By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“I work in a field where you can really make an impact in terms of society, the environment, and the economy,” began Sonia Thimmiah, Director in Accenture‘s UKI Sustainability Practice.
Thimmiah’s team works with large, blue chip companies to advise on strategy and implementation for how companies manage and deliver on environmental, social, and economic priorities. She continued, “We can see the impact. For example we advised an organization on how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% reduction and can see how they are achieving that target year on year. It’s massively satisfying.”
“The advice we make leads to sustainable change, and I’m very proud of that,” she added.
A Career Managing the Business Aspects of Sustainability
As she was studying Chemical Engineering at university, Thimmiah realized she wanted to focus on the environmental field. “This was just post the Exxon Valdez,” she pointed out. “It made a huge impact on me, and I wanted to study more to build my knowledge on the environment and how I could get involved.”
But first, she said, she wanted to work for a bit. She sent her CV to about 50 companies and top environmental consultants. “I got two responses” she said with a laugh. “But one of them led to a job.”
Thimmiah began working at Det Norske Veritas (DNV). “The opening was in safety, but they said they would see what they could do as far as getting involved with the environmental team. So I thought, ‘why not?’”
Thimmiah said her experience at DNV was a useful one, especially as she gained experience with safety modeling for offshore oil and gas. “I thought it was dull, but I built up my technological knowledge and experienced working with clients and as part of a team.” She continued, “And this re-enforced my interest in the area of the environment and that has become my passion: what does it mean for business, the government, and other stakeholders?”
Next, Thimmiah applied for a masters program at Imperial College in Environmental Technology, and after graduating, she was brought back to DNV as an environmental consultant. She explained, “Increasingly, big business is talking about environmental issues such as climate change and my job was about understanding how companies could better manage their environmental impacts.”
Shortly thereafter, she joined PwC in the Sustainability and Climate Change group. “I started as a consultant and went up the ranks to lead their sustainability work with energy, mining and utilities clients. But after seven years, I was looking for the next challenge.”
“I was approached by Accenture, which was looking to formally establish its sustainability practice globally.” She continued, “Now three years later, I am part of the leadership team for the UKI Sustainability Services practice and lead our work globally on Sustainability Performance Management (i.e. how companies, measure, manage and report performance) and in energy, mining and metals.”
Regarding her proudest accomplishments, Thimmiah said, “It’s hard to pick one or two – it’s a privilege to work in this field. I find it completely fascinating.”
Currently she is working with companies on how to move from strategy to execution on sustainability. Many companies now understand the relevance of sustainability for their business and how it can drive value, and have developed relevant strategies and approaches. However, the key challenge remains how can companies deliver good business and sustainability results through effective execution.
Examples of work she is involved in includes looking at how companies mobilize their workforces to deliver on sustainability. “Building the right knowledge, skills, behaviors and attitudes is critical to delivering sustainable outcomes across an organization’s functions and operations and this is an area of increasing interest with our client,” she explained.
Thimmiah is also working with companies on improving systems and processes for collecting, analyzing and reporting sustainability information. “People think that data is boring, and maybe I’m a geek, but there are a lot of benefits to managing data properly that people don’t realize! We are helping companies move from purely reporting on sustainability to using data to really drive performance for example to improve use of water, enhance safety performance and improve impacts on a company’s bottom line.”
Thimmiah says she believes the next sustainability issues will be around water. “The consumer goods industry has looked at it as an important issue for a number of years, but it is growing even more important now,” she said.
She continued, “On the social agenda there is a slightly different picture. Recently we have been seeing a different piece around trust. It’s incredible how much traction we are seeing on trust post the economic crisis.”
Advice for Professional Women
“I have learned that you have many chances to get to where you want,” Thimmiah reflected. “Throughout your many experiences, try to understand what’s important to you and understand the unique way you have of driving it. Recognize the different options out there, as well as different opportunities and the different paths these open to you.”
She continued, “The second thing I have learned is that when I was starting, I was pleased to be working in a very technical area, and I’m very pleased to have that foundation, to understand the content in a very deep way. But I didn’t understand how important it was to understand business.”
Thimmiah said that while she began her career in a more male dominated field (energy and engineering), she hasn’t felt any barriers to her advancement. “However, men are much more comfortable having certain conversations with other men. You have to be careful about how you navigate those conversations and build trust,” she said.
“Now, while the barriers are less, we still have a way to go,” she continued. “I think what is more of the challenge is when women get to the stage when they start having children. They have to find the right balance. There aren’t enough hours in the day to contribute as much as you want in your working life and also at home.”
She said, “Young women should develop their own style for how they want to work. Women are different – embrace that difference. The same principles apply to more senior women about not trying to replicate how men lead.”
She continued, “In the middle of my career there was a lot of talk about ‘gravitas.’ Women have gravitas, but in a different way – it’s about how we lead with authority. I’m very lucky to have a boss at the moment who recognizes the benefits female leaders bring. We need diversity of thinking.”
Thimmiah mentioned Accenture’s Accent on Women program as one that stands out for her. “It’s a forum for women to get together and talk about anything we want. It’s a fantastic program with inspirational speakers and a number of training courses that look at specific development for women.”
She continued, “So far I’ve been a passive participant of the program, but I would like to take a more active role. My advice to other women would be to get involved as well and understand how you can make a greater impact”
In Her Personal Time
“I’m of Indian origin, and came to the UK at fourteen, and I’m married to an Irish man. I consider myself a citizen of the world!” Thimmiah said. “I travel a lot, and I visit India at least once a year.” In her spare time, she also enjoys swimming and yoga.
“As far as work/life balance goes, I try to make sure I have enough energy and time for my husband and family. I do have rules I try to enforce as much as possible – as much as you can in consulting,” she explained, mentioning she turns off her Blackberry during some evenings and most weekends. “Consulting does allow you to be flexible. If you set your own rules and boundaries, people will respect you for it.”