In conversation with… Stephen Lavery

Fantastic conversation with Stephen the other day, who if you haven’t met, is the Senior Impact and Insights Manager at The Earthshot Prize.

Launched in 2020, The Earthshot Prize searches for and scales the most innovative solutions to the world’s greatest environmental challenges.

They believe that change is not yet happening fast enough or at the scale we need. Levels of climate anxiety and despondency are high and political interventions are happening too slowly. But despite all these challenges, they are optimists. They see genuine pathways to an era of regeneration and abundance. The Earthshot Prize want to unleash the urgent optimism required to accelerate and scale the environmental innovations that will repair and regenerate our planet.

You can find out more and how to get involved here.

What was your first ever job?

I was 16, I got a job in a local bar, restaurant, slash nightclub at the weekend. I was paid £3.75 an hour for washing dishes a couple nights a week. Then at the weekend, I’d do dishes during the day, then it would turn into a nightclub, and I’d be washing glasses and stocking the bar.

And it was great. It was just fun. It’s my first job, and I got a sense of independence and earning a bit of money for the first time. I went on to work in bars all the way through uni.

I really enjoyed it, even today I’m washing dishes and it’s just like meditation.

Who would you most like to share a coffee with or go for a drink with?

It’s got to be Sir David Attenborough. He’s a bit of a legend. I’ve been a big fan of his for years and have followed everything he’s done. I remember growing up watching his documentaries. I think it was one of the reasons I got interested in the natural world and wildlife.

I learned so much watching and listening to him. He’s so wise and is an excellent communicator. He’s dedicated his life to teaching people about wildlife and the natural world. And in recent years, helping us see the impact people have had on it.

I’d love to just sit down and have a chat with them. I also like that he’s not out there trying to sell lots of stuff. He knows what he does, he knows what he’s here to do. He’s been single-minded on that throughout his whole life.

We’re very lucky as he’s one of our Prize committee members. He reviews all of our top nominations each year and helps choose the final five winners. It’s always a very exciting day, whenever someone’s got a call with him.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

In my last job at Macmillan Cancer Support, I was a couple of years into the role when COVID first hit. Everything shut down and people with cancer were shielding. So, we immediately knew this was having a huge impact on them, but we didn’t know exactly what impact it was having.

We responded really quickly within weeks. We were hearing anecdotal feedback about the challenges but needed something more representative and robust. We commissioned a research project which involved a representative survey of around 2,000 people living with cancer. We did about 20-30 online interviews with experts to get their views (nurses, doctors, experts in the field). We also got our hands on lots of NHS data on cancer waiting times and diagnosis rates, and we spent a bit of time just pulling all the separate strands together and figuring out the story.

We got a really deep understanding of what was going on and the problems people were having. We were way ahead of the curve and we spotted the cancer backlog really quickly. We were able to use that information to show the NHS that it was a problem that they needed to address. We ended up getting front page headlines and it was discussed in Parliament. It was part of the reason that a big chunk of funding was given to address the backlog and the problems that we identified.

We ended up winning a few MRS Awards for it. It was just a really rewarding piece of work, in that we saw it through from start to actually some action, which is rare.

So what inspired you to change the course of your career?

I remember taking a bit of time when I was on holiday, just writing down my thoughts. And I was thinking what do I like, what do I not like? What are my values? What am I good at? Where do I want to be in 20 years, 30 years? I was really working through a bit of introspection. And I realised that I really liked the Insight stuff. I liked the analysis. I liked working with data, I liked taking sort of messy, unknown questions and figuring out answers. And I wanted to apply all of that to something that would benefit society – which led me into the nonprofit sector.

Nature or nurture?

Oh, that’s a tough one. It’s definitely both. I would say it’s on balance, probably more nurture, than nature. I think there’s lots of evidence to say that your early childhood has a huge impact on your personality and your relationships with others. Genetics definitely matter a lot, but the environment you’re in and the relationship you’ve got with caregivers and peers has a huge impact.

I want to say nurture. Because I like the idea it’s not predetermined, and you’ve got a chance to change and influence things.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard or been given?

There’s an idea from stoicism, the dichotomy of choice. The idea is that you can group things into two buckets, there’s things you’ve got control over and things you haven’t got control over.

The things you haven’t got control over tend to be the things that we worry about. What people are saying about you, what they think about you, the weather, the war, what’s going on in the news, all those things are typically out of your control.

The things that are in your control are your actions and your responses, how you respond to something. And the advice is to focus on the things you can control and try to ignore, everything else, which is easier said than done.

I think it frees you up to say, all those things are going to happen, whether you worry about them or not. So, you don’t need to think about them, just focus on the bit you can control.

I’ve heard it phrased a slightly different way, I think it was Maya Angelou, and she says “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude”. That’s the ethos I’ve tried to live.

What talent do you yearn for?

I’d love to be smarter, or have a photographic memory, or something like that!

It takes a while before I can get my head around a new idea. I’ve always been amazed by people who just seem to pick stuff up super, super fast. I’d love just pick things up fast, and then be able to remember them forever.

What’s your favourite brand and why?

I like Riverford – Organic Farmers. They do fruit and veg boxes. I’ve been a customer for years. You get loads of different options. But I get a fruit and vegetable every two weeks. And what I like about them is it’s all seasonal, it’s all organic. They work with farmers who practice sustainable, regenerative farming practices.

I like the ethics of it. And they’re very transparent about what they do. They’ve thought through all the details. You know, all the packaging is compostable and recyclable. They’re very supportive of farmers and there’s no middle retailer taking big margins.

The ethics runs through it all and you get a nice little note from their founder every week. You know, a little note about what’s on his mind that week. It gives you an insight into the world of small-scale farming in the UK and some of the challenges they’ve got.

What book would you recommend to others?

A book that I really enjoyed and I recommend is Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, it’s a big sweeping look at the history of humankind and It put a lot of jigsaw pieces into place for me about why we behave in certain ways and how that links to our evolution as humans

I’ve also gifted people, “Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini which is a bit of a classic. It made me see the world in a slightly different way.

What was what last impressed you at work?

I’m impressed every day at work. We’re basically a startup, we were only three years old, you know, the organisation didn’t exist until 2021. There are 40 of us roughly here, but the way people think, and the impact we have is so much bigger than that. We’re really punching above our weight.

We reach millions of people, we’re putting the award ceremony on a global stage. We’re thinking about how do we go bigger, you know, how do we do more? Everyone’s got that attitude where, whatever we achieve, there’s a drive to go twice as big next time. It impresses me, but it also scares me at the same time! My first reaction is always like, that’s ridiculous, we can’t do that. And then you kind of go, okay, well, maybe we can. Seeing that attitude around me feels like that startup growth mentality.

What lesson was the hardest for you to learn?

I need to put myself in the spotlight and push myself to voice my opinions. I’m very happy, being behind the scenes. I’m happy in a spreadsheet, crunching data, you know, analysing stuff.

I still get stressed, going into meetings, big meetings, I get stressed, if there are lots of people, and I get stressed in presentations, talks, and anything like that. But I know, it’s part of what makes me effective. I need to not only understand stuff, I need to be able to communicate it and bring people along on the journey with me.

That’s the bit that was hardest for me to learn. I just thought if I just get all this data and find the right answers it’ll land itself and it will spread around the organisation.

But actually, it’s not like that, you have to bang the drum, you have to repeat it multiple times. It’s still a lesson I’m learning.

What would you want to do when you retire?

It’s an easy one. My wife’s French and the plan is we go to France. Move to a small town in the countryside. Maybe have a little garden where I can grow some veg, potter around and do stuff, sit in the sun. Maybe have some bees. Do some volunteer work in the local area.


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