Dave and a bunch of volunteers can teach us a few things about team work!

I remember the day I first met Dave. I was trying out environmental volunteering for the first time. There was snow on the group. I was wearing so many layers to keep the cold out that I was sweating!

I couldn’t stay for long that day but I knew I wanted to come back. And I did. Over and over again.

It was surprising how quickly I felt part of this group of people who came out week after week in all sorts of weather to make the world a better place for humans and creatures.

Together we’ve built otter holts, made kingfisher tunnels, planted trees and bulbs, replaced picnic benches and laid hedges. It’s not glamorous work. It’s usually physically hard work. It’s often dirty work and can be very wet, cold or hot.

Through doing this work I have been introduced to beautiful places in my local area that I never knew existed.

Dave was one of the people I met that first day. He was in his 80’s and proud to be both the oldest of the volunteers (over 30 years older than the youngest) and the longest serving – having been an environmental volunteer for over 20 years.


Fast forward over 3 years later.

Last week I found myself with about 20 other volunteers as we came together at Dave’s funeral to say our goodbyes to him.

During the funeral I thought a lot about him, what a lovely man he was. I thought about this group, and all the many years he had been volunteering. At 85 years old he was still working as a volunteer up until just over a month before he died!

So, what is it that makes this a team that people want to be a part of for such a long time? Over the years I have been part of many teams in different work roles and settings. Most haven’t been anywhere near as good a team as – one of the best I have been a part of.


When thinking about what makes a good team there are many definitions bandied around. I think this one is particularly useful.

A team is: a group of people who do collective work and are mutually committed to a common team purpose and challenging goals related to that purpose.

This is how Dave and the others have made this bunch of volunteers into a great team:


1. Learning from each other. When I first started volunteering I really was a newbie! I had barely done any outdoor physical work before. The others were very accepting of my initial poor skills and physical strength and never made me feel bad about it. I was keen to learn and they were happy to tea

ch me and share their experience with me and teach me what they knew. Respecting age and experience is so important within our group.


2. Understand we are all here for different reasons. You might think we all volunteer because we share a commitment to the environment. Not so. Some of the volunteers come every week because they enjoy the fun and the company. Some because they want to keep active and fit, and love being outdoors. Others because being in nature gives a sense of wellbeing. And of course, some are committed to making a difference to the environment. Whatever motivates individual volunteers is great but it’s when we come together as a team that magic happens!


3. Working together for a joint outcome. As volunteers we don’t often get thanked by the public for what we do. But we still do it. Why is this? It’s because we get a great sense of satisfaction in working together in completing a task. That through our hard work there is now a new picnic table and bench in that wood. Or that we have improved the habitat for invertebrates. But what makes this team work so well is how we all use our varied skills to pull together to fulfil the task for that day.


4. Valuing all contributions. Within tasks we have all different abilities and skills. Some do a lot of the heavy lifting. That’s all okay. Together we all get the task done. There is no competition within this group – we accept that some people are more able for certain tasks, but we all contribute in different ways. We take it turns to dig, for example, and someone else will offer to take over if it looks like someone is tiring. No one says “look at me – I made that kingfisher tunnel” because it’s just not possible to do it alone.


5. Having a leader who respects age and experience. Our tasks are led by an ecologist who is quite a bit younger than the oldest of the volunteers. It takes a particular person to manage a group many of whom are almost 40 years older than you. Many managers would feel threatened by the age differences and greater experience. Alternatively, people often think that people lose their knowledge and skills as they age. They could talk down to the volunteers, alienating them and their knowledge and skills. Our ecologist explains the task and the desired outcome and then gives a rough outline of what is needed. He doesn’t micromanage. He leaves us to it. He then does the quality control bit when inevitably we need to make some adjustments!

6. Making 11am a special breaktime. We get the shout at 11am to down tools and stop and have a cup of tea. Our ecologist makes our drinks by heating water on a fire in a camping kettle, and homemade cake is shared out – courtesy of a volunteer’s wife. A cup of tea outdoors tastes really special even if it is in a plastic cup! Having it made for you on a fire is also special. During the breaks people sit and talk or enjoy some quiet time enjoying nature. Having a tea break when everyone stops at the same builds relationships within the team and gives everyone the chance to catch up with others.


7. Having fun and listening to each other. Laughter is something you will hear a lot of at our tasks. That and stories about the past, and discussions about topical issues. Sometimes there are heated debates! People don’t take themselves too seriously – there is a lot of joking around. People do though remember what is happening in each other’s lives and ask about it. They care.


Dave loved to tell a story and I loved to listen to his stories. Thanks Dave for your stories, friendship and all that you’ve taught me.


What have you found makes a team great?



Adelle Shaw-Flach is Director of The Sweet Potato Consultancy – and works strategically with businesses to reduce the cost to people and business of workplace stress and mental health.

More information can be found on: www.thesweetpotatoconsultancy.com

Get in touch with me on-  adelle@thesweetpotatoconsultancy.com

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