Changing of the guard

Diana Montgomery and Paul Leinster discuss how the sustainability profession has changed in recent years, and what IEMA’s role will be going forward. Chris Seekings reports

After eight-and-a-half years as IEMA’s chair of the board of directors, Diana Montgomery has handed the reins over to professor Paul Leinster CBE. During her tenure, Montgomery oversaw a number of changes to the profession that were driven by IEMA in its mission to transform the world to sustainability. Leinster takes over at a time of great uncertainty, with political instability in the UK and around the world threatening to reverse much of the environmental progress made in recent years.

With more than 60 years of experience in sustainability and environmental management between them, the pair catch up to discuss how the profession has evolved – and what IEMA’s role will be as we move into the future.

 

Looking back 

The sustainability profession has come a long way during the past decade, shifting focus from pollution prevention to climate change, environmental net gain, sustainable development and a whole range of other areas. However, this evolution was not always easy. “It is incredible to think we still had some semi-credible people doubting climate change when I first joined the board,” Montgomery says. “That was only eight years ago – but that is a thing of the past, and the agenda has also got so much broader.”

Leinster first started working in the environmental field in the 1970s, and recalls having a debate at the Environment Agency – where he was chief executive for seven of the 17 years he spent there – over whether a new strategy document should have a separate chapter on climate change. “Climate change wasn’t on the agenda,” he says. “The hole in the ozone layer was beginning to be, but there were only a handful of universities and polytechnics running environmental courses.”

“We are on the same track as accountants or marketers – sustainability is now a real profession”

In the early days, there was also much discussion about what sustainability even meant. Montgomery, who until recently was the chief executive at the Construction Products Association, describes this as “unbelievable”, considering the state of the profession today. Perhaps the biggest change, though, concerns the recognition that environmental and sustainability professionals now receive. Qualifications from IEMA give these workers a credibility that they never had before. “We are on the same track as accountants or marketers – sustainability is now a real profession,” Montgomery says. “That is a huge change. Sustainability professionals are now mainstream, and IEMA members are some of the major catalysts. We can now influence everyone in the organisations we work for.”

 

Providing leadership

Through its provision of qualifications, a professional skills map, and membership through to Fellowship, IEMA has really come into its own. The organisation was originally unclear in its mission, but its professional standards now make members indispensible to their organisations. “They need business and communication skills, and this is where the professionalism has helped,” Leinster explains. “You need people who can present engaging, well-thought-out business cases and position statements at board level.”

IEMA is also developing a Fellows network, which will lead the debate on a range of sustainability topics to ensure that members are consistently ahead of the curve. This leadership is also a big change. IEMA evidence and contribution is frequently referenced in the UK government’s response to consultation, such as expertise on biodiversity net gain and waste management. And through the Broadway Initiative, IEMA has been instrumental in advising the government on Brexit and how it can safeguard environmental protections.

“IEMA has become clear about how it wants to transform the world to sustainability,” Montgomery says. “We have created a process so that whether you are a member, associate or practitioner, sustainability is discussed at every level in your organisation.” 

Profitability is also a relatively new area of discussion within IEMA, and one that was subject to emotive debate just a few years ago. “The bottom line is that if you don’t have profitable companies then they are not sustainable, because they will collapse,” Montgomery says. “Now we have people with proper professional qualifications steering the debate, helping in terms of brand, performance and efficiency. It is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – you need sustainability professionals for your organisation to be successful.”

And providing leadership is something that Leinster says will be vital going forward. “We have to be clear about what a professional membership body should look like and what it does in the 21st century. We provide training, CPD and resources for people of all organisations. They need to know that if you want to learn about sustainability, you should go to IEMA.”

 

Troubled times

Leinster’s new role as board chair comes amid political paralysis in the UK. At the time of writing, a general election appears imminent, and it is still unclear whether the UK will leave the EU with a deal – if at all. Brexit will be perhaps the biggest challenge for professional bodies during the next few years. “UK-based qualifications have standing throughout the world, and people look to our education and professional bodies system,” Leinster says. “Whether they will continue to is something we need to explore; I think it depends on what happens to ‘Brand UK’.”

This period of instability could also be another opportunity to provide leadership. “Having a clear voice for sustainability and the environment during this period of potential turmoil, and making sure there remains a clear focus on protecting and enhancing the environment, is essential,” Leinster says. “I think we can be that voice. Sustainability and the environment must still be taken seriously in organisations and government during this turbulent period, and we must still be seen as relevant.”

“Sustainability and the environment must still be taken seriously in organisations and government during this turbulent period”

The country’s decision to leave the EU has already had a negative impact on IEMA. The body is currently petitioning for a Royal Charter, but Brexit has delayed the process. Expanding the membership of 14,500 has also proved problematic. “No matter how hard we have worked, however much our profile has been raised politically and in the media, we have still effectively flatlined when it comes to our membership,” Montgomery says. “That is disappointing. How do we get to 50,000? Because at that point, we will have a significant number of professionals in organisations globally.”

IEMA was initially very UK-focused, and the number of businesses and local councils that could afford environmental professionals was relatively small. “However, we now have members from all over the world, which is amazing,” Montgomery says. “This is quite recent, and as that expands, that cap on our membership will hopefully be lifted.”

Another challenge is the number of members that are also members of other professional bodies. IEMA now faces questions over how best to partner with these organisations as traditional membership models change. “We need to be able to answer the question ‘what’s in it for me’?” Leinster says. “Explaining what we offer at different membership levels helps, and IEMA must continue to be a credible partner that provides a ready-made network of people who can provide support and expertise to each other for mutual benefit.”

 

Reasons for optimism

Despite the challenges ahead, Leinster is excited by his new role. He was recently a judge for IEMA’s inaugural Sustainability Impact Awards and was delighted by the level of talent on show. “The overall standard was very high, and there were people pushing the winners in all categories, which I thought was tremendous,” he says. “It was not just businesses, but local authorities and public sector organisations such as the NHS engaging with corporate sustainability. I was greatly heartened.”

The growing number of sustainability professionals reflects the views of wider society – the general public is now more engaged with the environment than ever before. “I think we are in a really good place,” Montgomery says. “There is a greater understanding that the environment is important, social value is important and the corporates’ role is important. People value brands for much more than whether they make a nice cup of coffee or not, so the opportunity is huge, and it has to go hand in hand with diversity and inclusivity. I think IEMA can be a bit braver.”

Although the chair of the board is only constitutionally responsible for discharging the fiduciary duties of directors and supporting management, Leinster says he may look to develop the role. “One of the things I am interested in exploring is whether the board should be doing more to lead on some of the big policy issues,” he says. “My term is for three years, so it’s a matter of making sure we continue to work as effectively and efficiently as possible, but then also, for example, helping shape the climate change, net zero, environmental net gain and circular economy agendas. The board and the executive will explore how, through working together and with others, this can be best achieved.”

He has all the tools needed to tackle these challenges. Montgomery shares how proud she is of the “extraordinary” board of directors she leaves behind, stating that their diverse skillset would be the envy of many other boards. Does she have any advice for Leinster? “It is something that comes so naturally to Paul, and I don’t need to tell him that understanding and listening to the membership at every level is crucial,” she says. “Fellows and members have a very powerful voice, but equally important are our students, associates and practitioners, so it is really important to challenge IEMA – because it’s easy to assume you know what the membership wants, but you have to be actively listening all the time.”

There are many reasons for optimism, even at this time of unprecedented political uncertainty, and Leinster describes it as a “great privilege” to help support IEMA members on their professional journey. “I expect that a number of them will be feeling quite uncertain just now, but we will be fighting to make sure our agenda is heard at the highest levels,” he says. “The work our members do is incredibly valuable, and I would say to them, ‘keep the faith, this is vitally important work you do’. 

 

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Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM

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