Women Leaders in Sustainability: Anita Longley

This month we are delighted to feature Anita Longley, MICRS, FRSA in our ‘Women Leaders in Sustainability’ interview series.

Anita is Chair of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS), the UK’s professional body for corporate responsibility and sustainability. ​Anita has been in the CRS business for over 20 years. Most recently as non-Exec Director of Secure Metres, and prior to that she was CR Director of RWE Npower for 12 years.  During all that time she has held a variety of civil service and trustee roles and provided pro-bono support to a range of charities. Anita is currently a trustee of the Scottish Power Foundation.

We hope you enjoy reading her thoughts as much as we have.

1. As a change maker within your industry, tell us a bit more about your background?

I’ve always been interested in the natural world and have carried that connection with me throughout my career. I also believe that business has a great opportunity to deliver positive change.  At the start of my career,  I developed a research initiative on Clean Technology for the Research Councils. This led to a Churchill Fellowship, lecturing in Eastern Europe, and a book on Clean Technology.

Working in the civil service gave me great experience of stakeholder engagement, team leadership and strategy development across a range of sectors. All of which are important skills for the CSR professional.  I worked with some leading businesses and academics on the Government’s Foresight Programme which identified future policies for 2020.

When I joined RWE npower, I set up the CR Department, working across the generation and retail businesses on issues including fuel poverty, climate change, business ethics and community investment.  I’ve been lucky enough to work across Europe and in India and have been fascinated by the influence that culture has on the implementation of responsible business.


2. What are the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get you where you are today and how did you address them?

The biggest challenge was to overcome self-doubt and have the courage of my convictions.  Several years ago, I attended a meeting for business women and a very senior and respected woman asked how many of us worried that today was the day we’d be ‘found out’.  The room fell silent as we all quietly reflected on the times we’d thought ‘they’ll find out today that I’ve no idea what I’m doing’.  This so called ‘imposter syndrome’ is, it seems, very common but almost never talked about.  Once I’d recognised that this self-doubt was normal I got over it and started to trust my instinct and believe in myself more.

I used to avoid public speaking when I started out.  But I knew it was critical to my career, so I got some excellent coaching, learned the importance of preparation and practised, practised, practised ……and I really enjoy speaking in public now.

And whilst working in sustainability is incredibly rewarding CRS professionals manage a range of complex social and environment issues and can’t possibly be experts in all of them.  If we are to address the challenges of an increasing population and diminishing resources we must collaborate and establish strong networks across businesses.  I think I learned rather late in my career the value of networking and the power of asking for help from other experts.


3. What unique qualities do you have that enable you to make a difference in your work?

I’m not sure that I have any particularly unique qualities, but I do have a strong sense of justice.  And I’m particularly motivated to act when I see injustices which impact on the vulnerable or the disenfranchised.  I’m also a strong believer in the power of team work and that business can and should be a force for good.

I think being pragmatic and retaining a sense of humour has been helpful in making a difference.  The key quality for CRS professionals is the ability to persuade and influence others. This comes with experience and needs to be based on a good understanding of business objectives.


4. What advice would you give to our community who want to create more impact and influence in the workplace?

First and foremost, to stay true to your values and principles and trust your instinct. Whilst this can be challenging it’s important for your own wellbeing and makes you more powerful and credible. Acting with integrity is critical in our profession.

Make sure you understand your business and ensure that sustainability is described in business terms and aligned to business drivers. Many companies are now addressing their social purpose and this, along with increasing stakeholder interest in sustainability, provides a great opportunity for CRS professionals.  Focus on building capacity and understanding of sustainability in the organisation, and work closely with other business functions to provide solutions. CRS should never be seen as a standalone department, we’re starting to see a matrix approach to the management of sustainability within companies which will have more impact.


5. When it feels like the world is going crazy, what keeps your vision and passion alive?

When I feel like the world is going crazy I escape to my garden, growing things is incredibly fulfilling and a great opportunity for reflection. And my vision is kept alive by the young people in my life, who have such a refreshing view of the world, ask thought provoking questions and are often wise beyond their years.

We’ve come so far as a profession in such a short time and the next twenty years offer great opportunities for change.  When I meet people, who are just starting out in CRS, it fills me with faith that we will succeed and that anything is possible. The Millennials are discovering new ways of delivering sustainability for example through social enterprises and they’re starting to change the ways we think about issues as wide ranging as consumerism and communication.


6. Who inspires you and why?

I’m constantly inspired by our ICRS members who are working on critical business issues and so willing to share their ideas and learning.  The sustainability community is incredibly supportive and making great innovations in a challenging world. It is an exciting time for CSR professionals and we must ensure they have the support they need to secure a sustainable future.


The ICRS website can be found here