‘My Conker Tree’: A post about stewardship

I’ve got a conker tree in my front garden. It was there before me, it will be there after me, but I have a role in looking after it now. For many of us, the roles we have at work are the same. How should we think about stewardship at work?

The Horse Chestnut tree in my garden is a thing of beauty. An arboriculturalist estimated that it probably began life in about 1860 as a sapling on the side of a path in what was then a mining village. Since then, the World around the tree, and the tree itself have changed, but object and place have grown together. Despite the title of this post, I don’t really think of the tree as ‘mine’ – it isn’t. The tree belongs to the area where it lives and is an essential element of the character of the area. When I spoke to a tree surgeon after I bought the house I didn’t need to give my exact address. Once I had described the tree and the area I lived in he knew it immediately. In fact, it was one of the first trees he had worked on during his training 25 years ago.

At this time of year, the magic of a conker tree is plain to see. As I spend my Saturday mornings filling yet another rubble bag full of fallen leaves, and my two young sons pick up their thousandth conker, I can see people walking by noticing the tree. Some of them stop to pick up the conkers that have fallen onto the pavement – perhaps to take home to their own children or grandchildren. Or perhaps just because a shiny new conker is impossible to leave on the ground once spotted. The tree is a shared amenity. It just so happens that it grows in my garden so it’s for me to make sure it is cared for.

Outside of Autumn, the tree doesn’t create a lot of work for me. But I am responsible (legally and ethically) for its preservation and good management. This means taking sensible decisions, using experts to help me care for and prune the tree, and living with the fact it might push up a few paving stones, damage drains or create other inconveniences. It is this stewardship role of the tree, taking decisions in its best long term interests, that inspired me to write this post.

Most of us will work in organisations that existed before we joined them and will exist after we have gone. For some of us they will be organisations with long, proud histories. For others they will be less well known or more modest. For all of us though the challenge from time to time will be about balancing short term gain and convenience against longer term sustainable decisions that can often be harder to take. These could be decisions about financing, estate, market decisions or of course people management. How do we work with our fellow stewards of the organisation to ensure that our ethos and principles are clearly reflected and so that we set the standard appropriately high for our successors to see and be challenged by? How do we ensure that our organisations are beacons of good people management that not only shine today but help to teach our younger stewards and junior managers how the job should be done. What we teach them today, they will be putting into practice tomorrow.

Just as my tree is a part of the life of the local community, so too are the customers and other stakeholders of your organisation. We sometimes talk glibly about ‘brand’, but reputation and pedigree can take generations to build so ours is simply to add another layer of bricks to the cathedral. Are we taking decisions today that we will be proud of when it comes to our own retirement? Can we talk about our organisations being a valuable part of the life of our communities, locally, nationally or internationally? That value can be as a source of employment but equally as an example or role model of how we should work with people in organised situations to achieve our commons goals. We are all CSR leads in 2015: corporate social responsibility has gone mainstream.

Of course, the character of where I live is influenced only in a tiny way by the conker tree in my garden. But it isn’t the only tree on this road or in this town. Collectively the trees in this area are an enormous influence on the local character and community and the same is true of organisations. Collectively, employing organisations are a massive part of the world we live in and have an impact on the life of every person. It is right to think about not only what we want that impact to be today, but also what we want it to be in the years ahead.


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