In the second of a series of articles to celebrate successful women in trees, I pose some questions to Lesley Adams, one of the highly respected principal consultants of Symbiosis Consulting Ltd in Leicestershire. Lesley is a Fellow member and a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters, amongst other things.

As if this isn’t enough, Lesley is a working mother to two girls, wife to Tim, an active supporter of Fund4Trees (Ride for Research), and an avid forager, preserver and baker.

Why are you an arborist? What attracted you to arboriculture?

I grew up in the south of England during the height of the Dutch elm disease epidemic in the mid-1970s and saw hundreds of majestic trees die. We lived in a house affected by subsidence after the 1976 drought and during that year we lost a sycamore to sooty bark. All these events happened while I was still in primary school but it had a big impact on me and made me acutely aware of the value of trees.

At a time when there were few career opportunities in conservation, I thought tree surgery was more about ‘healing’ trees than large dismantling with chainsaws! I didn’t really find out about the more physical aspects of the job until after I’d decided that tree surgery was the job for me.

I’m really happy to say that as my career in arboriculture has progressed, so has the arboricultural industry. There has been a move away from heavy pruning and removal of what were seen as imperfect or diseased trees, towards a more holistic approach, encompassing tree care and management in the wider context for biodiversity. It is now more likely that large old trees will be retained rather than felled, which was more the norm in the early days of my career.

As I grew up, I loved being outdoors and couldn’t imagine a job in an office environment. Luckily for me, my parents positively encouraged me to find out more about arboriculture and were really supportive when I decided to apply for pre-college jobs at the age of 16, enabling me to start my arboricultural training at the earliest opportunity.

Can you summarise the challenges you faced in establishing your success?

I met a few people with entrenched ideas and closed minds but these were mostly from outside of the industry; those within the arboricultural world were almost always kind, encouraging and supportive of my aspirations. I think my own naivety in the early days actually helped me.

I had difficulties at college convincing some of my tutors that I wanted to pursue a career in the private sector. I think that there was an assumption then that I’d take up a public sector position once qualified and experienced but I really wanted to be working independently.

I faced a few challenges with clients’ and members’ perception of me once I became a tree officer at the age of 23, having just passed my Professional Diploma. However, I firmly believe these perceptions were more to do with my age than my gender. At the time, I fell into the trap of feeling that I needed to explain my background experience and qualifications. I’m happy to say that with experience, these type of issues seem to have fallen away or perhaps I don’t notice them anymore! Occasionally, I’d receive a call and they might ask to speak to the ‘forester’ and I had to persist in explaining that I was not there to take the message but was there to assist. Usually, people would apologise once they’d realised what they had said but I always saw that as a bit of an ice-breaker.

What is your most challenging memory about being an arborist?

I found my middle-year college placement quite tough; I had been accepted on the BTEC diploma course at Merrist Wood with previous experience in the nursery industry, combined with a short course in climbing, so my first year at college was a bit of a challenge. I hadn’t really mastered climbing, needed to develop my skills further and often felt way behind the lads on my course.

Thankfully, the 1987 storm gave me an opportunity to gain experience, working as a self-employed climber developing my skills at my own pace with a team of like-minded people. There was a great deal of work around at the time, coupled with a buoyant economy, so many of the teams working in the south-east would share work and I would be given some of the more delicate jobs to complete.

In hindsight, I think that the arboricultural teams I worked with found having a woman on the team a bit of a challenge too. They hadn’t had a woman working with them before so we all had to work out new ways of progressing between us and then move on to get the job done.

Who were your early role models/best supporters and why?

Of course the first person who springs to mind as a supporter is Jack Kenyon. He always knew how to get the best out of you when you were having a crisis of confidence as well as delivering his knowledge with a healthy dose of humour, which was really an essential part of my own approach to individual success.

Early role models for me were Jeremy Barrell and Simon Jones who I had been lucky enough to work with on a job before I left school. I had a week of work experience with a local AA Approved Contractor who Jeremy and Simon were working for. They were very kind and supportive (and I was a very shy 16 year old). I was so pleased to meet them again six years later in 1988, the first time I attended the AA Conference.,/p>

Ian Keen, who employed me as a surveyor, was a very important mentor for me as well. He was always very generous with his time to discuss any aspects of our work, particularly while I was studying for my Professional Diploma, which I took in 1990.

Roy Finch was also a great role model. He, like Ian Keen, was also patient and generous with his time. I often had questions when I was first working on my own as a consultant and would phone him for advice.

Lesley, Moray Simpson and Russell Ball participating in a Ride4Research event

Who do you now admire most in arboriculture and why?

There is a long list for many different reasons but these are my top ones.

Lesley taking off-screen catapult instructions from Claus Mattheck.

Of course I need to mention Alex Shigo as his work underpinned so much of my early education in arboriculture.

In a similar vein, there is Claus Mattheck, who over the years has taught me better observational skills. His delivery of new ideas helps me as I’m mathematically challenged! Also, happily for me; he taught me to shoot with a catapult a few years ago, which is great fun!

I really admire many of the women in the industry that I now count amongst my friends.

People such as Tracy Clarke, Sharon Hosegood, Jo Ryan and Helen Kirk who are consummate professionals working in the field of consultancy. Also, I admire you, Lisa, having established yourself as an effective educator and now developing your niche with The Training Tree. Having high-profile women like you and others makes the industry accessible to all and I hope that young women looking for a career path see the industry as open, accessible and diverse.

What are the other secrets to your success?

Top of the list is a good sense of humour; I just wouldn’t have been able to progress without it. I am quite a determined person and enjoy healthy competition. I always strive to improve on the last report or the last job that leaves the office. Over the years I think I’ve developed humility as I’ve gained experience.

What is your proudest career moment?

In 1999 receiving the news that I’d become the first woman to achieve Arboricultural Association Registered Consultant status. This is something I’d aspired to since leaving Merrist Wood in 1986.

What do you do now?

First and foremost I am Mum to my two daughters aged 14 and 11, and having children has changed my life enormously in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before they were born.

Lesley and her family relaxing at home

Since 1999, when we formed Symbiosis Consulting Ltd, I have been working alongside Mick Boddy. When we formed the company we agreed that we would keep it small and strive to provide the highest quality arboricultural consultancy services to our clients.

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

I would like to continue to work as I do now, providing advice to a small number of clients who I have come to know well over the years. I would also like to learn more about landscape history and incorporate this into my work if possible.

Favourite tree?

Beech. There was a small woodland where I used to walk all the time as a teenager where there were many mature beech on either side of an old green lane and I used to go there to think. I love how their grey limbs appear almost human and the way their sinuous roots cling on to steep banks. When the foliage emerges, the soft fuzz on the leaf margins is so uplifting to see in diffused sunlight. When they germinate, the seed leaves are so fat and round and full of potential and so different from the parent plant that they always surprise me.

What advice would you give women entering our industry or trying to progress within it?

Just do it!!

Be professional, be pragmatic in your approach and do not act in haste. You may meet narrow-minded people in your life but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are sexist or that you have no place in the industry. Those people exist everywhere and you may meet them in both your working and personal life but you should just carry on, work hard and do the best you can. Make friends and always find someone to share ideas with; it’s an enormous help.

Teachers love questions (and answers). Lisa Sanderson is a Training Developer and Lecturer for The Training Tree and an Arboricultural Consultant for Ian Keen Limited.