RI Careers Interview: “The wonderful thing about the world of investment stewardship and ESG is that there is no such thing as a typical week”

Talieh Williams, Head of Investment Stewardship at Victorian Funds Management Corporation, talks to Responsible Investor about how she got into ESG and her career to date

This article is Free, but to access more of our content, you can sign up for a no strings attached 28-day free trial here.

Tell us a bit about your current role and the company you work at?

I am Head of Investment Stewardship at Victorian Funds Management Corporation (VFMC), which is a ~$65B fund for the State of Victoria’s public authorities. Our clients span a range of public sector organisations from the Victorian Worksafe Authority, the Transport Accident Commission and Emergency Services Superannuation, through to a variety of hospitals, zoos and art galleries.

My remit is broad –  I am responsible for setting the strategic direction for the fund's investment stewardship practices. My team works collaboratively with internal portfolio managers and external asset managers to ensure that VFMC is an active and engaged asset owner, that ESG is integrated into the investment decision-making process as well collaborating and working with others outside VFMC to influence and drive positive change in the market.

What does a typical working week look like for you? What do you do on a daily basis?

The wonderful thing about the world of investment stewardship and ESG is that there is no such thing as a typical week, which makes work engaging and challenging.

My work day (and that of my team) might encompass reading research and applying a practical lens (e.g. what does this mean for VFMC?), holding meetings with investee companies, attending issue-specific briefings, briefing the CIO and CEO regarding current issues and activities; right through to dealing with transactional ESG due diligence,  engaging with clients and delivering external presentations.

A common thread is engaging with stakeholders and seeking to influence positive change in practices and behaviours at a practical level.

Have you always worked in RI/ESG? Tell us about your career path.

My career path has been varied but always anchored in the ESG space. I commenced work in commercial legal practice (with a focus on environmental law) in 2000, and then worked in the oil industry at Shell as an environmental project manager, and have also worked in sustainability/ESG consulting. I joined the investment industry in 2008 and have never looked back.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Master of Social Science (International Development), a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Planning and Design (Urban Planning).

Were there any particular steps you took to move into RI/ESG?

In terms of particular steps that I have taken, the important thing for me was to obtain a robust set of academic qualifications. Ultimately, they are your entry ticket to the start line of the marathon that is your career. 

It was then a question of securing a role that ‘seemed’ interesting (it is always hard to judge from the outside looking in), going in and doing the best job I could while learning as much as possible. It is then a question of reflecting on what next (using the skills already acquired with a focus on how to leverage those skills in a different but related field). 

I would also approach people whose careers I admired and ask them for a coffee so that I could learn about their career journeys. A real challenge is that there are so many amazing jobs that exist, but often as an 18-year-old entering university, you have never heard of them. Even now, I come across people and think: “Wow, what a great role – who knew that position even existed?”

As such, when my career commenced, I didn’t have any knowledge regarding the world of finance and investments.

Was there anything that attracted you to RI/ESG?

As my career progressed, I came to see the influential role financial markets could play in driving improved environmental and social outcomes on the ground and that is what attracted me into responsible investing/ESG.

What do you like most, like least about RI/ESG?

I love the diversity of the work, the fact that it is a force for catalysing positive change ‘in the real world’ and that I get to work within a community of like-minded people across many different organisations. There is a great spirit of collaboration and community. It is work with purpose.

The thing I like least is the fact that it can take time to drive the desired change, and the pace does sometimes feel glacial. However, when looking through the rear-view mirror over the last 12 years, I can see that substantial change, driven by investors has occurred.

What single thing or person has had the most positive impact on your career, and why?

In terms of who has had the most positive impact on my career and why – firstly, I am hugely fortunate to have directly worked with several impressive and talented leaders and to have had exposure to many others through the work that I do.

While it may sound trite, my parents have had a huge influence on my career. They were always very clear about the importance of obtaining a ‘good’ education, particularly out of respect for those elsewhere in the world who, through circumstance, do not have the same opportunity. In addition, they also instilled in me a strong sense of service and looking beyond myself. They didn’t care what I did in terms of craft, trade or profession, as long as I did it to the best of my ability.

Have you ever had to prove the business case for ESG and if so, how would you normally go about it? 

I have always had to prove the business case for ESG and whilst sometimes it has been challenging, it has been hugely important because it ensures you are very clear in your own mind regarding what needs to be done and why. It instils a strong sense of rigour in the process and this means you are able to obtain genuine buy-in from the relevant people, because they can also see that it makes sense. In the world of ESG/RI/sustainable investing it is very easy to get pulled in a multitude of directions – clarity of purpose and a clear business case ensure that one does not lose direction. However, I feel that we are now moving toward a time when there is a greater intrinsic understanding of the ‘why’.

What differences do you see, if any, between sustainable finance/investments and conventional ones? 

There is a lot of terminology and it can be confusing. I see ESG as playing a critical role in conventional finance – it seeks to ensure that investors are good stewards of capital by:

–          Being active owners (and use the ownership rights bestowed upon them)

–          Integrating ESG into the investment decision making process

–          Collaborating and working with others to drive change across the market 

Sustainable finance, to my mind, goes a step further and seeks to target investments that already have (or are delivering) more positive sustainability outcomes.

What is your understanding of a sustainable workplace? 

At its essence, a sustainable workplace is one that looks after people – those that work there and the community (in turn, this extends to the environment and the economy). It is a place where there are high standards of conduct, where the work is rewarding and where everyone is treated with respect and is valued for their contribution. Good culture, ethics, trust and integrity are essential.

In your view, how is the work culture changing to meet the demands and aspirations of a new generation, i.e. millennials? 

Work culture is changing to meet the demands and aspirations of a new generation –  which is great, as it means we all adapt and evolve – but my view is that some old fashioned values remain. It is critical to pay your dues. In developing your career, you will likely have to do work that may be boring, monotonous or seem pointless and there will be someone who is “doing way more exciting stuff”. It takes time to earn the right to be doing the exciting stuff and even then, there are always some tasks that are less than exciting.

How does your firm recruit into ESG? Is your firm looking for sustainable finance graduates or any other discipline?

My view is that ESG needs specialised generalists, with analytical minds, high levels of common sense (which is not that common), diplomacy and tact; an interest in the world around them and the ability to synthesise issues and develop practical solutions to problems.

How important it is to have someone in a team who has a background in natural science? 

A background in natural science may be useful but is not critical. Law, economics, engineering, finance, social science all provide a solid foundation on which to build a career in ESG.

If you knew what you know now what would you have done differently when you started your career. What advice do you wish you’d been given when you started out?

I used to worry a lot about “my career” and how it would go. On reflection, I wish that I had worried less, had a greater sense of inner confidence and been more focused on the present moment. Do the task that is before you well and the rest will take care of itself. As the saying goes, the harder you work the luckier you become.

What advice would you give to someone starting out today?

My advice, apart from the obvious regarding getting qualified, is to be enthusiastic, enquiring, diligent and to remember that when things are really hard, that is likely when you are learning the most. Also, it can all get really serious, so, remember to have fun and enjoy the journey.

Above all, good manners and humility never go out of fashion.

CV at a glance:

  1. Head of Investment Stewardship, VFMC: 2020 – current

  2. Special Counsel, Morrow Sodali: 2019

  3. Manager, Governance and Sustainable Investment, UniSuper: 2008 – 2019

  4. Manager, Sustainability and Climate Change, EY: 2006-2008

  5. Solicitor, Minter Ellison: 2005

  6. Environmental Project Manager, Shell: 2001-2004

  7. Solicitor, Clayton Utz: 2000-2001


 To access other interviews and Sustainable Finance Careers Report click here.