What do you actually do!? Episode 30: Daniel Arda, Sustainability Assistant Manager

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on corporate social responsibility. We interviewed Daniel Arda, who works as Sustainability Assistant Manager at Grant Thornton.

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Daniel is Sustainability Assistant Manager at Grant Thornton UK LLP. During six years in professional services, he has inspired colleagues to get involved with initiatives aligned around education, employability and enterprise as well as the environment, mental health and microfinance. Prior to that he spent seven years in the charity sector, primarily in internal communications. Daniel graduated with a BA in English (European) and MA in American Literature and Culture (European) at the University of Leeds. He is currently an Executive MBA candidate at Cranfield School of Management.

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Kate  0:02  

You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do!? podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. 

Kate  0:13  

Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!?. My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in the sustainability and corporate social responsibility sector. Today we’re joined by Daniel Arda, who works as Sustainability Assistant Manager at Grant Thornton. So Daniel, what do you actually do?

Daniel  0:33  

Well, thanks very much for having me on, Kate. I think the first thing to understand about sustainability is – what is it? And my favorite definition is – ‘leave stuff in a better state than when you found it’. But the more corporate definition is about creating a valuable and lasting legacy that can be passed on to a future generation of Grant Thornton partners, but also the people who work for the firm. So that five years down the line, 10 years, 30 years down the line, future generations are able to enjoy what we enjoy today and to be able to support the environment and also society. So that’s a little bit there to to get started with.


Because it’s often… Sustainability, when it’s used in the media, it does sort of go hand in hand with environmental stuff, whereas what you’re doing – yes, definitely, the environment is a really important part of it, but it has got the sort of social activism, working with schools, homeless, charities, refugees, etc. So it’s much broader than just the environment. So what is your day, sort of.. What’s the sort of key elements of your role then, if that’s the general goal – to leave things better than how you found them? What does that look like in terms of tasks?


Yeah, so in terms of what it looks like – no two days are the same. In terms of how sustainability strategy works at Grant Thornton, I have three key priorities that I work against. So, you mentioned that we do some work with schools, we have our own school enterprise programme, that we launched in 2017, and it’s been going strong ever since. And what that does is – it helps to foster an entrepreneurial mindset in young people to help them to negotiate the gap between the world of education and the world of work. It’s building those new skills, and getting them more financially savvy, coming up with a business idea and then pitching that to each other. You’re in the classroom with a view to the winners in each class getting to run it and raise money at the same time for countries, I should say countries in the developing world, but more specifically, microfinance entrepreneurs. So it’s making finance available to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. So that’s one strand. The second strand is around our environmental agenda. As you mentioned, Grant Thornton is the first accountancy firm in the UK to sign up to science based targets, and to have them confirmed publicly. So what we’re trying to do is to reduce our carbon emissions in line with those science based targets by 2023. And so, coming out of that, I encourage people through, for example, a group of a network of sustainability champions around the country to encourage people to think of ways of being able to reduce their impact in individual offices. So there’s a little bit of that around the environmental agenda. And then finally, Grant Thornton is very keen to shift the narrative surrounding refugees from one of challenge to one of opportunity. And we do this by raising awareness, I think, around the employability side of things. So it’s about helping refugees into meaningful employment that’s appropriate for their skills, knowledge and experience. And then we.. So how do we do that – we do that by running co-creative workshops alongside our partner charity Breaking Barriers. And we also offer our six month work placements. Because the number one thing that helps refugees to mitigate that gap in their employment history is a work placement. It’s all very worthwhile stuff.


So are you, kind of, coming up with ideas of which charities to partner with, and then what kind of projects to do? Or are the projects already there and you’re facilitating the workshops, so you’re more hands on with the actual people who are benefiting from this work? What’s your, sort of, input?


So it’s a bit of both, really. So on the one hand, I’ve got two key roles. One, which is being a national sustainability rep, if you like – looking at that strategic side of things, in terms of the relationships that you’ve outlined, and making sure that you’ve got a clear sustainability strategy. So those are the three pillars I’ve just gone over, that we keep to, because it’s all about marshaling that resource that a company has in the best way, and in a way that’s aligned with how the business works, but also with our values. But in terms of the actual day to day, I should add that, there’s a lot of different skill sets that you bring. So, for example, it might be project management, event management, and you’re piecing together meaningful experiences for people to be able to interact with any one or even all of the different strands. So yeah, it’s about being able to set up events during the main, but being able to communicate that to people, get people on board with making things happen in relation to the strategy and the broader business. But it’s also about being a responsible business within society, and really bringing that to life for our people so that they can get involved and do good but also protect our planet.


So that’s interesting then, it sounds like you’re, sort of, communicating and collaborating internally with potentially very senior members of the business you’re working for. But you’re also, kind of, communicating and collaborating with the people who run the charities, and then communicating with the people who are using the charity. So it’s sort of, really broad spectrum. Must be really fascinating to have that amount of variety. 


It is, and we’re really fortunate to have that senior level of buy-in, because I feel that’s where the potency of it is. And it says a lot, I think, about the culture of the firm that I work for, where you’ve got that agency and that freedom. So they will back you, but you’ve got to also… your ideas will be challenged as well. So you’ve got to be rigorous, in terms of how you approach things. So we introduced the refugee workshops as a result of thinking strategically, actually – how can we use our skills and so on. And then we identified Breaking Barriers as being a really good charity to work with because they have expertise in the refugee employability space. So being… It’s not just about a corporate going in and lording it over everybody else. It’s genuinely about great relationships, strong relationships where there’s an open two way dialogue about – ‘right, we’ve got the societal challenge, or we’ve got this environmental challenge, how can we best work together to overcome that, or at least mitigate that in some way?’. And so, in the case that you mentioned around the the refugee employability workshops, I get involved at that needs level, I understand what the need is through the case workers, I go back into the business and figure out – ‘right, how can we actually best create content that will help meet that need’, run it by the charity, they will challenge it or agree with it. It creates an experience together, and we take it out to the participants of the workshop. I’m glad to say that the feedback has been really positive on that front.


Okay, well, in case you haven’t noticed – we’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now. Are you able to… Yeah, I know, it’s happening. Are you able to actually work from home in your role and how is your day different from normal?


So yes, I can work from home, and we’re really fortunate to have a strong IT set up. And that’s thanks to our information services for keeping us ticking over. I think that they are unsung heroes in some ways, the work that they do to keep everything running smoothly and nobody notices, but actually, that ties in quite nicely with my day to day role as well. When I think about, you know, how do you engage four and a half thousand people around the country with this agenda, make it important, make it relevant to what they do in the day to day. And so, coming back to your question about how is my work affected? Well, admittedly, a lot of the events that I would usually be running, and planning, and making happen – are on pause at the moment. So a lot of it is around, if you will, more the back end stuff. Just keeping everything ticking over from an administrative point of view, but also keeping in touch with the various charity relationships and school relationships, and seeing how things are going there. Interestingly, in part my background was in internal communications, and, as somebody with a English degree – shocking behavior, I know – but being able to apply my English degree at work is something that gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction, because I get to… Because the firm and my department – I work in Marketing and business development – they’re aware that I have an internal communications background. So I’m now able to help out with writing some stories, and because I’d written a lot of things when we had a charity relationship with Mind… (Mental health is something I’m really passionate about.) So being able to bring that angle into the stories is something that’s really rewarding as well.


So you’re writing stories about the projects, or work that you’ve been involved in, and sort of, impact on individuals’ lives to sort of bring it to life. Is that… is that right?


So the overlap that I’m doing… Well what I try and do actually is to blend together my internal communications experience, but also the sustainability stuff that I’m doing. So for example, one article I released recently celebrated Earth Day, which is on the 22nd of April every year. It’s celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, and I thought – well, actually, what’s going to encourage people to read about this, but not hitting people over the head with it. And so, we have an internal segment called ‘three minutes with’, where we get to learn about our colleagues. And it occurred to me that there’s a chap who’s really active as one of our environmental champions, and I thought – well, let’s see, hear a little bit more about him as a person, as well as being a champion, what that means to him. I asked him what his definition of sustainability is. So it was like a little mini interview that I penned together. So then what you’re doing is – you’re hitting the sweet spot of both the sustainability stuff, but also making it interesting for people too.


So what was your starting point? And where did your interest in sustainability come from?


Okay, so the starting point was – many moons ago I was a English undergrad at the University of Leeds. I studied that for four years. If you want the full, highfalutin title, it was English Language and Literature with European study, that is a mouthful. But I did get to spend some time in Spain, so that added a nice little dollop of cultural awareness. And then I thought – actually, I want to stick around and do a bit more. So I stayed on for a masters in American literature and culture again with European study. So half of the year in Leeds and half in Munich in Germany. And then after that… I will refer to them as my wilderness years, because I didn’t have a scooby coming out of university what I wanted to do. And when I look back on that, it was incredibly confusing. So I can really empathize with some of your listeners out there. If you are thinking to yourself – ‘oh gosh, what am I gonna do? What’s my degree X good for?’. And I felt that, having an English degree, at [inaudible] it’ll work out, you’ve just got to trust in the process and keep connecting. So I did have a few years of just going from temp job to temp job, but the one thing that I felt strongly about was working in the charity sector, because I feel like in some ways I’ve got it a lot easier than many other people out there. So I wanted to play my part, small part in a way, to be able to level the playing field within society. So I managed to get some work in the charity sector, I spent seven years there. A little mix of the basic admin that you need to get your foot in the door and develop yourself as a professional. Did a little bit of digital marketing, but the bulk of my experience was around internal communication. So I spent four years in that. Then I had a change in direction following redundancy. And I thought – well, gosh, what do I want to do now? And again, it was just another really challenging transition. But I learned a lot of lessons. I mean, I learned how to interview properly, you know, as a result of that, so again, it’s just going through that process, and don’t be afraid to ask for support, folks, really just find a way to practice. And then eventually I made it to the other side. Grant Thornton gave me a call, and here we are six years later, and it’s actually pretty good now.


It’s interesting because it sounds like a lot of your previous experiences have come together in your current role. So the experience of being somebody who’s been a job seeker, and feeling like you don’t have a direction, and the stress and anxiety that can cause. A feeling that you want to help others, a skill with languages, and words, and communication. It’s all come together in this role now. So yeah, that’s fascinating how things that can feel like failures, or kind of things holding you back at certain points in life, can actually be the things that really help you to progress and become a more successful person in the future.


Absolutely. I mean, it’s just really really strange how all of that has come together. I think what that’s done is helped build a very strong sense of empathy with the people that I work with, but also reveling in the freedom that I get. Because the thing I really love about my role is the amount of creative freedom that I get. You’re able to shape it in the way that you see fit. And I think that, if you’d said to me maybe seven years ago – ‘Oh, you’re going to do this really cool role. You’re going to end up abseiling down a building, running a marathon, facilitating and creating workshops, and studying on an MBA while you’re at it’, I would have said – ‘You what?? You got to be completely out a tree.’ But actually, it’s about your mindset, a lot of it is about your attitude, and you really can’t wait for other people to hand you stuff. You’ve just got to really put yourself out there and think creatively, especially during these really uncertain topsy turvy times. But there is something out there if you’re willing to go look for it.


So just going back to the fact that you’re doing a masters in Business Administration at the moment, on top of the masters that you’ve already got. Would you say postgraduate qualifications are essential for anyone wanting to progress within sustainability roles? And does this differ from people doing similar roles within the charity sector, because you’re obviously in a in a big corporate company.


I think that while degrees are important, really, I think it’s about the fiber of your character, and how passionate you are about improving the lives of others and the planet in this particular role. So for example, Grant Thornton is really keen on social mobility. In one year we were top of the list, I think, in the very first year that the social mobility awards went out, or an index, forgive me, I forget which. But basically, it was a very cool award and acknowledgement of the fact that we do try to level the playing field. So we did away with university as a prerequisite for people to come into the firm. So you can be a school leaver, you could be an apprentice, and especially with the emphasis on apprenticeships, and broadening that pathway for people to get into professional services, which is something that we’re really passionate about. Then I think that’s super important. But just coming back to what you’re saying about a degree -if you’ve got a degree, it helps. I think it shows that there is a level of intellectual sophistication about your thinking. The key thing is about how you’re going to apply that. So if you’ve done a dissertation, or you’ve written essays, then that’s you managing your workload. Employers will, at this stage of your life, if you’re an undergrad or a student, they’re not looking for your experience, they’re looking at your potential. I know that a lot of your audience might say – ‘Oh, I haven’t got the experience, I haven’t got this or that’. Okay, that’s cool, but think about what you do have. So if you’ve got a Science degree, then you’re very structured, you know how to research. Or if you’re doing History, you know how to handle the evidence and think about where everything comes from, that analytical ability. Think about how that’s going to work in a professional… Those skills are going to work in a professional context and sell it. I’d say just sell it. And if you’re not sure about how to articulate all of that talk, find out. There’s so much information that people have today, like YouTube and the internet, that we… Well, I say the royal we… I didn’t have that, and if I’d known about this kind of stuff, and if I’d known to be able to listen to a podcast like that, oh my god, I would have been all over it like a shot.


Okay, so it sounds like it’s not necessarily about the level of qualification you’ve got, it’s about your experiences, but also your self-awareness, and how you’re able to articulate that and show that you can add value. And of course, people should remember they can use their University Career Services to help with that. So you’ve mentioned a lot about the fact that you need to be a really strong communicator, you need to be really able to adapt different types of work environments, think strategically, as well as in a hands-on way. Any other kind of personal strengths or qualities you would say you need to have to be happy, successful in sustainability in particular?


You’ve got to have a passion for it, because a lot of the people that I talk to, who are outside of my firm, who are also corporate responsibility or sustainability professionals, do this because it’s akin to a vocation. They feel a really strong sense of connection in relation to doing good within society. It’s that ethos of making a difference. And so, if you’ve got that, and that might be that you’re connected to a particular cause, whatever charitable cause that might be, or you are really passionate about the environment and it annoys you when people don’t put stuff in the right recycling bin, then maybe this is the job for you actually. To think about how you might harness that within a professional context. And I think, again, it’s really useful to have that degree, but think about how you could apply that. I think the other thing that goes unsaid is how… think about the gifts that you would bring within a team. Now, sustainability teams in my experience are very small, unless you’re working for one of the larger corporates, but I work in a team of three that serves four and a half thousand people in the UK. So this is a role that really needs you to pull your weight, to make things happen. So you have to have that degree of independence, initiative and drive to make things happen.


Well it’s clear throughout our conversation how much you really love the work. What’s the worst aspect of the role?


Oh, you had to go there…


I got to get to it.


Right, so, my favorite phrase around this is that – what we do is about the glamour and the grit, and on the surface of it… So I might put on an environmental event… I really recommend if people are really into the environment out there, check out WWF Our Planet: Our Business, which is a really cool film about the environment and what businesses can do to help shift the narrative around climate change and nature loss. And the reason why I’m saying that is that we put on this internal event for our people. I think about 70 odd people came along for this screening, but we also did it in tandem with WWF, and everyone had a good time, but they also came away with plenty to think about. So that’s the glamour side of it. But the grit is the stuff that goes unseen, to make it seamless, to make it look effortless. You have to plan, you have to think about a structure that will engage people. I thought about elements such as the catering, which I made sure was meat free and vegetarian. And it’s being able to have those relationships with people to say – ‘I got a crazy idea, caterers, that you wouldn’t usually do, but I wonder whether we can source some of that stuff’. So it’s thinking ahead about how do you make all of that seamless so that people could come away with that really memorable experience and motivated to do something differently. But equally, there’s a lot of graft, a lot of grit that goes on behind the scenes to make that really compelling. And also just thinking about, again, how you communicating, how are you bringing people on that journey, you know, with you, because sometimes you will have challenges within the business. It’s not all hunky dory. People will say – ‘Well, actually how are you measuring this, what’s the data behind your argument?’ So I think you have to be… I do really think that there is a strong strand of communication that’s needed to make this work, and realising that sometimes people won’t think the same way as you do. But I think that if you were able to be more flexible in your approach, again, this is where the street smarts will come with working. So, yes, there is a lot to learn on the job, but I’m sure that your listeners are more than capable of being able to do that.


So it sounds like there’s loads of really fun and rewarding elements to the role. But there’s all this behind the scenes stuff that goes on, which is quite stressful, demanding. You’re managing lots of different priorities at the same time. You’re having to be very detail orientated, and just kind of… They are thankless tasks in terms of – it’s seamless and that’s when it’s gone well, because no one really knows how much effort has gone into it. Okay, so what do you think the key challenges will be for sustainability over the next few years? Is there anything that students should anticipate, they should start to maybe get more involved in or be aware of, that might be on the horizon? I know, everything’s going a bit crazy now with the sort of the health situation, so I don’t know if that’s a factor, or if there were already things that you were thinking about as potential challenges for the next few years ahead.


Okay, so I think we can’t ignore the current situation. I think it has huge ramifications for the sustainability sector and the planet as a whole. I think the easiest way to conceive of this is in terms of – People, Profit, Planet. So if you look at the other people, the societal level… So I learned recently that, as a result of what’s going on at the moment, that the UK charity sector stands to lose an estimated 4 billion pounds in lost income. So that’s going to put a lot of charities at the brink, and why now you’re seeing a lot of causes really trying to get out there and the usual – all the fundraising events and the initiatives that usually would be out there – they’ve lost that. So I think that, provided that they survive what’s going on at the moment, there’s going to be a huge amount of rebuilding, and really just trying to get back on an even keel. And, so thinking it in that respect again, thinking about if your students are thinking, or your grads are thinking about getting involved with stuff… So like the community minded things – help out in the community, build up your skills, but really get an impossible that, if you will… if there is a charity or what have you that offers an initiative to help for you to be able to get involved with safely, then by all means do that and think about the skills that you’re learning as you go. So whether it’s that teamwork piece, you might want to talk about your motivation for doing it – ‘I want to help out people because it’s a good thing to do, but also it’s the right thing to do’. Whatever it is that resonates within every fiber of your being doing that, bring that out, really think about that, and think about how you might articulate that to an employer, because you can’t hide when it’s genuine. And it will come out in the quality of your application, the quality of your interview. In terms of the environmental side of things, we can’t help but notice that because industry is still at a much, much lower level than it has been for quite some time. I think you’ve seen satellite pictures on the BBC about the amount of pollution that’s subsided and reduced. So it really is noticeable. And I think what we will see are a lot more innovative solutions coming to the fore. And when we talked about working from home earlier, and so being able to bring… I think the amount of technological innovation will hopefully result in a more green planet, and us being more mindful about the options beyond what we were doing before. So again, it’s just about companies, and indeed charities, especially environmental ones, just being mindful of the shifts there. And, yeah, as much as I’d love to say that… On the profit side though, it’s all about helping. I think really in a commercial sense, and every company and every charity for that matter is relying upon that income to come in, because otherwise without it you wouldn’t exist. And sometimes sacrifices have to be made in an environment like this. And so it’s just, I think at the moment everyone’s just trying to buckle up for survival and ride this out as best as they can. Fingers crossed we’ll all make it through to the other side.


But I think that’s really useful advice to look at what people can do now, in terms of community volunteering, whether that’s virtually or physically. And why they want to do that, being clear on their motivations, what they’re gaining from it as well, and the impact they’re having. It’s obviously a great thing to do anyway, but it’s a really useful way to get some relevant work experience and see if this is something you really believe in, and that you’d want to perhaps turn into a profession as well as something you do in your spare time.


Absolutely and it’s just that thing of doing something in service of something that’s greater than yourself, that supports society and the planet.


Excellent. Okay, well for more information about the career areas we’ve mentioned today I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a full link to the transcript of today’s show. Thank you so much Daniel for joining us. It’s been a really interesting conversation and really useful info there, and really appreciate you giving up your time today. 


Happy to help!


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do!?. This episode was hosted by myself – Kate Morris, edited by Stephen Furlong and produced by both of us. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers