and I mean we basically, as far as I was concerned, you know, this was every asset we had was directed at that campaign and ultimately, and I mean I’ve heard this from very, very senior politicians in Europe, you know, they didn’t realise how much the public cares. And the other interesting thing is what they also didn’t realise is that the old kind of cliché of the economy versus the environment, which is they were also coming from, was out of date. And some of the most powerful messages they got were for business people.

And indeed I can remember being in quite a high-level meeting in the European Commission with one of our companies we work very closely with and you know, basically he was making, I just said I agree with him. You know, he was making the case of why nature conservation matters for business. So I think that has been very important argument, which we will continue to rerun but was hugely important, but it was the power of working together. Because at the beginning of that particular campaign it looked like it was a political done deal and nature conservation was gonna just go down the tubes in Europe.

NICK: That mobilisation and the speed of mobilisation is only gonna get quicker.

MIKE: Precisely, precisely. And in fact interestingly, what we were able to do in that campaign was be an intermediary for citizens and this very boring technical consultation and it wasn’t just a tick. It was actually helping populate the consultation forms. And funny enough, that then meant legally the commission had to treat every one of those over 500,000 responses as an individual consultation response and they were struggling to find a server big enough to hold them all on. So yeah, that’s an interesting one of how charities and other organisations like that are able to help translate and enable an individual to have power and have impact, because that’s what happened.

Which is why, you know, everyone can play a role. We can all take part and support charities, we can all do things in our own lives, you know. After Christmas we’ve got our big garden bird watch, half a million people taking part. That is, you know, ok it contributes and it does, you know, to kind of big long-term trends of what’s going on. But the other thing is it’s a hell of a statement to show that people care.

NICK: Ask people to act and they do, absolutely. Yeah. I’m interested in what it’s like to be Chief Executive. On a Monday morning when you kind of come in and sit down in your office right now, when you’re not in St Pancras (laughter) Platform 3, there’s probably 1,000 or 10,000 different things you could be doing and people asking of your attention, needing your support, whatever it might be. How do you decide what your priorities are for the day, the week, the month?

MIKE: I think it’s very helpful to have ingrained in you, you know, just some basic kind of time management, you know, abilities and not lose sight of those. Funny enough, being a Chief Exec, what you find is much of your role is driven by the pattern of how an organisation is run and governed, so you know, there’s meeting cycles, there’s kind of external, I mean the kind of parliamentary timetable, all of those things. So there’s very little pattern, which I guess I enjoy in my day-to-day, you know, it’s very varied.

Probably anything less than a year so I can start describing the pattern of my work on a yearly basis, it’s quite hard to do at less than that. And essentially I think it’s an artform not a science. It’s picking out what you believe are the key areas of emphasis that I need to put focus into. And at times, I just make the commitments, my diary I have quite a long… you know, my diary gets filled way in advance and so there’ll come times when essentially you just hope you’ve made the right choices. And you just then make sure you do, that the particular things you’ve chosen to do to the best of your ability and the 101 other things you aren’t doing, you hope you’ve made the right call on and then there’ll come times when I can think, and you know, kind of this period just before Christmas is one of those where, you know, the rest of the world slows down a little bit and you can start to take stock and think, ok what’s the next kind of period and what’s the phase coming up? So it’s certainly a job where you need to thrive on that variety.

NICK: You’ve decided and recently announced that you’re gonna be stepping down next year and looking forwards a little bit, and this reflective time is a time to be thinking about that. Why have you decided you’d like to step away?

MIKE: Well I mean, on the one hand it’s a big decision stepping out of the job, you know, my relationship with RSPB, Birdlife, nature conservation, all the rest of it is never gonna go away. I mean, I think it probably goes back to what I was saying earlier about I think we are in a very dynamic period, I think there’s a lot more change to come, so I’ve always been conscious, I mean I’ll have done the job for about nine years or so and I’ve been very conscious that you know, actually the longer you’re in a job, probably at any level but certainly if you’re in a job, you know, a head of, leading an organisation, you know, you will increasingly… things reinforce around you.

So I think I’ve always had in mind, and probably that also is for me as well, I mean it is a demanding job and there’s other things I’d like to be able to do as well. And then the other point to it as well is I guess just in terms of, I think because charities have come under a lot of challenge, because I think we’re a threat to a lot of vested interests, ensuring you have good governance and the way things are managed and run is important. And so one of the timings here is that our, so of course we are, you know, my boss is our Council, is our Board of Trustees, who are volunteers, we have… and that again, you know, there’s a lot of kind of ground rules as to how we properly run ourselves and so our Chair of Council is on a five-year term, this is exactly what happened when Graham Wynne, my predecessor, stepped down.

Graham stepped down mid-way through the period of our Chair of Council and I’ve always been mindful of that, it was very good for me, it gave a lot of continuity to the organisation and so really it was a question of, you know, we’re in that phase now with Kevin, our new Chair, well not so new now, Kevin next year will be entering the mid-point of his period so I’ve kind of been mindful for the organisation and you know, it’s… for me personally, at some… I’ve known at some stage I’m gonna have to make… you know, I will make the change and so it’s the right thing for the RSPB but I think it’ll be the right thing for me as well. And obviously the world is now opening up for all the other ways I can carry on supporting and contributing so it’s quite liberating in a sense.

NICK: It’s quite exciting.

MIKE: After being in a career for quite a long while to, you know, to have perhaps some choices in a way that you don’t have at earlier stages.

NICK: So what are you looking forward to then, after this role? What comes next for you? Have you started thinking about that already?

MIKE: I’m only just starting to, yeah it’s a long way off yet. I think two or three things. I mean clearly I think I will have a little bit more chance to decide what sort of nature I can connect with, I’m very fortunate, I still manage to have nature in my life but there’ll be different ways of doing that. I think it’ll give me some freedom, frankly there are things that I would like to be able to say, and you know kind of be engaged on that if you’re the Chief Executive of an organisation like the RSPB I can’t, so there’ll be a bit more freedom to speak out on behalf of the sector, on behalf of civil society, that’s come under a lot of pressure.

So yeah, there’s a lot of opportunities out there and I’m a passionate believer in… perhaps it goes back to me being a child of Earthrise, you know, I’m a passionate believer in the need for international cooperation and collaboration and so I’m looking forward to being able to perhaps even put more of my energy than I’m able to at the moment into that. So yeah, that’s the kind of thing that’s firing me up at the moment, yeah.

NICK: Exciting times ahead. What advice would you give the next CEO, when you have a handover meeting, when that might come?

MIKE: Don’t be constrained by what your predecessor did.


MIKE: You know, I think we are gonna have to be very adaptive. I think the other is pace yourself. It takes a while to just understand the, just the nature of, dynamics of the job, if you like, which I suppose are all the things that bear down on it. But I think also there’s a very fundamental thing, you know, I’m not sure that membership of organisations will go out of fashion but I think there is, for many, many of… you know, vast majority of our members, there’s quite a deep relationship with the RSPB and understanding how to harness that and use it for good effect is probably one of the most difficult subtle things to, you know, to kind of get to grips with so…

NICK: I just want to talk more about careers advice then briefly, I am conscious of time. There’s lots of young people, undergraduates, post-graduates, graduates out there that are struggling to secure their first job in nature conservation, and people mid-career doing something perhaps unrelated but their passion and commitment is in nature conservation, they’d like to switch in. It’s very competitive. What practical advice would you give to people out there in terms of securing their first role?

MIKE: Well I think, I don’t know how practical this is, is don’t ever give up. I mean, I… you know, when I started, I mean I did volunteering before I got any job, I mean I had a career before the RSPB but you know, I applied to the RSPB three times before I actually got a job. And there were stages I was on a contract, so sometime, and in fact, you know, my early stages there were some that was only, you know, even three-month contracts, you know at one stage, and I had had a job offer to… in fact to go and work for British Telecom on, you know, these things called computers at the time.

And you know, I was very close to thinking that, can I keep this up, as it were and continue with a career in conservation and the advice I got at the time though was, if you really are passionate about the cause and you believe in it, those people ultimately get jobs. And my boss at the time said to me, is all the people I’ve known who’ve really wanted to work in nature conservation eventually get there, don’t give up. And I have said that many times since to people who, you know, have been faced with those sorts of agonising and tough, you know, bleak periods that, you know, I think I can still relate to. And every one of those people I’ve said it to and haven’t given up, they’ve got there. So that’s probably one thing really to hang on in to.


MIKE: And the other is, I think particularly at the moment where, what we’ve done in the past is not a good guide to what we’re gonna need to do in the future as nature conservation organisations, so really thinking about how your talents could make a difference. And it doesn’t necessarily follow that you have to be in the footsteps of those that have gone before as to, that is the formula for getting a job. And indeed, many of the skills we are using, people have come in mid-career, you know, because they’ve accumulated skills in other ways so other…

NICK: What sorts of skills?

MIKE: Well I mean, you know, that could be, I mean right now I think a big task we have got as I said earlier is about how you kind of frame the arguments, how you communicate, so a lot of this would be communication marketing, you know, a whole sell of things but you know, again we’re increasingly complex organisations, not necessarily large but the ways we need to work together are gonna get increasingly collaborative and complex so having experience in managing teams, in bringing people together, or how you kind of work across organisations, there’s many things you could bring. And so I think, you know, in a way it’s a commitment to the cause, staying connected and involved, again you can volunteer and keep connected into the work and nature conservation in many ways and develop yourself. And sooner or later, the constellation, the conjunction of the stars will come together and the opportunity will be there for you.

NICK: Fabulous, that’s great advice. Just a few open questions if I can then at the end, just to start wrapping up. If I make you global tsar for the day, if you could click your fingers and make one change, and that change would happen and the change that would have a significant impact on the environment, what thing or things would you like to see occur?

MIKE: Wow.

NICK: Now I know that it’s a huge question but… you’re not the first person to take their time to think about this.

MIKE: Yeah, I think probably it would be around finding a way of giving more power and influence to the voice of young people about their future. Because I think when you do that, you shift towards making sure you value nature in the long term. So yeah, I could say other things like I dunno, utterly changing the way in which financial accounting is done in companies so that the natural economy, which is almost, you know, in kind of economic valuation terms, pretty much the size of the global GDP that those two things were balanced out, and that would be a big switch but d’you know what? I think the most enduring thing would be finding a way of making a big shift in social values.

NICK: That drives through the generations for the young.

MIKE: Yeah.

NICK: Yeah, fabulous. Yeah. I’ve also read online you used to have spotted flycatchers in your garden, is this right? You had city starlings quite regularly, these are all either vanished, or you know, diminished. Where are we going wrong as a conservation movement? We’ve touched on this already I think, but you know, what do we need to be doing a bit more of to really tackle not just, you know, the loss of migratory or garden birds but globally, you know, we are obviously losing… we’re winning some battles, let’s put it that way, but we’re still losing the war, I think globally.

MIKE: It’s how we make those arguments relevant to people whose start point is in a very different place to us and yet, could arrive in common ground that would allow us to put some solutions. So if you took something like, you know, a spotted flycatcher is perhaps, you know, there’s other things maybe going on beyond the UK but if you just looked at what is going on with agriculture, and if you just take a kind of natural capital approach to that and think about you know, our stock of soils and you know, just the natural functioning and what that means in economic terms, it’s daft. What we are doing is just daft at the moment. So I think we’ve got to think about, you know, we’re not gonna change the behaviour of a person unless we change how we first behave and communicate. And I think we’ve got to find different ways and different arguments to put across.

NICK: And volunteering is really important in conservation, it’s really important to the RSPB, you have 13,000 or 14,000 volunteers, maybe more I’ve read. And it’s an important way to gain experience, to build networks, to do all sorts of things, to develop your passion as a new career conservationist. And yet the flipside, some people see it as also something which perhaps favours those who have money in their pocket and can freely spend their time developing things, whereas you know, many people also need to earn a living, things like that. How do you feel about conservation volunteering? Do you feel there’s maybe a bias towards those with you know, deeper pockets than others or do you think it’s just something that it really can support and encourage all those into their career?

MIKE: Yeah, I think there’s two parts to that question, because I think in terms of volunteering more broadly, which I would say is about active citizenship, we actually have to shift massively in that direction. But I think that’s, you know, a much broader base about how do we equip people to have a more direct impact themselves. I think there then becomes an issue, if you like, in terms of institutionalised volunteering, you know, which is perhaps what you’re referring to, and you know, in a sense I think it always remains a very important part. It ought to be the… where we start from.

Because charities are not there, you know, in a sense, as job creation entities to keep all of us, we’re actually here to benefit the public and have an impact on our cause. And the more we can do that through an army of people, the better. Clearly there, the point is though, volunteering is also a way of acquiring those job-relevant skills and experience. And I think there’s a very, very legitimate issue about opportunity access and indeed, if you look at why we’re failing, you know, I think there’s a need for the environmental movement and beyond to seriously engage on the issues of social inequality and so on. And you know, a very small but big step for us would be to be looking much harder at opportunity and ensuring there’s more equality of opportunity.

But you know, there’s still ways of volunteering, when I… well ok I was working in nature conservation at the time but I became a volunteer letter-writer if you like, on behalf of actually, you know, an organisation called Soil Survey at the time. And just through a few letters I wrote in an evening through my MP started to have an effect on a big national debate. So there’s a variety of ways of kind of acquiring these skills, but…

NICK: Using any free time.

MIKE: Absolutely. But no, it is something we have to be mindful of but you know, at the end of the day, I think you start with the question of volunteering in, not jobs out, as it were.

NICK: Final question. I hear you’re quite a music fan. What song would you take with you to a desert island, if this were Desert Island Discs?

MIKE: D’you know, I’m not sure it would be a song but, and it’s classical music actually which I’m… probably a rock n roll era person more but Mozart’s Violin Concerto was, when I first started working in conservation in the New Forest, and we were having a massive battle over oil pipelines and oil exploration in Dorset and Hampshire at the time and I was shuttling to and fro from our office and this public enquiry and I just remember one very key moment and as I was going along, Mozart’s Violin Concerto was kind of playing and it just kind of captured my sense of mission at the time and driving through the beechwoods of the New Forest so I’d possibly have that.

NICK: It’s amazing how music can take you back to an exact time instantly, yeah.

MIKE: People often say, what’s your favourite bird? But I don’t have a favourite bird, but I have favourite moments and it’s the birds that went with them.

NICK: Mike Clark, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.

MIKE: Thank you, thank you. Well good luck to everybody else.

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast please tweet them to @ConservCareers. we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.

Careers Advice, Podcast, Senior Level, Organisational Manager