Having experimented with a wide variety of roles across multiple sectors, Rachel Madan, director of sustainability and impact at Luminous, loves her current gig consulting with her purpose-driven clients.
Previously, she developed and led global corporate sustainability strategies at the International Finance Corporation, created her own social enterprise called Greener Museums, advised the likes of the Tate and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry on sustainability and consulted for such organizations as the World Bank Group and the University of Rochester.
This diversity of experiences formulates Madan’s unique selling proposition, which she believes is important for any company and job seeker operating in corporate sustainability. I recently connected with Madan to learn more about her career journey so far.
Shannon Houde: Tell us a little bit about what you do day-to-day.
Rachel Madan: While Luminous is a strategic communications agency based in London, we also work with companies in the U.S. and Europe. We help businesses to inspire others with who they are, what they do and why it matters. And we have different consulting offers that help with that, and the one that I lead is sustainability and impact. Our mission is to help good companies be great at sustainability.
I was recruited to create the function and lead the team so it’s like I manage a startup in a way. When I first started, the team was just me, but now I have three people reporting to me and I'm about to hire a fourth. And so, I do a bit of everything: business development and marketing, mentoring and managing my team, working directly with clients, researching and developing new offerings. And because we do sustainability, communications and strategy, I do all of that, too. So, everything from materiality assessments to helping a company develop their first sustainability strategy or update one, or create engaging communications that then tell their sustainability story.
Houde: I think that's sometimes what lures people into consulting, the fact that it’s quite diverse and multifaceted and that keeps us challenged and motivated. So, tell us what you love the most about your work?
Madan: I love that it's different every day, and fast paced. I think it's important to try lots of different roles in lots of different sectors in your career. I've been in a lot of different ones. And I think that, for me, consulting compared to being in a large company as an internal individual contributor, here I don't have to wait for things to happen. I remember working at an institution where things moved so slowly. I also love building up and mentoring my team and working with people across the business. And I think, while it's not for everybody, I really like the size of the company that I'm at, which is about 65 people. There are enough people that you have some support, but it's not so many that you get lost. I also really love working with clients that are up for change and are interested in what sustainability is.
Houde: And tell us a little bit about what it's like working in the sustainability consulting sector where the big four firms are trying to hire these huge teams and be "in the game." What do you think about this kind of surge that we're seeing?
Madan: I'm really happy to see the demand. I think the demand for talent is a response to demand for help from companies, which I think is only a good thing. In terms of how we position ourselves differently from the Big Four, I think they’re doing something different to what we’re doing. We’re small and bespoke, and that is something that we can offer to our clients. I'm the director of my team, and I work with most of my clients. If they go and work with a KPMG, a PWC or Deloitte, that's not happening. With us, it's not just the same presentation but with a different client name on the deck. That’s something that in a competitive marketplace also applies for positioning yourself in terms of careers, i.e., it's really important to be able to clearly articulate your own added value and what differentiates you from everyone else.
One of the things you need to be able to do in a consulting environment is talk to a lot of different stakeholders about a lot of different issues.
Houde: What ESG issues are most companies concerned about?
Madan: For companies that I'm working with, climate change is top of mind. We're working with a lot of companies that are trying to meet their regulatory requirements, particularly around financial reporting, so we’re seeing a lot of companies who are trying to come to grips with their Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) reporting requirements.
Having those reporting frameworks legally required is actually very important. For example, there’s a new U.K. reporting requirement around diversity at board and senior levels. For a long time, companies were able to give you this mealy-mouthed response of how there’s not enough people in the pipeline. And now they actually have to report on those numbers, and then explain why their numbers are maybe not as good as we would think they are, that they should be.
Houde: As well as climate too, what are you seeing in terms of that "S" in ESG?
Madan: I'm not sure that there's a consistency in approach there. I think that the challenge comes in measurement. For environmental issues, we have objective data that tells us what is material and what isn't. The challenge with social impact is that we have some things that are easy to measure — for example, diversity metrics — but it doesn't necessarily tell us what the impact of that is. Or, for example, how do we measure an inclusive business? It’s an area ripe for research and advancement.
Houde: For others looking to get into consulting or ESG more generally, are there any certifications that you see as essential to a newcomer?
Madan: The challenge and the opportunity of sustainability is that it's such a broad field. I think that the question around certification depends on in which direction you might want to take your career.
I'm not sure that the skills we seek as professionals are necessarily on a college syllabus, so I'll tell you what I'm looking for right now in the roles that I'm hiring for. I’m looking for people who have GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) experience. You can do a certification on this; there are a number of organizations including GRI itself that run them. There's also the Responsible Investing credential that's run through the CFA in the U.K. So, I feel like those are helpful. I think if you were wanting to focus more on GHG emissions accounting, I would look for certifications and courses to help you get those skills.
Houde: Finally, any advice for making that leap from being an individual contributor within a bigger company into a consulting company?
Madan: One of the things you need to be able to do in a consulting environment is talk to a lot of different stakeholders about a lot of different issues. You need to be able to research quickly, understand your audience and think ahead of them. And, of course, you have to be able to give advice. You have to really know your stuff as a subject matter expert and get to grips very quickly with the different challenges that different sectors might be facing. That’s one of the things that I like about it because I get to learn a ton about different companies. I’m almost always surprised about how similar the challenges are across different sectors. And then every once in a while, you come across something and you’re like, "Wow, I’ve never heard of that before. Let’s dive in and figure this out."
Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their "day in the life" involves.