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Head of Sustainability and Environmental Leadership

Age: 43

Organisation: EDF Energy

Darren Towers CEnv MCIEEM

Why did you decide on a career in ecology/environmental management, and when did you decide?

My interest in environmental issues and the world around me started as a child. Growing up and at school, I was always interested in the natural environment – something that was encouraged by my parents too. As a result, my A Levels included Biology and Geography, with German as well (the latter not an obvious environmental subject but we ended up studying environmental protection – Umweltschutz – as part of that course!). A Geography BSc with additional Biology modules on conservation and wildlife management followed and that’s where I knew I wanted to pursue a career that included all of these issues.

How did you get started in the sector?  What qualifications and experience did you have? Have you gained any additional qualifications since?

I gained a Geography BSc from Royal Holloway (University of London) in 1993 and followed up with voluntary work at Surrey Wildlife Trust working in the Land Use Planning and Conservation Team. Volunteering was an excellent way to build skills and knowledge, as well as contacts. It was also a step in to paid work, picking up short-term contracts with the Trust covering everything from ecological studies along the M25, producing environmental guidelines for Best Kept Village competitions or landuse management plans for nature reserves, through to securing environmental work placements for the long-term unemployed in Surrey. I’d thoroughly recommend voluntary work as a way of getting a foot in the door and building on academic experience. It helps you, the sector and local communities at the same time.

How long have you been in your current role?

I’ve been with EDF Energy since October 2010 and in my current role since January 2012.

What does a typical day involve? What are your responsibilities?

Every day is very different! I look after Sustainability Environment in our Strategy and Corporate Affairs department. That includes our overall approach to sustainability (including strategy, policy, performance, culture) and environment (company-wide strategy and policy, and environmental compliance in our corporate functions). I also lead our Community Investment programme (employee volunteering and charity partnerships), education (our sustainable schools programme – The Pod) and our LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Supporters Network. Whilst I’m more removed from the front line (the days of doing a badger survey and crawling through hedgerows are long gone!), my role includes setting / monitoring company-wide targets on biodiversity, running environmental campaigns with schools, overseeing EMS and audit work in our corporate functions and more. We work with many Wildlife Trusts on volunteering projects as well, and are rolling out the Biodiversity Benchmark across our operational sites.

What do you think are the most important skills for someone in your role to have?

 

The world of ecology and environmental management is vast – there is a huge amount to know. So whilst it’s key to know the basics, you also need to have a strong, professional and dedicated technical team in place, and have a good network of contacts. There’s also a balance you need to achieve between being able to get stuck in to the detail of something and equally being able to think big picture and long term. In this industry, with issues like climate change on the horizon, that’s even more critical.

Describe the aspects of your job you find particularly rewarding and those you find challenging?

For me, it’s hugely rewarding to know and see how you’ve made a positive difference to the world around you. That’s what gets me excited. I also find the people engagement and development side of my role hugely rewarding. Seeing the professionals you’ve recruited, developed or mentored grow personally and professionally in their field is fantastic – as is seeing the impact of environmental activities with schools. That’s where our future leaders, scientists, ecologists are developing, after all. What can be challenging is the complexity of delivering environmental activity in a vast and complex business – but equally that’s also part of the appeal. As individuals and as a team, we also have a huge range of ideas for environmental projects or programmes, but limited capacity or resource so you have to prioritise – really focus on the things that will make a difference.

Describe your career progression so far and any plans you have for the future

I started as a volunteer with Surrey Wildlife Trust, soon becoming a paid member of staff there (Planning and Conservation Officer). From there, I moved to Babtie (now Jacobs) as an Ecologist where I had three ‘hats’ – commercial ecological consultant, Local Authority ecologist in Berkshire, and a part-time secondment as Planning Officer to the Fisheries and Ecology team of the Environment Agency. After three years, I moved to Thames Water where I stayed for just under 12 years in a variety of environmental and sustainability roles – tackling everything from EIA, conservation land management, archaeology, water efficiency, Corporate Responsibility reporting, 25-year strategy development, environmental regulation and more. From there, I moved to my current employer, EDF Energy. For the future, what motivates me is making a positive difference to the world around me. With climate change and environmental protection still some of the most pressing global challenges, there’s clearly much more to do here!

What one piece of advice would you give to someone seeking a career in the sector?

Academic achievement is important but so is experience – always give volunteering a go to build your skills, experience and network of contacts. It’s how I started and two of my former fellow volunteers at Surrey Wildlife Trust are now CEOs of their own Wildlife Trusts so absolutely go for it!