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Podcast: Finding your career path in sustainability

By Fiona Place, Group Head of Sustainability, Hays

As organisations place greater importance on sustainability and the practises that come with it, there are more and more opportunities for candidates to carve out a career in this field. Whether you’re an experienced specialist or even someone looking to transition into the sector, companies are on the lookout for passionate people.

Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Hays’ very own Fiona Place, who is Head of Sustainability in the global team. Over the past 14 years, Fiona’s advised a range of organisations on sustainability from those in the private and public sectors to NGOs. She now works at Hays on our Net Zero journey and ESG.

1. Could you tell us a little bit about what your current role at Hays involves and what brought you here?

(1:17) Absolutely. I joined Hays, actually, just back in March, as you say, as the Global Head of Sustainability. Effectively, that means that I look at setting the strategy for the group to define the actions that we undertake on environment, social, and governance factors as they relate to sustainability, and how we communicate our progress.

It’s been a bit of a winding journey to get to this point. I started in the field, really around about 20 years ago, initially working in the emerging field of what was then ecotourism, and early-stage corporate responsibility programmes, effectively, providing individuals with the opportunity to contribute to humanitarian and conservation projects through the projects that businesses were funding.

That sparked my curiosity in the field of sustainability, and I read for a Master’s at Exeter University, graduating in 2008. Whether it was unfortunate or fortunate, it coincided with the Lehman Brothers financial crash, I’d say it was fairly timely because it generated a massive increase in the number of companies looking to understand the risks posed by various environmental, social, and geopolitical externalities to their business. That means, basically, their own operations but also the supply chains on which they depend for goods and services.

At that point, I joined a risk advisory firm, Verisk Maplecroft, where I had the opportunity to set up the risk analytics team, and then, as a result of engagement with a rapidly growing client base, moved into leading the client relationship management team. I spent about just over four years in that role, and I was sort of eager to get my hands dirty again and start problem-solving again for clients. So, I joined another start-up and thesis group, there are about 30 of us to start with, there are now some 800-plus employees and growing by the day. That gave me a lot of experience of working across multiple touch-points, everything from carbon management to responsible procurement, and luckily, the emerging field of ESG.

I also got exposed to a range of different companies, different clients, and also a lot of colleagues within the business with different technical backgrounds, and also business experience. This led me, really, to then explore working a little bit more in the Human Rights field with ELEVATE Limited and also with the Capitals Coalition, an organisation working to encourage businesses, institutions, financial institutions, and the government to include a perspective on the failure of natural capital, as well as social and human capital in their decision making.

I’ve had a very sort of broad range of experiences, I’d definitely say that I’m more of a sustainability generalist, but that has its advantages in joining a company like Hays, and that came about through Paul Gosling, who’s now the lead for the newly created Sustainability Specialism. We’ve remained contact on and off for over seven years, following my initial placement with thesis, and as soon as this role became available, we engaged in a conversation.

2. Fantastic, and generally, would you say it’s fair to say that your career is a typical example of a career in sustainability? If there is such a thing, of course.

(5:04) Very good question. I’d say that it’s a very rapidly evolving field, it changes literally from month to month. As a consequence, many of my peers in the industry have joined it from many different directions. In fact, you’re unlikely to meet any two individuals who pursued the same career trajectory.

Mine is fairly heavily influenced by working in the advisory sector, but I know a number of individuals who’ve effectively had to adopt the sustainability mantle as an extension of their day role. I think we only have to look at Karen Young in the UK as a great example, who is working on sustainability as an extension of her formal role.

In fact, I was also speaking to someone who works in venture capital just a couple of weeks ago, and her story is a really interesting one. She originally entered as a recent graduate into a communications consultancy, where effectively they started working on some sustainability reporting for a company, which led to her, actually, then moving into a role raising investment for solar energy. She didn’t feel, however, that the organisation was a good cultural fit.

So, she actually joined what is known as Octopus Ventures in a sales role while she was actually reading for a law degree, thinking that she might actually move into human rights, given the little bit of exposure that she’d had to sustainability in that communications role. She actually met the Co-CEO of Octopus Ventures, who observing her interest in sustainability and her clear willingness to an appetite for continuous learning, asked whether she wanted to look at integrating ESG into early-stage companies as part of their wider investment remit and commitment to developing responsible companies, and she basically sort of has jumped at the chance.

A lot of it has been about learning on the job, but actually, she articulated to me that really, that’s been very good because actually, with the limited knowledge that she has, it’s enabled her to think more creatively about the way in which she develops her approach to ESG. And I just thought that was a really great illustration of one of the possible routes into sustainability, she didn’t actually intentionally approach it as a career choice, but I think what we’re seeing is more and more individuals moving into the field by sort of, sidestepping from their day roles, and then picking up and running with the opportunity.

3. It seems clear that there’s lots of elements to sustainability. It is something that’s evolving all the time. Just so we’re clear for our listeners, could you give a bit of an overview by what we mean by sustainability?

(8:14) Yes. The formal definition is that sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and that comes from the Brundtland Report back in 1987. More often than not, actually, sustainability is applied as an umbrella term of doing good.

But we also see this emerging term ESG, and that’s a bit more specific because it stands for environmental, social, and governance. In practise, it sets specific criteria to evaluate how far companies are on sustainability, originally with a view to integrating these considerations into the investment process, but now really seen as a bellwether for the overall performance on ESG and it’s really designed to help businesses identify what are the most significant ESG issues for a business, i.e. those likely to impact shareholder value and long term sustainability of the business itself.

ESG is now being seen as synonymous with sustainability and is a strong sort of indication of how the terms relating to this field are evolving. But I think we should be mindful to not forget what is at the core of sustainability, and not to dilute or lose that term.

I think also practically speaking, as a candidate, that means that you’ll be looking to understand what sort of employer you’re going to be working for, or the type of employer you want to work for, and the nature of the company’s commitments on sustainability. Does it have a social and environmental conscience? Can they demonstrate that they’re a fair and inclusive employer that represents some champions, a diverse cross-section of society? Does the business understand how the climate will impact its future operations and is it responding according to meet those needs of the market as well as the employees?

4. You gave a couple of great examples of how people have built careers in the field, including yourself. Turning back to careers in the sector, what type of companies, or what sort of roles and what sort of people work in sustainability, just to give us a better idea?

(10:50) Yeah. I think first and foremost, I just want to say to everyone, this is not about roles that are limited to FTSE 100, 250, 350 companies, or Fortune 500, nor is it limited to specialist activities within individual companies. Sustainability is a global issue, it affects everyone and therefore extends to all sectors, and all types and sizes of organisation, including both public and private.

So, what you find really is that there are a number of different entry points, you can go in-house. I have limited experience of that; in fact, joining Hays is the first time that I’ve worked in-house, but I very much wanted to see how sustainability delivery works, if you like, on the shop floor. You can go into an individual business in-house as a technical specialist; for example, environmental managers work to operationalise, say a Net Zero, or Carbon Reduction Strategy, working at the building or facility level with landlords to actually reduce emissions. Or you might have ESG analysts, who work for a large financial firm to help analyse and inform investment decision-making, so there are a number of pathways for going in-house to an organisation. There’s also the opportunity to work in the advisory sector, or is better referred to consultancies.

So, that could be anything from one of the big four, like PWC, EY, for example, or it could be specialist sustainability consultancies, whether that’s Anthesis who I worked for, South Pole, or any number of other organisations, and that’s about designing and delivering on specific strategies that you develop for your clients. There’s also an interesting area around contractors and outsourced areas, for example, with Balfour Beatty. They need to employ solar installers, and equally civil and process engineers who are working on aspects of green buildings design and so this is a sort of rapidly growing field, and one that Hays is looking to work with more directly. Then, we also have third party, public sector organisations, so local authorities have been doing a lot of work to develop their own Net Zero carbon plans, and now looking at actually how they activate those plans, and what they need to put into practise on the ground.

So, I think maybe just some examples of some of the placements that we’ve made recently at Hays would be useful to illustrate this point. We appointed a Head of Sustainability for Hogan Lovells, which is a top ten global law firm. We’ve also recruited an Energy Manager for Iceland Foods, one of these technical specialists. More broadly appointing a Sustainability Manager to the University of Wolverhampton and then, we’ve also looked at a flood risk hydrologist for RPS because sustainability crosses many different environmental, social, and governance needs.

So, that’s just a sample of the types of roles out there, and I think it’s just also important to say that based on the wide range of individuals I’ve worked with, I’d say across the board with no exception, we tend to be very passionate about the subject. We’re also fairly collegiate in approach, wanting to collaborate to come up with solutions because this is about evolving needs. It’s a fast and rapidly changing area with lots of policy shifts that businesses need to respond to rapidly. So, it also requires that creative thinking, and I think most importantly, individuals who are keen to make a lasting impact.

5. There are different areas, sectors, and roles you can focus on, but for anyone that’s listening that might be interested in this field, are there any consistent key skills and experience that someone in this sector would need?

(15:33) Yes. I think traditionally when we think of kind of environmental management, we think of individuals with deep subject matter expertise, technical expertise, traditionally like looking at contaminated land or flood risk or otherwise. But that really has broadened out in particular over the last ten or so years, and there are plenty of roles where you need that ability to assimilate that technical information but you don’t necessarily need to be the technical expert. So, it’s about applying the insights from your assessments and finding a practical way of taking action.

I think there are sort of probably four key areas for me. One is demonstrating a natural curiosity, a willingness to learn on the job, and hunger for continuing professional development, whether that’s through formal channels or informal channels, certainly demonstrating initiative, being willing to actively problem solve, to think creatively about the types of solutions that are appropriate for your organisation, or the organisation or client that you’re working with.

As I say, it’s good to have some technical skills, where you’ve got a good grasp of Excel, Power BI, etc., and/or the ability to interpret the results and outputs from such analysis. There is a fair amount of data collection and crunching required in the world of sustainability, given the often needing to not just set targets, but then measure the progress of an organisation working towards those targets, and also the ability then to make recommendations on the actions that organisations should undertake. But those are skills that you can acquire in the role. I don’t think you necessarily need to come into the role with those skills; it’s this kind of willingness to show initiative, be curious, and learn on the job.

Linked to that, obviously, then is being people-oriented, both in terms of having that ability to work with colleagues within the organisation, but I think also recognising that there is a risk that people in sustainability speak into an echo chamber. So, you do need the skills and willingness to engage people who might not necessarily share your views, maybe more sceptical, or may just simply not have the baseline knowledge, and therefore, time and investment needs to be made to up-skill and educate those individuals over time.

6. Great, thank you. The green economy is growing in importance and in size, which is great to see, but where do you see sustainability specialists fitting into the wider green economy?

(18:35) This is an interesting area because I don’t think you necessarily need to be a sustainability specialists, per se, to contribute to greening the economy. Many of the examples that I’ve just given around, sort of in-house sustainability specialists, are a small part of a much bigger universe. So most of the actual implementation around sustainability impacts on people that wouldn’t necessarily consider their role to be in sustainability.

An example that I really like is around green design. What we mean by this is that the whole time products are being designed, redesigned, finessed, and increasingly, what you’re seeing is that those design teams are looking at and analysing how a product is not only made but the full lifecycle of that product – how it’s going to be used and how it’s going to be disposed of, and whether there are actually opportunities there for improving the recyclability up-cycling of the product when it reaches the end of its life.

So, good example is Jaguar, who’ve taken a whole approach to getting their product design teams to actually think about not just how you assemble that product, and the durability of their vehicles, but how they can actually be taken apart at the end of their life and all of the components recycled in some shape or form, whether it’s the metal, the plastic, the content of the batteries, and otherwise. So, that’s a really good example where you might not initially be thinking that you’re going into an industry with a view to contributing to sustainability, but it is actually imbedded within the role.

We also see this with respect to construction, where builders and architects are working to retrofit existing buildings to optimise the energy efficiency, the water consumption, all of that is leading to ensuring that those buildings are more sustainable. But it’s not necessarily seen that it’s a sustainability specialist that is required for that role extends to things like solar panel installers, manufacturing personnel, and others working across industries as well. I think it’s just important to remind ourselves that, as I say, you don’t need to have this prior experience. It may be that your skills are actually applicable to the green economy sector without you necessarily having had to train in a sustainability specialism.

7. What job hunting tips would you give to someone either at the start of their working life or someone who is looking to transition into a sustainability role?

(21:48) I think, first and foremost, think about your passions, your interests and align with these. What are you motivated by? Is it people? Is it our environment? Those are the sort of most important considerations, particularly, as I alluded to earlier, that a lot of people in this sector really want to generate an impact.

I think, also, it’s important to not expect your first job to be the perfect fit, but give it a go nevertheless. We saw that in the earlier example, talking about Octopus Ventures, and I think, look for opportunities within the organisations you’re working for, think about your transferable skills, and give it a go because working on any aspects of sustainability, as I say, is very much about kind of learning on the job thinking creatively.

It’s not an easy process to transition a career, so you may also want to consider which courses or professional bodies you can join to learn from, and I would also say, crucially: network, network, network! Just talk to people about the types of roles that they’re doing, about the experiences that they’ve had within those roles, what they’ve learnt, what they’ve drawn on, who they follow. I think there’s a lot to be gained just by building that external network of individuals and LinkedIn is as good a platform as sort of attending local events in person. So, there are lots of different kinds of forums for that networking.

8. What do you think are the common trends or hot topics in sustainability?

(23:41) As I said, there’s a lot going on, there’s constant sort of policy developments that we need to keep up with a lot of frameworks and standards that businesses are now expected to adhere to, albeit largely on a voluntary base. A lot of that is going to be mandated by individual governments. There’s a lot of work in the EU at the moment, but there’s also formations of new standards boards who are looking at consolidating the reporting requirements for businesses. But that does mean that there’s going to be a constant need for more professionals in this sector to support businesses to disclose on their activities.

I think it’s also key for us to recognise that there’s a need to collaborate with a range of partners in order to develop the solutions to these very significant sustainability challenges. Giving considerations to businesses, not just working in isolation, either working with peers or cross-industry or even looking to other groups, whether that’s your local authority, the district that you work within. Looking at community groups with whom you can collaborate, not-for-profits, academic organisations, to come together to try and find some of the solutions to these big challenges.

We’re also seeing an increased focus on looking at how you measure the impacts that an organisation has on society. That’s another fast-evolving area is often caged in terms of measuring your social value, your social responsibility, links back to really your licence to operate within a community or across communities as a business, and I think we’re going to see a big push there to actually measure your impact and the outcomes of your activities rather than simply stating how many people are involved in delivering a community project annually, what is the wider value that’s been generated for society, or the natural world as a whole.

The “S” is also growing with respect to looking at the labour and workforce itself to understand how we can better support those areas. When you hear about ESG, there’s been a lot of focus on the environment traditionally, but the social element is really now coming to the fore with a lot of initiatives, pushing for better disclosure and transparency on the actions that businesses are taking.

And then, I think, there’s a final element really, which is that we need to sort of consider the next big global issue. There’s a lot of work on climate change and carbon reduction for obvious reasons. There’s been a strong emphasis on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, but we also see topics now starting to really emerge around things like water security, which has that direct correlation to climate change. I think we have to continue to retain an international outlook, to understand how these challenges can be addressed collectively.

So, yeah, those are some of the sort of emerging trends but as I say, almost sort of changes week by week, and the World Economic Forum with their annual disclosure on global risks is a really good place to look to understand how that emphasis is changing from year to year.

9. We know firsthand from job candidates that ESG and sustainability are becoming increasingly important to job seekers and it’s often a key consideration for many when they’re looking at potential employers. Do you have any tips on how professionals can assess an organisation’s commitment in this area?

(27:54) I would suggest that probably, one of the best starting points is just have a look at their website, see what they’re actually disclosing within the website around their commitments, and also, importantly, their actions. So, what action have they undertaken and is that reported through a dedicated sustainability report or impact report? Is it integrated within their annual report? What information is actually available to you through that platform?

It’s also good to actually understand how a business ranks against their peers or an organisation. The World Benchmarking Alliance produces a number of different platforms, like the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark. They’ve just released another recently on the financial sector, and are working on a biodiversity benchmark as well. So, those give you useful insights in terms of the governance within a business, the management actions they are undertaking, the work they’re doing with their employees, and also those wider commitments to the broader stakeholder base.

I think there’s some interesting platforms like Climate 100 that you can look at which, again, lists companies that the broader community is looking or monitoring for their action on climate change, and looking at how quickly they are responding to those external requirements is another good measure of the degree to which they are taking sustainability topics seriously. But I think really, most critically, Jon, the key point here is to ask to talk to other employees within the organisation and get a sense from them around what the business is doing, how committed it is, how engaged the employees are, what the opportunities for involvement are, and how this is really shaping and contributing to the overall future direction of the company itself.

We’re doing so much remotely now that I still think there’s a real role to ask to make a visit to the organisation if you are serious about accepting a role in order to really sort of get a sense and feel for what they are doing. So, yeah, talking to other employees, for me would be probably the number one tip.

10. I’ll finish now with our regular closing question, which is to do with advice. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers, what would that be? If that is related to sustainability, even better.

(31:00) For me, it’s network, network, network. That is the way that you’re going to understand what types of skills are needed in the market. It gives you the opportunity to understand what platforms there are for continuous development and learning and it also crucially, enables you to build relationships with individuals working within the sector. Sustainability and ESG is still a relatively small space, so you come across the same people who are moving into different roles and kind of moving around the sector, but it’s also a very kind of, as I say, collegiate environment, so people are always willing to make referrals or to provide you with advice on either career options, opportunities that they’re coming across, or just to share their general knowledge as you work to try and tackle some of these solutions. For me, that’s probably a good starting point.

I’ve had people reaching out to me through LinkedIn, just saying, “Could you give me 15 minutes of your time. I’m working within the procurement team within the organisation, but I know that we need to do something around looking at the security of our supply chains, looking at the type of labour that’s involved, and I really want to take this on as a role and develop the responsible sourcing programme. How do I go about that?”

I think you’ll find that really, people in the industry are willing to share their experience and their knowledge and as I say, kind of make these referrals. So, I think, that piece on networking is central.

About this author

Fiona Place is Head of Sustainability in the global team. Over the past 14 years, Fiona’s advised a range of organisations on sustainability from those in the private and public sectors to NGOs. She now works at Hays on our Net Zero journey and ESG.

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