Photo by Heather Perry

Lessons in Leadership

By Amanda Stanley

Jan 31, 2024


Minute Read


My journey with COMPASS began 12 years ago, when I was a newish Program Officer at Wilburforce Foundation, trying to find ways for science to more effectively inform conservation. We quickly developed a rewarding partnership: I was able to support COMPASS in expanding their scope beyond the ocean realm, and COMPASS brought their deep knowledge in training, connecting, and supporting scientists for conservation impact. Together, we co-created the Wilburforce Leaders in Conservation Science program; today we have 80 leaders from 4 cohorts who have been through this transformative program.

I enjoyed the partnership with COMPASS so much that in 2017, I took a dive in the deep end and joined COMPASS as Executive Director. Now, six and half years later, I’m saying farewell, knowing that COMPASS is a stronger, more equitable, more impactful organization thanks to the dedication and creativity of the COMPASS team. It’s been such a privilege to be part of this organization, and I’m continually inspired by my teammates, partners, and our community. I’ve learned many lessons over the years as I’ve grown in this role (some the hard way!), but I’ll share the top four that I will be carrying with me.

1. Rethink Leadership

When I first started as ED, I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility. This led me to take on too much; I thought I needed to have all the answers and take ownership of all the big decisions. It didn’t take too long to realize that wasn’t going to work, for COMPASS or for me. I’ve come to understand that my best role as a leader is to hold the space for the team to solve problems together, tapping into the collective creativity, knowledge, and skills of the group.

In our leadership programs, we see so many science leaders facing similar struggles. Opening up our hearts and minds to different models of leadership can be truly transformative. I think one of the best gifts we can give ourselves is the space to explore what leadership means for us.

2. Don’t Go it Alone

The problems we are trying to solve – climate change, biodiversity loss, social inequities – are huge and complex. No one person or organization can solve them. But we often find that scientists doing public engagement work feel incredibly isolated or unsupported at their home institutions.

As a mentor of mine always said, ‘we can do together what we can’t do alone’. This is why COMPASS has invested so deeply in building cohorts, networks, and communities. We all need the mutual support and inspiration that comes from building deep connections with our peers.

3. Walking the Walk

The past few years have been a real lesson in leaning into our values. When I joined COMPASS, the organization was just beginning to explore how issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity intersected with our mission. But staff, board, and our broader community were all highly committed to making change.

In just a few years, we’ve made big shifts in our training programs with equity and inclusion in mind, including who we teach, what we teach, and how we teach it. We’ve broadened our network of experts, and re-envisioned who we are supporting scientists to engage with, and why. We also know that change comes from within, and that our organization needed to make changes too. We recognized that DEIJ trainings are a necessary but insufficient step, and that we need to put what we’ve learned into practice. We overhauled our hiring, onboarding, compensation, and promotion policies, centering equity in our core operations.

4. Knowing When to Rest

One of the things we teach, and practice in our team, is that it’s important to take care of yourself. It feels so obvious, but despite the constant self-care buzz around us, somehow we all struggle with this one. At COMPASS, we’ve created a culture where we encourage each other to take that vacation, keep our workloads reasonable, and unplug when we’re not at work. But sometimes, taking care of ourselves means stepping back; at some point, no matter how much you are enjoying the swim, it’s time to get out of the water.

So I am doing something I’ve never done before – take a long break! I am looking forward to some time for rest and reflection. I’m excited to spend more time with my family and reconnect with friends I’ve not seen enough of these past few years. I’m going to have time to bask in nature, going for walks with a pair of binoculars in hand. And I plan to spend a lot of time in the water, swimming in the Puget Sound. All of this will help me get re-centered so that I can contemplate my next course. I don’t know what my next step will be, but I know it will be inspired by the amazing people I’ve been lucky enough to work with the past few years, and all I’ve learned from them.

The decision to leave COMPASS was a hard and emotional one; but in the end the right choice for me and for COMPASS. I feel confident in taking this step, because I have the utmost confidence in the COMPASS team. I know COMPASS will continue to grow and thrive.

Please stay in touch! (You can find me on LinkedIn and Bluesky.) And if you are ever in the Seattle area, come join me for a swim!

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