Geoff Wescott is an Associate Professor of Environment at Deakin University. In addition to his day job, Geoff has a number of executive leadership roles with Zoos Victoria, Victorian Coastal Council, Australian Coastal Society and the Victorian Marine Policy Round Table.
Geoff chats with Dalton Koss HQ about his conservation leadership journey.
My leadership journey started in 1978. I was half way through my zoology PhD at the University of Melbourne when I started to wonder why I was only focussing on pure science. All I really wanted to do was save the world. I was advised by my PhD supervisor at the time to first finish my PhD and then save the world, however, I was too impatient. I left my PhD uncompleted and was accepted onto a Masters in Nature Conservation at the University College London, paid via my own expense.
On completion, I came back to Australia in 1979 with two Master degrees under my belt and no conservation job. I ended up being a tutor in biology at the University of Melbourne, which was a little ironic. However, through sheer persistence and networking, I successfully landed the role of Executive Director for the Conservation Council of Victoria (CCV; now Environment Victoria). This was my first leadership job, responsible for the strategic operations of the CCV and management of 5 staff and 125 community-based nongovernment conservation groups that in total comprised of 125,000 members. The CCV was still quite young, 5 years in operations, comparatively to other organisations.
After three years in this role I realised that trusted and available academic advice was missing from the conservation movement. As the CCV’s Executive Director, I wasn’t able to access or obtain technical information related to conservation and environmental management as credible evidence to inform reports and reviews. This inspired me to go back to study in 1981 and complete a PhD in Coastal Zone Management at Deakin University. To keep my finger on the pulse, I remained a voluntary officer at the CCV for the duration of my studies.
By combining my PhD findings and learning’s as the CCV’s Executive Director, I put together a briefing package and did a tour of parliamentary members. The then Liberal/National Party Coalition picked up my findings and with their election win in 1992, I was appointed to my second leadership role as the Chair for the Coastal and Bay Management Council Reference Group. It was in this role that I worked with a group of wonderful people to help shape, galvanise and push the Coastal Management Act 1995 to be legislated by the Victorian State Government. Through this Act, I was appointed to serve on the first Victorian Coastal Council in 1995, although not as the Chair due to my political persuasions. Simultaneously, I became Head of Department at Victoria College and oversaw the merger with Deakin University. I also enrolled on a Williamson Community Leadership Program (now known as Leadership Victoria) in 1992, where I realised my life long journey and commitment to community leadership.
This flowed on to further leadership roles including: Director of Parks Victoria, Convenor (Chair) of the National Parks Advisory Council, Member of the National Oceans Advisory Group, Chair of National Reference Group of the Marine and Coastal Community Network, Zoos Victoria Board, Victorian Coastal Council Board Member, President of the Australian Coastal Society and Convenor (Chair) of Victorian Marine Policy Round Table. I fulfilled all of the above roles while remaining as an Associate Professor of Environment at Deakin University.
The six key words I use to describe effective and successful leadership are:
1. Vision: it is necessary to have vision for yourself and your organization. You need to understand where you are going.
2. Energy: you need energy to implement your vision.
3. Integrity: this is critical within any system you are part of. Without it, you have little to no credibility.
4 & 5. Passion and Persistence: these two words are not mutually exclusive. Passion is needed but can be over flogged. Together with persistence, these qualities become omnipotent. These two qualities within the conservation context come and go due to burn out. Conservation is a series of long battles where young people who have a lot of passion become cattle fodder and end up leaving with very few lessons to take-away from their experience. There is a high attrition rate within the conservation field, with very few long-term conservationists staying in the business for more than 30 years. Passion and persistence teaches you self-protection to ensure you survive the long battles.
6. Inclusiveness: you need people with on your journey. Make sure that you share the credit and wins with others.
There have been key successes, challenges and failures in my leadership journey:
Successes: Coastal and marine work in Victoria, across Australia and at the global level.
Challenges: I was brought up in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne. Although I have great street sense, it didn’t teach me the intricacies of leveraging networks such as the old boys club or how to access mentors. I learnt these lessons on the job, which were all very critical during the 1970s, 80s and 90s and even to this day. Although this knowledge can be acquired, there were many people who were, and are, privileged to be in these networks via their school and family affiliations. As a physically smaller person you need to work harder at being a presence in the room. If you do not have a big physical presence, and the charisma that comes with it, you can often be overlooked.
Failures: Although I don’t necessarily see it this way, it is possible to see my day job as a failure. I have been at the same level, at the same institution, in the same continuing position for over 25 years. However, if it wasn’t for this ‘failure’, I would not have been able to fulfill my life long journey and passion for conservation.
I attribute my success to emotional and raw intelligence. I am curious by nature and indulge in extensive and broad reading. I practice integrity, honesty, openness, persistence, and pragmatism in all decision-making. I am a good listener, ensuring I listen to other people and their views across all types of forums. I give my view strongly based on evidence and knowledge.
I have not used personal funds to financially invest in formal leadership courses. I am in the lucky position that my Williamson Community Leadership Program and current Company Directors course were paid for by organisations where I have leadership roles. I have invested a lot of personal time in developing my leadership skills and style. It is impossible to quantify and it is not quarantined. I spent a lot of time in many different roles and activities that have allowed me to be where I am now.
I haven’t changed jobs in order to increase my cash flow. I took a job that was consistent (Deakin University) so I could engage in all external leadership activities. I really like the ‘Conservation Catalyst’ idea and lifestyle instead of an evidence based research approach as required by University institutions. By not having job fluctuations, it has allowed me to do ‘ good’ work in the conservation community.
Both major Victorian State Government parties have appointed me because I stayed true to my goal, that is environmental protection and conservation. It does not bother me which political party is in power, as I know why, and for what reason, I am actioning my vision. I stay true to the bigger picture and I have never been opportunistic or offered an alternative view for short-term benefits.
I don’t think I have ever given away my time for free. Sometimes I undervalue my experiences, but I have the view that I am receiving in equal amounts as I am giving. I give enormous time away to the conservation field for less than the market price and experiences listed on my CV, however, I am reimbursed well in my day job. This is part of a big package of one whole. I have a very old fashioned view of being an academic. The pay is reasonable and the freedom is fantastic.
It is important that I maintain my mental and physical health and wellbeing. I go to gym, play tennis and walk everywhere when and where I can. It is important that I get out into nature and keep exercising. Mentally, I need my sanctuaries. One needs to know what one likes and works for them. Nature will always deliver this for me whether it is a creek, beach or wild and remote open natural spaces. A big bonus of being in the conservation field is that you can legitimately go to natural places that are mentally relaxing and reviving. Having a sanctuary is very important. It should be peaceful and allow for self-reflection. To have sustained energy, passion and persistence, one needs that space and place. You will not last if you do not have this sanctuary.
I always assume that I am ahead of the game. A top leadership secret is to stay connected to as many networks and contacts as possible. Keep an open mind and talk to a diversity of people. By nature, people love to gossip and by listening, you learn a lot. Know and listen to your opposition. It is essential that you know what makes them and their industry tick, what is their motivation and why they act the way they do. Read your oppositions work, reports and media stories. I subscribe to the Economist, read widely and extensively and listen to debates.
My top leadership tips are to treat people well, don’t bad mouth or gossip about people and ensure you are loyal down as well as up. You are not a leader if you are not loyal down. Do not think you are better than anyone else. I always treat others as my equal and this is a good place to start.
For those who want to join conservation organisations it is essential to first understand your conservation objectives and then join organisations whose objectives align with yours. Don’t just be a member, offer your services. You never know what you might learn. For example, I joined the Victorian National Park Association (VNPA) during 2nd year university and the Australian Conservation Foundation during 3rd year university as their objectives aligned with my desire and objectives to save the world.
My advice would be to attend leadership presentations, hear talks by people who are leaders. Sometimes you will be disappointed, but more often than not you will learn something new. Take time to smell the flowers; it is an old expression but relevant to having a mental sanctuary where you can self-reflect. Do not underestimate luck and be mindful when it happens. To be successful and to climb high you need some luck. Last, always question your own point of view.
To learn more about Geoff’s conservation leadership journey, read: Conservation Catalysts. The Academy as Nature’s Agent. 2014. Edited by James N. Levitt, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, USA.