Almost two years ago, Oxygen Conservation was founded with the mission to Scale Conservation, and in doing so, delivering positive environmental and social impact and generating profit as a result of our work, not the purpose.
Over that period, we have built the country’s largest genuine environmental investment fund, deploying more than £70m for the acquisition of almost 30,000 acres across ten different sites in eight counties and three countries.
It was and continues to be my belief that if we can grow natural capital and create a genuinely new alternative asset class, we could mobilise the incredible investment we need to save a little of the world, and in the process, find nature based solutions to climate change and the biodiversity crisis.
Our success thus far has only been possible because we have assembled the most incredible team of people; a group of unique high performers from an incredible range of backgrounds and experiences; aligned in our mission and united by our culture, despite being geographically disparate.
I’m delighted that the team’s hard work has been recognised by being named the edie Team of the Year for 2023, but know that we’re just getting started!
In the following article, I’m going to tell you how we built the Team of the Year.
(1) VISION – CREATE AN INSPIRING AMBITION
People want to do something that matters. For many people, climate change and the biodiversity crisis are amongst the most important challenges of our time. As a business, we are therefore hugely fortunate to have an ambition that is inherently inspiring and fundamentally good. We want to Scale Conservation – not just Oxygen Conservation, but the entire movement, market and industry. The most talented people want an inspiring ambition and to be given the opportunity to embrace it without fear. I love the line from the famous advert: “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy, ask if they’re crazy enough”.
We have combined our passion for the environment and love of data and tech, to set our goal to become the world’s first conservation-focused unicorn company – that’s one with a valuation of over £1 Billion. The world needs hope, and if we can build our unicorn, the market (and society) will have moved so much we might have a chance of giving the next generation a future on this planet.
We’ve been hugely fortunate to find people who view these insane ambitions as inspiring and have committed their time, effort and passion to working towards making it a reality.
(2) TALENT – ONLY RECRUIT PEOPLE BETTER THAN YOU
To Scale Conservation (or whatever your crazy dream might be), you need to find ways of attracting the most talented people to be part of your team. You need to continuously be recruiting – I’m always on the lookout for incredible people that can help our business. And you need to compete for them by creating an environment where they can be exceptional and love what they do. This doesn’t mean talent is everything, but it is one of the most important things. Another is that you need to be a great person – a concept we’ve adapted from the New Zealand All Blacks. By this we mean that our colleagues need to be humble, recognise that no one person is more integral than the collective and understand that bringing a poor attitude or reacting negatively to their circumstances can have a catastrophic impact on our team’s culture and as a result our performance as a business.
My rule when it comes to recruitment is to only recruit people better than me in a meaningful way. This doesn’t need to be in education, exams or experience in conservation. This means those that challenge themselves and me, those who push the boundaries and push themselves to be the best they can be in their field. This has to be the most obvious thing in business, because surely if you’re not doing this then you’re actively getting worse. We never ever sacrifice our performance bars. If we don’t find an exceptional person, we won’t appoint them because we owe it to every exceptional person already on our team to only find brilliant people to work alongside them.
(3) COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE – HOW YOU DO ANYTHING IS HOW YOU DO EVERYTHING
We have an absolute commitment to excellence and hold ourselves to the mantra that “how you do anything is how you do everything”. This doesn’t mean we create fake productivity, putting things on the to-do list just to tick it off. It means that if something is important in the pursuit of our ambition, we do it to an exceptional standard. Every detail matters, every decision matters. As soon as you sacrifice the quality of any aspect of your business, you’re telling your team, your partners, customers or clients that you will tolerate lower standards and you will compromise. Who wants to work with those businesses? We don’t.
Let’s not pretend this is easy or comfortable. It isn’t. It takes time, effort, and sacrifices but if you’re trying to be the best in the world at what you do, or do what so many people say is impossible, you have to be prepared to do what others haven’t done and aren’t prepared to do.
This commitment to excellence is an incredibly powerful self-selection tool when recruiting. We’re completely honest about our expectations and the realities of what it means to be part of our team. To make this possible, we involve as many of the team as we can in the process and make the decision as one.
(4) ACCOUNTABILITY & FEEDBACK
When you commit to creating a high-performance culture, everyone, especially me, needs to be held to account. So often people avoid giving challenging feedback or calling out poor performance. Whilst this is easy in the moment, it’s cowardly, immediately sacrifices your credibility as a leader and is a death knell to the performance of a team. It’s also so often the moment when your highest performers realise the business doesn’t share their ambitions and question if they will soon need to leave to fulfil their potential elsewhere. As a business and as individuals, we are receptive to the opinions of others (even if we don’t always agree) and recognise the importance of listening to help us learn, not just to respond.
I know I can only ask the team to work incredibly hard if I’m prepared to outwork them. Throughout my career, this has been one of the two consistent performance advantages I’ve found; the other is continuous learning. These rules were very much learnt from my time playing international sport – I simply had to outwork and outcompete everyone to earn my place on the team and playing contact sport gave me instant, impactful feedback. You learnt lessons fast or spent a lot of time getting up off the floor.
I’ve carried this principle into business by striving to provide immediate, honest feedback, although learning from experience that you must provide this as soon as possible but only when the other person can hear it and benefit from it. It has to be passed gently not thrown viciously…
This has to work both ways. You have to immediately praise effort, learning, innovation and success. Where you can, it’s also important to celebrate the response to failure (when trying something new) and sharing the learning that can come from these experiences. This can hurt – sometimes it is mentally and emotionally painful to fail and then review that failure to learn, but it’s only through these experiences that we develop and adapt, in the same way as your muscles hurt after a workout.
Success is hard, changing things is difficult and not often popular, but it’s necessary if you want to do something incredible.
(5) RADICAL TRANSPARENCY – SHARE EVERYTHING WITH THE TEAM
We share everything with the team, with the only exceptions being things that would be inappropriate to do so. For example, an individual remuneration package, medical conditions or family situations – albeit many of the team choose to share their personal circumstances with their colleagues due to the supportive culture we have built, but that has to be their choice.
How do we achieve this? We open the week with our “Mondays at Blackstone” inspired team call, where we discuss every potential acquisition, the performance of every business and site and all the issues and challenges for the week ahead. Everyone is welcome and all views are equally valued. Ultimately we tend to reach a consensus which means that I very rarely have to overrule the majority and say “My decision is this…”. Where I do need to do this – I think I have done so twice in two years! – I nonetheless recognise the team’s valuable input and am very clear that I am responsible for the decision that I have made.
You cannot expect your team to make incredible decisions if you’re not going to share the information and the context they need to put their expertise into action. Also, how can you ask people to grow and develop if you don’t expose them to new ideas, information and experiences, and make it safe for them to fail forward?
My final transparency rule is that anyone can ask anything, as long as you give the other person the right to say no. I will answer anything the team asks, but if I say “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that” they know not to push further.
(6) CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT – LEARN FROM THE BEST
We’re never satisfied and are always looking for ways of improving everything we do. The best way to do this is to borrow ideas from the best in every different field, apply these ideas and concepts to your context and continue to develop on these. We constantly take inspiration from high level sport, iconic businesses and industries and incredible individual people and performers.
We believe in making this as easy as possible. We encourage everyone to read (this is short hand for physical books, ebooks, audiobooks, video subscriptions and any other way you can consume information) as much as possible and are delighted to pay for those materials. In any business, if your team are asking to learn and improve, largely in their own time, buy them whatever they need to do so and say thank you!
Success is hard, changing things is difficult and not often popular, it is a marathon of sprints and it hurts. Creating and working in a high-performance culture is hard, it’s painful emotionally, mentally and sometimes physically, especially in sport (or where significant travel is required) but it’s necessary if you want to do something incredible.
I’m hugely grateful that over the past two years, we have used and stuck to these principles to build the best team working in the environment sector, united by the shared goal to Scale Conservation. I’m incredibly excited to see what they will achieve over the coming months and years. We all need this team to achieve the impossible because if we don’t…