River Cam, Andy Clements.
River Cam, Andy Clements.

Leading through a crisis


Leading BTO through the current pandemic has been an extraordinary experience with which to end my stewardship of our wonderful organisation. It has caused me to reflect on leadership and to learn. Never having had to lead in a crisis until now, my hope is that we get through by a combination of instinct and advice. Our approach is based on the suggestion that if you prioritise looking after your staff, then the difficult business decisions will begin to look after themselves.

We have put our staff first throughout this time, recognising the many challenges that come from ‘being at home in a crisis and trying to work’. Whilst it is not universally straightforward, and we do our best to recognise where individuals feel troubled or are struggling, I have been amazed at the capability and resilience of BTO staff in this difficult time. With great support from our Information Services team, we have learnt to communicate regularly, and personally, through online platforms and have found a candid but supportive and caring mindset across our organisation. I’m sure we are helped significantly by our recently strengthened People and Organisational Development leadership. We are discovering benefits in ways of working that will profoundly affect our business-as-usual of the future.

In normal times I am gregarious as a leader. My office door is always open, and I walk around to chat to people rather than sending emails. Face-to-face time is why I am in the office. Returning daily to a lone screen and desk in my house during lockdown has not been my preferred modus operandi, but I am also aware how lucky I am to be with family with a house and garden, and green surroundings in which to start or end the day. And I haven’t missed the daily drive to and from Thetford! So, what have been the work challenges in managing BTO’s response to the pandemic?

River Cam BirdTrack
New species along the River Cam include Grey Partridge and Reed Warbler. 
House Martin, Tom Streeter.
House Martin is another new species along the River Cam. 
Coming to work every day and being surrounded by clever, friendly and committed people, who share a passion to make the world a better place, is a gift.  
Gardenwatch cover
People from across the country took part in Gardenwatch. 

We have aimed for quick, decisive action, closing our offices and asking staff to work from home a week before the Government introduced lockdown. Data we had seen, and decisions of organisations like the Wellcome Trust to close their offices early, were helpful. During the first period of lockdown we followed the spirit as well as the letter of Government guidance, unable therefore to allow surveys away from our homes and gardens. We know how disappointing this has been for our skilled and active volunteers, who have been understanding and patient. A week ago, we had to move quickly to update BTO’s position reflecting the different approaches taken to relaxing lockdown in each country of the UK. Our COVID-19 communications team, with strong input from our survey leaders, did a great job and BTO volunteers saw our published response on the day the new measures were applied. In England, the survey season is now open, and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) second visits will be underway. I was out early this morning, my first visit to a wetland in eight weeks, and the burgeoning May blossom and leafing of the trees was just stunning. The solace and inspiration we get from nature has never been more important.

None of us will avoid the financial challenges that come with a global crisis. As a leader I worry most about maintaining the income upon which our flourishing organisation relies. Over the past few years we have certainly diversified our income streams and are more resilient as a result. We ended the 2019/20 financial year in relatively good shape. However, despite some emergency help from a foundation, and the promised continuity of funding from major donors, our senior team currently forecast a significant impact, particularly on our fundraised income for the year. As the year progresses, and lockdown continues, the level of financial impact will become clearer, with the UK economy sending ripples through our supporter-base. Whilst the pandemic rages, and our health service and front-line caring charities need support most, we have not yet asked you to help – but I am sure we will need to do so this autumn. If you do want to give us that extra bit of support now, then please don’t hold back! And remember that becoming a member of BTO is the best way to support us in the long-term.

It is not all about crisis management. We have been getting on with ensuring the world is inspired by birds and informed by science. Our survey leaders have been hard at work publishing excellent reports on the Breeding Bird Survey, the Wetland Bird Survey and on Northern Ireland’s seabirds. As well as the all-important trend information, these reports provide the details on how we use the data to drive our research. We have encouraged the local use of BirdTrack with a new widget that compares the month-to-month effort on your local patch. My River Cam walking route has recorded new species this year: Grey Partridge, House Martin and Reed Warbler. And whilst I might be able to identify Reed Warbler as a new song on my local site, not everyone, especially those new to birding, can. Nick Moran, our training manager, can fix that – watch Nick’s witty and memorable videos on how to identify birds by song, a great example of how we are moving BTO’s training to be much more widely accessible online.

Garden BirdWatch for free has engaged more than 7,000 new people and we hope we can build on this interest in securing long-term participation in BTO surveys. The urban environment, and gardens, are a priority area for BTO engagement with society and we will be on BBC SpringWatch at the end of the month, presenting the results of last year’s GardenWatch survey where 250,000 participants sent us data about the wildlife suitability and use of their gardens. Nesting neighbours has been another continuing survey during lockdown, with data on 3,000+ nests submitted so far.

Soon after starting as Chief Executive in the summer of 2007, the UK economy suffered the shock of the banking crisis, the subsequent financial crash and recession. Now, at the end of my tenure, we are responding to a global pandemic, a crisis on a whole new level. One might reflect on why being the leader is an attractive proposition at all. It comes back to the staff, the Trustees, our supporters and the purpose. Coming to work every day and being surrounded by clever, friendly and committed people, who share a passion to make the world a better place, is a gift.

So, who will come next? I am interested to hear views as to what you think BTO needs in its leadership over the next few years, and what you think the organisation should be doing that it hasn’t done to date. Please leave your comments below. Thank you.

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