Hi Hannah! So, first of all, you started your career by doing a PhD. What made you go down that route initially?

Well, I always knew I was interested in sustainability and the environment. On the recommendation of one of my teachers, I chose to do a BSc in Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia, and really enjoyed that. It was very modular: you could take lots of different pathways, which I really liked. Towards the end of my degree, I started to focus more on renewable energy. I wanted to be a problem-solver, and I thought, "Energy is this massive, massive issue and I really, really want to work on that."

When I came to apply for jobs again to start my career, I found I didn't need a PhD – but it gave me that start in terms of my professional confidence, and professional maturity, to just go the extra mile in job interviews.

I was due to graduate in 2009, which was not a good time to be looking for a job. But I'd always had in mind that I might want to do a PhD, and then I came across this opportunity in Leeds: it was very multidisciplinary, again with the opportunity to choose lots of different pathways. So I went for it, and got offered a place! A PhD is like a hybrid between a job and studying, and the course I did was really focused on professional skills as well as studying – they wanted us to be well-rounded. We did work placements, presenting, and discussions – things like that.

I never really intended to go into an academic career after the PhD, and that feeling persisted. When I came to apply for jobs again to start my career, I found that a PhD wasn't specifically required for most of them – but it gave me that start in terms of my professional confidence, and professional maturity, to just go the extra mile in job interviews.

That's really interesting: a valuable experience, then. Could you tell me a bit more about your PhD? Was your research part of a bigger project?

Unusually, it wasn't. It was a Doctoral Training Centre (sometimes also called Doctoral Training Partnerships, or DTPs), which is a very interesting PhD model. When my cohort and I started, none of us were attached to particular research teams or projects, so I actually ended up doing a standalone project. It was fairly low-budget, quite theoretical, and involved a lot of interview-based research and some economic modelling, which didn't require a lot of funding.

My project focused on different funding and management models for renewable energy in houses: I looked at the difference between the district heating models (like the municipal model in Germany and Scandinavian countries) and individual solar panels (or micro-generation as it was called then).

It was very multidisciplinary, which is kind of a running theme for me. Part of it was quite focused on economics, and some of it was around the social theory of innovation and choice, as it applies to energy options. So that was what I ended up doing!

So, what did you find out? What was the end product of your PhD?

It was very, very specific, like a lot of PhDs! There was a prevailing theory that people who were more innovative, who were early adopters of technology, would prefer to have their own individual installations on their houses, like solar panels. This theory also suggested that people who were more “small c” conservative in their choices would prefer the municipal energy model, because this required less individual innovation.

However, a lot of that research had taken place outside the UK. I found that in the UK, it was actually the opposite. People who were more cautious about adopting new measures were actually more wary of the municipal model, because they perceived it as something very different from what we're used to in the UK. Owning your own means of energy generation seemed more familiar to people here, because they were used to owning their own boilers, and to them, it was an extension of that. I also did a bit of economic modelling, but the core finding was about people’s innovativeness, and how it relates to their choice of energy generation model.

You've touched a bit on how your experiences at university impacted your career decisions and ambitions — can you say a little more about that?

For me, doing a PhD confirmed that I wanted to work in industry rather than academia. The things that I wanted out of a job were perhaps different: I'm very goal-oriented, and I like seeing clear results. In academia, things can be a lot murkier! You have to be much more patient — and maybe I'm just not that patient!

Did you always want to be a sustainability professional? Or did that career plan emerge as you moved out of your PhD?

When I finished my PhD, I knew I wanted to work in renewable energy, and the PhD had ended up focusing on buildings and houses. I was interested in energy use and energy generation, and I started my career in those areas, through my first role as a Sustainability Consultant at AECOM. This was a technical role, involving energy modelling on new buildings, and then I specialised in feasibility studies for district-level heat generation projects.

I made a sideways move. I’d met a few people who were doing more general corporate sustainability jobs and I thought, “Actually, I think that’s where I want to go.”

I really liked working at AECOM, but at heart, it was an engineering team. My boss even said, "If you want to look at doing some kind of engineering qualification, then perhaps we can think about that in terms of career development," but I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer, and I could see that was the route I would need to go down in order to progress. So instead, I made a sideways move. At that point, I'd met a few people who were doing more general corporate sustainability jobs and I thought, "Actually, I think that's where I want to go."

So you moved from AECOM to a new job as an Environment and Community Coordinator for Hammerson. How did you find the transition?

It was really, really tough. At that time — and it wasn’t even that long ago — there weren't many sustainability roles around, and even fewer junior roles. A lot of people had moved into sustainability from other areas of the company, or they had worked specifically in sustainability consultancy, rather than in the sort of consultancy I'd done.

I applied for lots and lots of jobs, and got rejected loads. I had a few interviews, with no luck – it took me a long time to make that move. Even the job with Hammerson – I didn't get that at first! I came second, and I was absolutely gutted. Then the person who'd accepted the job pulled out, and Hammerson rang me up and offered it to me. I thought, "Yeah, I'm not too proud to be second choice. I'll do it!"

So it took a long time. It was hard. I did take a bit of a pay cut too, but I knew I’d have to accept that to make the transition – it was a strategic move for me.

What did you learn from moving into the real estate and property sector with Hammerson, from buildings and infrastructure at AECOM?

I learned a lot about how companies manage sustainability and environmental compliance across their portfolio. I worked on one site of many, in a very distributed team that was managed centrally from London, and that helped me get a broad understanding of environmental compliance. Environmental compliance sounds quite dry, but because I was doing it on the ground, I could see how it actually works.

I also learned a lot about what it is to be one function of many in a company. When you're in a consultancy, you're all working on very similar things, you're all extremely aligned. But when you're working for a company, there are lots of different people doing lots of different things around you, so it's about prioritising and fitting in, and a little bit about communicating with people who aren't necessarily that interested in sustainability. So you learn how to make it relevant and interesting to them.

That experience must have been useful for your next position, as a Lead Sustainability Adviser with Yorkshire Water?

Yes, it was. That was the first time I got to be part of a central corporate sustainability team, which was really nice. I also got the chance to be involved in lots of little bits of general sustainability, but I specialised in the quantification of our environmental and social impacts. I had reporting responsibility around a lot of our environmental and social goals, and it was really interesting to see how those goals were formulated.

I had a lot of contact with senior management. I developed an understanding of how a senior management team works, how the board works, and how they make decisions.

It was a very technical role in some respects: very number crunchy! But it also had quite a big communications side. There was quite a lot of collaboration, working with industry groups, going down to London for meetings, and going to conferences. It felt like a big step up, I suppose, in terms of how much I was speaking to other people in the industry. I learned loads about the water sector! My boss reported directly to the CEO for quite a long time, so I had a lot of contact with senior management. I developed an understanding of how a senior management team works, how the board works, and how they make decisions. That was really interesting.

That leads us to your current role! Can you tell me a bit about your first role at VetPartners as Sustainability Manager, and your current role as the Head of ESG?

Taking the job as a Sustainability Manager at VetPartners was a bit of a calculated risk! I felt I was going to have to wait quite a long time to take the next step at Yorkshire Water, so I was looking for a manager-level role, and this one came up. It was a one-year contract initially, and as I later learned, they were looking for someone to develop a sustainability strategy for them – ultimately I was made permanent.

VetPartners is a very rapidly growing company, and they were starting to realise that they needed a dedicated sustainability person, as the work couldn’t just be distributed amongst people in other teams. So, I came in to develop a sustainability strategy, and I was going ahead with that. Everything was rolling along quite nicely, and then COVID-19 happened.

COVID-19 gave me a real crash course in how the whole company worked. It was an awful time, but there was also a massive sense of everyone working together.

Because it's a small, close-knit team (or at least it was small in the beginning), everyone got stuck into everything! I wasn't doing my intended job. Because I had a scientific background, I was reading data sheets for hand sanitiser and cleaning products, and communicating with veterinary practices about loaning equipment to the NHS. A lot of veterinary and human medicine is actually the same, and they use a lot of the same kit, like ventilators. So COVID-19 gave me a real crash course in how the whole company worked. It was an awful time, but there was also a massive sense of everyone working together.

We ended up getting the sustainability strategy out later than planned. Part of my role was to look after our charity work and corporate social responsibility (CSR), and that started getting renewed attention, because it was something our employees really cared about. Then the role was made permanent, and I just had too much work on: the company was really investing in everything, including sustainability and charity. So I brought two additional team members on board, which was fantastic, and that helped us do a lot more.

Hannah litter-picking as part of her charity work with VetPartners

At this stage, the company was still growing very fast. That was when my role changed to become Head of ESG, because I was looking at aspects of governance that weren’t just encapsulated by sustainability and CSR. I also took on a bit of extra line management responsibility for some other teams, including the health and safety team. We have a Head of Health and Safety, but I now line manage that role as well, to take some of the pressure off the director.

It’s been an amazing opportunity – I think this is partly due to the fact that the company is moving so quickly. But they're also very good at being flexible, and not overly hierarchical. Instead of saying "Stay in your lane, that's not how we do things," they say "Well, if you can do this and you're willing to take it on, go for it."

Can you talk us through a typical day in your current role? I'm sure it's massively varied.

Very varied, which is how I like it really. Today, for example, we’ve just had the end of National Walking Month, which started out as a charity thing, but ended up becoming about well-being too. So I wrote a Facebook post congratulating everyone on how far we've walked collectively, and how much money we raised for our chosen charity, the Cinnamon Trust. I approved some communications from my team about the rollout of matched funding (we're going to match the charitable donations that people make). Next, I got stuck into a spreadsheet looking at energy consumption across all our sites, then I went to a meeting about how the team is structured. We discussed whether we needed new roles to look at different elements of facilities management, health and safety, and sustainability. We also had a chat about electric vehicles, and whether there might be a scheme we could join to offer discounted electric vehicle leases to colleagues.

So, that's a flavour of how varied the role is! It is challenging to be looking after so many different things, but I really enjoy it. I like doing a little bit of everything.

Was there anything that surprised you when you moved into the veterinary services industry?

Yes – I think what surprised me the most was how engaged the vet sector is with sustainability. There is a genuine enthusiasm! I think to be a successful vet or vet nurse, or any kind of veterinary professional, you have to be quite dynamic and proactive, as that’s just the nature of the job. And obviously, vets and vet nurses care about animals – and quite often that translates into caring about the environment too. They care about wild animals, as well as domestic animals and livestock, so there's a natural link there.

It was like pushing on an open door. That was a refreshing change from some roles I’ve had before, where I really had to bang the drum for sustainability.

I also joined the company in the middle of a massive groundswell of support for sustainability. An organisation called Vet Sustain had relatively recently launched, and it's since gone from strength to strength. So for me, it was like pushing on an open door. There was almost more demand than I could keep up with! That was a refreshing change from some roles I've had before, where I really had to bang the drum for sustainability.

There are many similarities between veterinary and human medicine (Image credit: VetPartners)

Another thing that surprised me was how much similarity there is between veterinary and human medicine. I suppose it should have been obvious, but in terms of the considerations, the challenges and the sustainability aspects of clinical care, there are lots of similarities. Anaesthetic gases, for example: they're very potent greenhouse gases. It hadn't occurred to me that a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions could be inhaled anaesthesia.

Have your priorities shifted over the course of your career?

Yes, definitely. When I was at university, I thought about success in quite a narrow way – I thought, "I want to be at the top and earn lots of money, and be the boss," without really thinking about what that meant, or the importance of being fulfilled in a role.

I have really, really liked managing a team. I’ve found it fulfilling in ways I hadn’t realised I would.

I think as you begin your career, you then realise how important it is to actually enjoy your work – you have to feel fulfilled, and to feel that what you’re doing is in line with your values. Work-life balance is also such an important consideration.

I'm now in the middle of a little bit of a shift, as I’m moving away from the subject matter and technical delivery, and more into strategy and managing people. That's been really interesting, because I wasn't sure that I would enjoy that side of things – but actually, I have really, really liked managing a team. I've found it fulfilling in ways I hadn't realised I would.

Is there anything you wish you had known before you started your first full-time position out of your PhD? And do you have any advice for early-career sustainability professionals based on that?

The advice I always give to early-career professionals is to not get too disheartened by the job hunt. That’s much easier said than done because it is disheartening, but it only takes one "Yes" to launch things!

Also, if you're thinking you might want to make a career change or a sideways move, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later, because you can end up getting stuck. If you've got the flexibility and freedom as an early-career professional to experiment and make those big moves, take advantage of it. Take some calculated risks while you can.

And – I guess this is more for undergraduates – but take every opportunity to get work experience during your studies that you can, because it’s really hard to get once you’ve finished university. Getting your foot in the door, making contacts and getting professional experience can be really difficult. If I was going back in time and choosing a degree again, I probably would've chosen a programme with a year in industry, to make the most of that experience.

That leads us nicely on to recruitment! Can you tell us about some common mistakes people make when applying for a position with you and your organisation? And on the flip side, what are some things that you love to see in applications?

People always forget to make it clear how their experience relates to the role, and why they really want the job. For example, if you're wanting to reduce your hours for whatever reason, or you're wanting to take on a role in a new industry, that's absolutely fine – I’m open to that. But if you don't explain this in the cover letter or at the beginning of your CV, then, as a recruiter, I’m left to try and interpret your situation from really limited information.

When it comes to the interview, prepare to answer questions about why you want the job, and why it’s interesting to you.

Similarly, if you're trying to make a real career change, that's fine – just be sure to explain what you like about this role in particular. Most of us have changed careers too, I've changed jobs lots of times. I understand the reasons why someone might want to change role, so I'm not trying to catch people out. I really want to know!

I think another thing is just preparation. When it comes to the interview, prepare to answer questions about why you want the job, and why it's interesting to you.

Where do you go to get information on what’s happening in your industry? Where do you seek inspiration, and keep up with news and relevant issues?

I'm a member of IEMA, so I always look at their webinar program. When I was an early-career professional, the sessions on networking and general careers discussions were useful. Now I'm a little bit further on, I tend to go for more focused and technical ones, and I find those really interesting. Recently, there was one on TCFD (the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures). I don't know a lot about TCFD, so I took the opportunity to educate myself on that.

Similarly, ICRS (the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability) is great. I'm not a member, but I receive their newsletter and I find it really helpful – it's a good round-up of what's happening in the industry. So IEMA and ICRS are probably my two main sources of news and information.

I also scan the news headlines every day, and read veterinary literature. It's not always relevant, but even if it's something that doesn't seem to immediately relate to sustainability, it's helpful to know what's happening in the sector at large. I think that’s the case for a lot of sustainability professionals: you need to be able to speak with some confidence about the sector as a whole.

Finally, apart from the IEMA webinars, are there any training opportunities or courses you'd recommend to others in the industry, regardless of their career stage?

I think with CPD and courses in general, you need to actually tailor them carefully so they’re relevant to what you're trying to do with your career. Some people do courses just for the sake of it, to collect qualifications, but it's a big time commitment. Sometimes they’re great, but sometimes your time might be better spent learning on the job.

Having said that, if you're mid-career, or if you're in a different career and you're wanting to make the move to environment and sustainability, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership has quite a range of courses – I did a course in Business Sustainability Management. You can do it remotely, and it's a part-time course, so you can fit it around a full-time job. It was really substantive and had a great depth of content.

Brilliant – really useful stuff. Thanks, Hannah!

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