Charity Careers: meet Chris Oak of SPANA, the Society For The Protection Of Animals Abroad

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Welcome back to Charity Careers, in which freelance writer Nicola Greenbrook invites key influencers in the charity sector to share their career story and how they navigate the professional world. We discover what they've learned along the way, what motivates them to get up in the morning and what their dream breakfast might look like when they do...

Kicking us off for 2020, Nicola was delighted to chat to Chris Oak, Associate Director - HR and Facilities for Society For The Protection Of Animals Abroad (SPANA) about his career, keeping your perspective, why he bounces out of bed in the mornings, giving back to the community, and an extraordinary commitment to Doctor Who

Hi Chris. Please tell us a little bit more about SPANA and its mission?

Put most simply, we believe any working animal is entitled to live a life free from pain. We facilitate this in a number of ways; free veterinary care, veterinary training (in some of the countries where we operate veterinarians receive no hands-on training whilst studying) community training and education programmes. The cornerstone of our work is the three ‘T’s - treat, train, teach. 


What are you responsible for?

My role encompasses the full range of HR-related functions; looking after selection/recruitment/on-boarding, appraisal and one-to-ones, Learning and Development, organisation design, policies and procedures, support and business partnering for managers and disciplinary and grievance management.

I provide support on teams and structures to the senior management team, advice to trustees on HR related matters and off-boarding and exit interviews. I also lead on all IT and premises-related aspects of SPANA which includes, room and desk allocation and IT projects. We’re currently out to tender for an integrated IT service that would include IT, telephony, printing, video conferencing and connectivity across our countries of operation.


Is there a particular appeal or campaign you're focusing on in 2020?

• Blindness - Every year, SPANA vets treat thousands of working animals facing sight loss.

• Traditional practices - From pouring engine oil into an open wound to pressing scorching hot irons onto a working animal’s skin, traditional ‘cures’ seem barbaric. But owners that carry them out are trying to treat their animals in the only way they know how.

• Lameness - Lameness is misery for thousands of working animals and is most commonly caused by problems in the feet. This suffering could be avoided with a simple solution – proper farriery.


Where and how did you start your career? Were there any key roles along the way that helped your progression to Director?

I began my career in Leisure Management, where I continued to work for 26 years in a variety of roles for a variety of employers. During this time I worked as a Manager, Deputy Manager, Gym Manager, coach and Personal Trainer, Marketing Manager and Sales Manager. I’ve also worked as a lecturer in PE, done youth work and was the Records Library Manager at University College Hospital.


Had you planned to move into the charity sector?

It wasn’t always my intention, but I’ve always been drawn to work where I feel I can make a difference to the lives of others. When I saw the (then-advertised) HR Manager role at SPANA and read the JD, I was very interested, especially when I read further into what the charity did. Although, admittedly, I hadn't heard of SPANA before then, having experience and a background in various forms of education meant I was very interested in the work SPANA does in that field.


What advice would you give to, for example, graduates considering a move into charity or emerging leaders about to make their first leap into management or a director role?

To graduates I'd say the most important thing is not so much their passion for the charity’s work but rather the role and its main purpose. Being excited about the work of the charity is the icing on the cake; but first and foremost must always be the ability to do the job. 
For emerging leaders - I’d always say, think of the additional responsibility that comes with moving into management. If you’re taking on team leadership for the first time, ensure you've gained skills in both management and leadership; so you can move beyond technical competency in your current area and towards being skilled at getting the best out of others. 
Similarly, for moving into a director-based role - there’s always a need for the ability to take the bird’s eye strategic view of the team and the organisation. As people move up the ladder, another key skill is the ability to effectively collaborate with colleagues at all levels and move beyond straight hierarchical methods of managing.



What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, who gave it and why does it stick in your mind? 

Keep your perspective. I can’t remember exactly who said this, but I think it was one of the senior youth workers I worked with when I first started in that field. It sticks in my mind because I so often see - and have occasionally been dragged into the trap of - trying to do everything every day. We should always strive to do the best we can and help others achieve their best…but the world won’t end if the things we selected to do today don’t get done! 

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

Bringing other managers to a point where they can recognise their own responsibility as managers, so HR can evolve into the business partnering role it should be; advising colleagues and moving away from being mostly a reactive service.

What’s the best/most rewarding part?

Seeing people flourish and moving on to new ways of working that engage a wider audience. Bringing change to the people element of the charity.


What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career?

Of all time, it was building children’s holiday activity programmes when I used to work in the leisure industry. In one case we started with no programme and no children, building up to a maximum of 130 children per day offering activities for children aged 5 – 16 years every holiday. 
At SPANA, I think it’s been the introduction of a more focused HR function taking control of a wide range of activities. In my past three roles (all new HR roles for growing organisations) it's been establishing HR as a standalone provision with a purpose, beyond ensuring the admin functions it was originally envisaged for are delivered.


Who do you look up to - either in the charity sector or more generally?

Very few and very many people! I think we can all take inspiration from the work of almost anyone around us - and should do this. Looking only at the top of the mountain sometimes obscures the great views to be obtained on the slopes. 
If I had to choose just one, I’d lean towards Richard Branson - more for his support for the development of all of his staff. As for a quote to live by I’d probably go for Charlie Chaplin: 'Life laughs at you when you are unhappy. Life smiles at you when you are happy. But, life salutes you when you make others happy’.


Let's finish with some quick lifestyle questions: are you a snoozer or a spring-out-of-bedder?

My alarm goes off at 6.00am - and I’m a spring-out-of-bedder! I almost always get up immediately and most days go out for a morning run in the park behind my house.

What's your dream breakfast (and your actual breakfast?) 
Dream breakfast is either scrambled egg and smoked salmon or a full fry up. Most days I actually have either cereal, or boiled eggs with croissants. In either case it is always washed down with a large glass of water (I’m not a tea or coffee drinker).

Is there such a thing as your typical day?
NO such thing! Much of the work is reactive and unpredicted as I tend to spend quite a lot of time giving support and advice to managers in meetings, which I see as a key part of my role. I deal with organisational matters (payroll, pensions, benefit management etc.) as well as the usual bundle of ‘vital’ emails that arrive every day.

What gets you out of bed in the morning, even when it’s cold and raining?
I love the morning even if it is cold, dark and wet! I’ve always seen this as a magical time of day when it feels everything is made new ready for us. As a reflection of this, I’ll soon be launching a new activity for people in my local community called ‘Spirit Walks’. 
This will be held either at sunrise or sunset and once a month throughout the year, providing the opportunity for gentle contemplative walks in our park and to greet either sunrise or sunset with prayers, poems or reading that feel apposite. This will be open to everyone and free; part of what I consider to be my service to the community.

What are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment?
I don’t really do podcasts but I was watching Grimm recently. I’m a fan of Death In Paradise as well as Doctor Who (I’ve seen all of them in real time except the very first one, with William Hartnell as the Doctor!). I’m reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman as well as Marathon by Hal Higdon (I’ll be running two marathons and an ultra-marathon this year).

What else do you do outside work?
Lots of exercise has always been a key part of my ‘off work’ time, as well as community work. I served as chair of my local residents’ group for five years, organising various activities during that time. 
I'm also an active member of my faith; I am Baha’i (a religion teaching the essential worth of all religions, and the unity and equality of all people) and have served the faith in a number of capacities over the years.

And finally, what have you committed to do (or not do!) in 2020? 
As above, two marathons and one ultra-marathon (50 miles from Glasgow to Edinburgh) so far. I’ll be doing a couple of half-marathons too. I’m also committed to my monthly Spirit Walks as well as the free walks I lead in my local park every Saturday for all people which encompasses gentle walking with a range of functional exercises. 
Aside from that, I’ll also be trying to complete my second novel, a children’s story - I’m yet to find a publisher for my first children’s novel, but the search continues…


Sounds like a very busy year for you, Chris! We wish you all the very best with your many endeavours, and thank you for taking the time to share your story and career insights with our readers.

Nicola Greenbrook - HR Specialist and Freelance Writer
Contact Nicola, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter - and to find out more about SPANA just click below to visit their website.

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