A coaching intervention at Natural England shifted employee mindsets, supporting them to move from overwhelm to inspired action.
Jackie Arnold and Lydia Stevens report
As the UK government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, Natural England helps protect and restore our natural world. To assist it, the executive non-departmental public body recognised the potential of employees learning some
basic coaching skills.
Thus we – Climate Biodiversity Coaching and Supervision – created the bespoke Climate Biodiversity Coaching course for Natural England non-coaches after discussions, collaboration and contracting with the organisation in November 2022. The aim was to develop coaching skills, such as operating from a growth mindset, deep listening, reflection, being comfortable with the unknown and creating a space for conversations to be in exploration, together with farmers and other custodians of the biodiversity in England.
For those working to support farmers and landowners in Natural England we realised how important it is to have a positive mindset, enabling possibility and hope.
The interconnectedness of all species and earth systems informs the agenda of Climate Biodiversity Coaching and Supervision. As the problems of climate and biodiversity are one system, it is vital to have greater understanding, collaboration and collective action.
Background: head and heart
We believe, as coaches, supervisors and business leaders, that “who we are informs how we coach, supervise and lead” (Murdoch, 2007).
In 2020, Lydia Stevens and I came together after meeting at a webinar held by the Climate Coaching Alliance. We’d perceived a gap between how climate science and biodiversity loss is discussed and how decisions are actually taken around transformational change. Decisions and actions are based on emotional responses (from the heart) and not on facts (from the head). We felt there needs to be as much focus on the heart-set as the mind-set, yet both are vital to informed decisions and effective change.
Our coaching and supervision practice shows being grounded, fully present and dropping from the head to the heart can go a long way to mitigating potentially unhelpful emotional reactions, such as overwhelm and anxiety. These reactions inform our behaviour when we’re exposed to news about climate and biodiversity. They also inform how we react to each other when discussing action and agency in the system change we need in service of a thriving planet and future generations.
Meaningful action comes from a place of courage, gratitude and hope (Macy, 2012). We have built on this premise, and it’s what prompted us to set up innovative climate biodiversity coaching courses and a global community via our social enterprise company, Climate Biodiversity Coaching CIC.
An explicit awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion was aligned to both our and Natural England’s values and we shared a common purpose: “to help conserve, enhance and manage the natural environment for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (http://bit.ly/3UxGzPO), improved communication between farmers and consumers can increase trust and reduce conflict. This can lead to greater adoption of sustainable practices and a reduction in food waste and loss.
The collaboration with Natural England’s Maya Butler (team leader for marine coast & freshwater Kent & Sussex) and Sarah Taylor (senior specialist climate change adaptation) was crucial to the successful outcome of the Climate Biodiversity Coaching programme. We all came from a place of compassion and courage, acknowledging the fear and anxiety facing the participants and at the same time providing a safe and trusted environment for reflection, engagement and purposeful action.
Twenty Natural England employees selected from more than 60 who were interested attended the course from a variety of regions and of course, came with diverse mindsets. By involving them in the creation of the course we provided an open and accepting space, encouraging connection with each other across geographical areas.
We actively encouraged diversity, acceptance of difference and the range of challenges and issues different teams faced due to climatic impact. We allowed space in the modules and coaching sessions for participants to reflect, slow down and listen deeply to concerns and ideas. This spaciousness and deep listening helped build trust and allow for more open sharing.
The Climate Biodiversity Coaching programme for Natural England empowered participants to shift mindsets and take collaborative, meaningful action on climate and biodiversity with all stakeholders. They discovered how using a range of coaching skills and techniques can help people build emotional intelligence around climate and biodiversity topics and make a positive impact.
Specifically, the coaching skills and behaviours delivered during the programme were:
- Presence and grounding before meetings
- Developing an empowering, hopeful mindset where possible
- Coming from the heart as well as the head
- Building rapport and finding common ground
- Listening deeply to fully understand
- Using the language of the farmer/landowner for greater clarity (clean language)
- Summarising to ensure both are on the same page
- Using the START coaching model (Stop, Think, Ask, Reflect, Trust) developed by Jackie Arnold
- For teams, using the SDOCA model (Strengths, Development Areas, Opportunities, Challenges, Actions), also developed by Jackie Arnold
- Buddy coaching outdoors in nature to ‘compost’ green shootsDorian Speakman, lead advisor catchment sensitive farming, said: “Building rapport and deep listening were two of the key skills we learnt from the course. Introducing questions that are relevant to farmers and not going in with a package of measures they should be doing.”
Participants were encouraged to stand in the shoes of all the different stakeholders to better understand each other’s perspectives and find common ground. This led to more effective collaboration and the first steps towards regeneration, considering what they love, how they work and the values Natural England place at the heart of all they do.
These shared values are:
- Thriving nature for people and planet
- Building partnerships for nature’s recovery, and
- Personal wellbeing and inclusion and equal opportunities for all
Those on the programme bought into the idea that focusing on a positive mindset and behaviour can inspire individuals, teams and communities to open up to what we’re facing in terms of climate change and biodiversity loss. By developing a growth mindset throughout the programme, participants reported overcoming their frequent feelings of frustration and overwhelm. Participants have already taken meaningful action to regenerate the environment by working out with farmers and landowners what makes sense in the transition from current to new ways of working, moving towards the future we all desire and know is possible. As a result of the training and their collaboration, participants are no longer resistant to change.
Climate Biodiversity Coaching skills and behaviours delivered during the programme provided participants with tools, techniques, and mindsets to transform their thinking and feeling from overwhelm to inspired action.
Natural England staff are uniquely placed to contribute to a future where all people and the living planet can thrive. Solutions and actions are therefore collaborative, regenerative, and redistributive. It’s about being courageous and challenging, using empathy and understanding to find solutions that benefit all stakeholders. Asking questions such as: ‘What does the land need?’ ‘How would future generations react to this decision?’
This case study was carried out with shared values and a shared vision. We believe this is possible to achieve in other organisations after open and honest discussions.
Critical success factors
- Alignment of purpose Natural England’s purpose and ours were aligned, especially around biodiversity but also climatic impact plus wellbeing, diversity and inclusion.
- Trusting the process Natural England had some prior knowledge of coaching but employees weren’t coaches and the commissioners were open to learning with the land as stakeholders and trusted us from the outset.
- Being practical We started in a very concrete and practical way, offering an approach that was both meaningful and relatable, eg: using the virtual interactive whiteboard Miro to go through the application of basic coaching skills to an advisory conversation which had really happened.
- Active experimentation Participants were paired up across the cohort and regions to practise what they were learning. This gave them space and encouragement for co-coaching, reflection, and ‘composting’ work. We encouraged them to coach and journal outside in nature where possible.
- Shared learning Natural England asked all participants to share their learning with their teams as a condition of coming on the course. This meant that the ripples from the course were deeper and wider, achieving greater value for money and impact.
- Evaluation We embedded evaluation into the course with a pre- and post-course survey/evaluation. We supported the empowerment of course participants by issuing a certificate with each person’s greatest shift in their own words. They were asked to show how shifts link to their way of being and to their work going forward.
What participants say
“We’re working in conservation and have the scarcity of time issue…it’s using patience and all the skills that we’ve learned to, as you say, water the seed, and actually co-create solutions. Not going in all guns blazing, thinking you’ve got all the answers, but first building the relationship and the trust to find a solution with the stakeholders.”
Sarah Taylor, Natural England senior specialist climate change adaptation
“Actually, I found it really useful for my own mental health in terms of using new tools, like journalling. But also, it’s just using these skills in my day-to-day life to actually increase my confidence, like socially, 100%. And I feel a lot more confident just talking to people in general, because I really wasn’t a very social creature. I’m just beyond thankful for being a part of the course. And for you guys, for delivering it for us.”
Christy Barrowclough, lead adviser, land management and conservation
References and further info
- Climate Coaching Alliance: www.climatecoachingalliance.org
- Climate Biodiversity Coaching: www.climatebiodiversitycoaching.com
- Instagram: @climatebiodiversitycoaching
- J Macy, Active Hope, New World Library, 2012
- E Murdoch, This arose from a conversation with Aboodi Shabi in 2007
About the authors
- Jackie Arnold is an accredited ICF Climate Biodiversity coach and supervisor. She is passionate about preserving our fragile planet for future generations.
- Lydia Stevens worked for 20 years as a consultant in sustainable development, she re-trained as an executive coach at Henley Business School to work with businesses, communities and individuals to serve people and the planet.
Both Jackie and Lydia are active members of the Climate Coaching Alliance and bring a passion for nature, equity, diversity and cross-cultural learning into their coaching and Climate Biodiversity Coaching Courses, including lessons from Indigenous wisdom.