As part of our series of Global Sustainability Leader Interviews, ALLEN & YORK were privileged to interview, Madeline Young, Manager of Corporate Integrity & Compliance in Assurance Service at Ernst & Young - about how she became involved in sustainability and to ask her advice on developing a successful career in the field.
What or who inspired you to pursue a career in sustainability?
I come from a multicultural background; French/American with West African roots, so after my degree I wanted to travel, to improve my languages and visit my extended family. After initially working in the US within the social sector and disability rights, I moved to France and worked as a bilingual project manager organising foreign government delegations from Africa and the Middle East.
Meeting delegates from Qatar, Tanzania, and Nigeria etc. I was introduced to some incredibly interesting people, I learnt about the challenges facing different countries and cultures. This is where the foundations of my interest in international sustainability were built.
After completing diplomas in French & Spanish, and a Masters in International Relations I was recruited by Intermon Oxfam (Oxfam in Spain), where my focus was on the extractives industries across West Africa; we looked at why these mineral and oil rich countries were failing economically and I began to look deeper into the politics and business practices of the region. While working at the FRIDE Foundation think-tank in Madrid, I did field work in Nigeria and Ghana, interviewing mining and oil officials as well as human rights activists to understand why some countries were mostly getting it right (Ghana for instance), while others lagged behind.
The Spanish recession hit at this time and we lost funding, this forced a move and I went to the UK to work on a DFID funded African fisheries project for Chatam House. Following that project, I accepted a position with Cominco Resources, a mining company in the Republic of Congo.
It was never my intention to move to the private sector, however I found it was difficult to maintain a secure career within NGOs and as I was developing a specialism within West African sustainability, coupled with a desire to explore my family connections in the region, so I decided take the plunge and take on a role working in the Republic of Congo!
You created the first Corporate Social Sustainability Management position with Cominco, how did you do this?
Initially, I took a junior position with Cominco believing I could create a management role and make a difference. I had already completed a Masters Degree in International Relations and a Post-graduate certificate in Extractive Industry studies, so my academic credibility was strong. Coupled with being bilingual and having a background in social conflict and corporate social responsibility (CSR) in West Africa, I put forward a proposal to champion CSR for the company and initially, to write a CSR study for the business.
This strategic CSR approach looked at the issues and risks, as well as the opportunities to the business and offered potential to improve internal practices as well as external reputation.
I firmly believe that if you are adding value to a company, your ideas will be embraced. Adding value and efficiency to a company can take the business on to the next level and enhance your own career development at the same time; and this is the reason I was encouraged to continue.
Would you recommend specialising?
Working for Cominco was a wonderful experience and I’m still in touch with many Congolese friends and colleagues, however the role began to feel too specialist and I was keen to explore other avenues.
Ernst and Young recruited me for a UK based management role, offering a broader range of professional and international experience. I started advising on anti-bribery and corruption, looking beyond CSR into corporate integrity, compliance and risk.
The Corporate Integrity & Compliance team at EY work on the ground with companies, governments and organisations to hold up a mirror to their organisation and find out what could potentially be leading them into areas of risk. We work with companies to challenge their internal cultures and look at the legal and ethical issues that arise within large corporations and within governments.
I would recommend remaining flexible in your career, to explore different paths. This is an exciting and challenging role for me and my skills are growing as a result.
Having worked across different countries and cultures, what have you learnt on your travels?
Cultural understanding is so important to successful business. Organising delegations from the Congolese government, I learnt that certain cultural etiquettes are to be respected and I made friends and built professional relationships, many of which I still maintain today.
I would encourage anyone working with the sustainability / social sector to gain international experience. There is nothing like living and working within a country, to understand cultural subtleties and enrich your understanding of how business operates around the globe. We can make assumptions about people and cultures when we have no on-the-ground experience; one of the things I have learnt through working and making friends with people around the globe is that every country has its own kind of “normal” and we can find our place in another society if we remain flexible and open minded.
What advice would you give to Sustainability professionals starting out on their career?
Nothing was traditional about my career path and I think that is the case for most sustainability professionals. Everyone’s journey will be different, but I can give some key pointers which I think are important to gather along the way;
- Gain on-the-ground experience - nothing beats having been there and experienced a country, culture or business first-hand. Make connections, do fieldwork, be flexible, learn to speak other languages, learn about different cultures.
- Understand the jobs market – reach out to people already working in the field. CSR and Sustainability is an inspiring field, but find out what the practical opportunities are to understand if it’s what you really want to do.
- Be creative and make your own opportunities – you can start in a junior position and create a management role. By adding value and making strategic moves you will enable your company to flourish and they will appreciate your input.
- “Dare more” – push yourself, don’t get to comfortable, dare to think bigger. Especially for women, the gender dynamic in career development can hamper growth when women feel that they can’t or shouldn’t take career risks – don’t let it stop you from trying!
- Be commercially savvy – most companies are either looking to make money (private sector) or save money (public sector), be aware of this by adding value and efficiency whilst still delivering CSR and sustainability.
- Network – make connections, collaborate with peers and find professional mentors.
- Keep it human – connect with people on a deeper level, learn to respect others’ differences, volunteer and be philanthropic, sustainability is about being involved and giving back personally as well as in your career.
- Become a sustainability champion - write articles, share knowledge, keep learning, inspire people and stay abreast of the latest technology and learning.
Thank you for a great interview Madeline, you have certainly inspired us