By Tina Perinotto…
FAVOURITES -5 May 2009 – A new breed of sustainability managers is making its mark. Its members are smart, highly professional and the importance of their role is growing. TFE will interview these bright new leaders in coming weeks. This issue: Siobhan Toohill of Stockland.
It used to be that sustainability managers appeared well down the hierarchy of importance and status in property companies.
Not any more.
At the Green Building Council’s Green Cities conference in early March, Stockland’s sustainability manager, Siobhan Toohill moderated a panel of analysts on their take on sustainability and how it plays into the investment case for property.
Later she fielded curly questions from Property Council of Australia chief Peter Verwer, as part of a summing up panel, staking her ground under pressure.
On stage, under pressure, Toohill is confident, highly skilled and knowledgeable – on top of her game.
Toohill is part of a new set of impressive, mostly young, sustainability managers emerging to represent their property company employers as they deal with the increasing clamour of climate change and wider sustainability issues.
These are tough, complex roles and they call for a whole new skill set.
But what is this new breed of property professional like? And how hard is their job?
Toohill’s background is as well rounded as you could wish for in her role for one of Australia’s biggest and most influential property companies.
She started her professional life as an architect but then moved into jobs as an urban design manager with master planning experience in Melbourne’s Docklands and Rouse Hill in Sydney, as well as working for the NSW urban Design Advisory Service.
When she joined Stockland five years ago it was to pioneer best practice in the residential community business.
Her urban design work was “a really interesting experience…understanding government and design and planning,” she says.
“It was as great training ground and I worked with some great urban planning designers.” These included people such as Deborah Dearing (now with Stockland and NSW chapter president for the Australian Institute of Architects), Ken Maher, Russell Olsson, Jan McCreadie and Helen Lochhead, now assistant Government Architect in NSW.
The segue into urban design from architecture was a natural progression for Toohill that started with the impact of her parents’ move to India, where her father worked in the Australian High Commission and her mother in education.
“To me that was an extraordinary experience in my late teens and early 20s, a wonderful time of my life” she says.
It prompted the inevitable questions about purpose and meaning in life.
“In India you are confronted with immense juxtaposition of incredible wealth and incredible poverty that you are constantly asking yourself, what do I do.
“It’s not about financial charity – maybe it’s more about what I do and how I live my life and make it more meaningful on a daily basis.”
Toohill worked in a traditional architectural practice, “learning the craft” as she put it.
But soon she was asking the bigger questions: “how do you create better lives and better places? These were the bigger questions I want to engage in.”
At Stockland Toohill uses the broader definition of sustainability – extending concerns for the environment to concerns for all stakeholders including employees and ensuring they are “fully engaged in their work.”
In fact Toohill integrates her strategy into that of Human Resources and reports to the executive general manager of HR..
“The company’s performance and success in sustainability can only occur if our people are fully engaged and that’s part of their balanced scorecard,” she says.
“I don’t expect people I talk to to necessarily be believers. It’s not my job to make them believe.”
Instead, she says, it is her job to make a compelling business case for a response to climate change – that government, customers and employees “expect us to engage with the many different issues on climate change.
“It’s not a matter of believing, but of taking actions and supporting the business longer term.”
It’s the “licence to operate” principle, she says.
That’s the imperative for business, of “taking this area seriously and listening to your stakeholders and balancing those views and taking actions according to those stakeholders.”
CLIMATE CHANGE OPTIMIST
Today, her view on climate change is driven by her natural optimism.
“I am deeply concerned about climate change but I’m also an optimist. To work in this role you have to be optimistic that you can drive sufficient change.”
Key to change is business working with government and forming a critical partnership, she says. “One can’t do it without the other.”
Government is “incredibly engaged” on the issues of climate change and environmental responsibilities, but the road to new legislation that deals with those demands is paved with complexities and sometimes contradictions – and it’s up to Toohill and her peers to steer a way through.
On the table is mandatory disclosure of energy and carbon emissions, along with a raft of related issues.
The National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting System, for instance, is designed to underpin the way the carbon pollution reduction scheme will work.
“We’ve been reporting around energy performance and carbon footprint for three years,” Toohill says.
“What we hope for is more streamlining around those issues, especially around reporting to allow it to be more effective.”
Customers on the other hand are interested in becoming more sustainable, says Toohill, but when it comes to paying, they are not prepared to do so.”
But the question of how much sustainable design adds to the cost, is not easily answered.
“It always comes back to good design. It’s not a big leap from being a designer to working on sustainability – it’s very much aligned.
“Quantifying the cost of sustainability is quantifying the cost of good design. The quality of materials, sun-shading, the cost doesn’t have to be considerable.”
And like sustainability in general, she might have added, it’s the logic that speaks for itself.