“We are not just thinking about the rights we have as the shareholders, but the responsibility that we should exercise as investors”

Lisa Hayles, Principal at Boston Common Asset Management talks to Responsible Investor about how she got into ESG and her career to date.

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

My job title is Principal, ESG Specialist and that title reflects the fact that I was promoted to become an owner of my firm, Boston Common Asset Management in 2018. In my role I work with new and existing clients, mainly institutional investors to provide them with information on our sustainable investment approach and advise them on how they can achieve positive impact through their investments. I also coordinate the work my firm does on diversity and inclusion issues, engaging with companies on gender diversity and racial equity.

Boston Common is a unique investment firm, given the gender and racial diversity of the staff and focus on sustainable investing. Our founder, Geeta Ayier, is a pioneer in the responsible investment space in the U.S. Our integrated investment team is 50 per cent women; our board of directors is 60 per cent women. It's atypical in investment management to have this level of gender diversity and we are also a racially and ethnically diverse firm. We think this is one of many dimensions of diversity that is additive in terms of investment decision-making, particularly as we are focused on investing globally.

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

I divide my time between supporting existing clients, reaching out to new clients and consultants and supporting engagement work with companies in our portfolios. 

My client-facing work may involve responding to queries or RFPs from our direct clients and from intermediaries like investment consultants, on our strategies. With investors who are new to ESG there is an opportunity to educate them on our offering and challenge some common myths about investing with a sustainability lens – that it is inconsistent with fiduciary duty for example or that there could be an automatic ‘give-up’ of financial performance!  A lot of our business comes through investment consultants, so cultivating relationships, and building rapport as a trusted advisor on ESG approaches is a very important part of our business. 

On the engagement side, I work on identifying and promoting best practice for companies on diversity and inclusion. I sit on the board of the Thirty Percent Coalition which is focused on increasing diversity at the board level and I’ve been working with a group of investors focused on racial justice for the past two years. I speak regularly at conferences and events on ESG and sustainable investing. I enjoy this aspect of my work the most, because it provides an opportunity to educate investors who want their investments to produce positive financial and societal impact(s).

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

I started my career working for an NGO in Toronto with a focus on microfinance, and for my entire career I’ve been interested in the intersection of market mechanisms and social justice.  That is what really drew me to responsible investing.  As a student I did internships at the Development Center of the OECD and with Doctors Without Borders while living in France.  Therefore I really thought my career would be focused on international development and international affairs. I certainly never imagined then I would become a partner in an investment management firm!  

While in graduate school I volunteered at a conference on environmental investing and that was my first foray into what was called ‘socially responsible investing’. I had met the executive director of what is now the Responsible Investment Association (RIA) in Toronto.  We stayed in touch and I was invited to apply for the job of Assistant Director. I worked there for two and a half years- that was really my initial foray into sustainable investing. At the time, the industry was still quite small in Canada with a focus on the retail market – this was years before the creation of the PRI and ESG analysis became more mainstream.

 During my third summer in that role a friend of mine sent me a job posting for a position with EIRIS in London. I knew their work and that the ethical investing market in the U.K. and Europe was much bigger than it was in Canada or the U.S. I applied for the job, but it was a complete lark. I hadn’t contemplated moving to London seriously until they invited me for an interview. I was very impressed with their systematic interview and evaluation process; everyone was so kind and I liked both what they did and everyone I met! They did offer me the job and I moved to London two months later. I worked at EIRIS as a relationship manager and then became head of client services for North America. 

 It was an exciting time to be working in sustainable investment research. Boston Common Asset Management, where I work now, was one of my first clients in North America.  In fact, they were my favorite client because I was very impressed with their approach to ESG investing.  It became even clearer after I joined that they tried to really ‘walk the talk’: excluding certain companies and industry sectors, considering ESG analysis through the investment process and using their voice as a shareholder to influence company behavior.  

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

What I like the most is the potential for impact. I like the fact that we are using our voice as an investor to encourage companies to address sustainability challenges and that we are not just thinking about the rights we have as the shareholders, but the responsibility that we should exercise as investors. I feel privileged to work in a firm where this is all that we do and that we're deeply committed to delivering financial returns and social change. 

I guess the worst part is the skepticism that you face in the investment and financial world. There are many investment actors out there who are paying lip service to the idea of responsible investing in order to gather assets- but see it as just another product –not as a fundamental shift in how to think about the value and prospects of a firm.

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

Someone I worked with very early in my career, a former boss  Mary Coyle.  She was head of Calmeadow, the microfinance NGO I worked for when I started my career in Toronto. Mary was appointed to the Canadian senate last year for her work in support of gender equality and indigenous peoples.

Mary was an example of a highly accomplished woman who was the executive director of an innovative and ground-breaking NGO who also had a family.  I think her example was extremely influential to me because I worked with her when I was in my early 20s – the idea of a professional, successful woman leader was normalised for me and she was a phenomenal mentor. 

What is your understanding of a sustainable workplace? 

It's all about the culture, a culture of learning, of innovation, of the support to bring up the best in each individual who is part of the workplace. On a practical level it is about making it easier to do the sustainable thing –  for example we divert food waste from landfill by working with a compost pick-up service and offset our own travel as well as the travel of all our guests through a partnership with a forestry project in Peru.  We chose our current office space in part because it was LEED certified Gold.  We also offer every employee two days off to volunteer with the community based organisation of their choice – I use my time to serve on the board of a local impact investing fund – the Boston Impact Initiative Fund.

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

We're a boutique with less than 40 employees so we're not doing a huge amount of recruitment. At the senior level, there's relatively little turnover. We typically recruit if we post a position here in Boston on the local BASIC listserv, which is a network of the sustainable investment community in Boston. 

For more senior roles, portfolio manager or financial analysts we have used search firms in the past. Typically, we're looking for individuals who have a significant amount of experience. 

However, I remember what it was like to be a student, wanting to get into a career and not really having any connections and not knowing how to do so! I am very open to doing informational interview with students or professionals just starting their career, and I encourage them to reach out to me to request a meeting. Sometimes it takes time for me to get back to them as I travel a lot, but I try to be responsive to those types of requests. 

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 be given when you started out?

 I think I might have done a CFA – not because anything in my job requires me to use the skill set that you have with the CFA but it’s a good housekeeping label. If not a CFA, I would have done more finance classes, or got a masters in finance in addition to the one I did. I recognise that as ESG investing becomes more and more mainstream, those types of credentials are likely going to become more important.

What advice would you give to someone starting out today? 

There are opportunities as research analysts, portfolio managers, in marketing and business development across our industry.  There are likely going to be more entry level jobs in larger firms – and of course if you want to go the Portfolio Manager or analyst route I think a CFA is a necessary credential, though it's not the be-all and end all for sustainable investing. 

My advice would be: you should pursue the interests that are closest to your passion. You're likely to be the most authentic when you become an expert at something that really interests you and it is also more likely that you’ll be able to have a bigger impact. Our industry needs professionals who understand climate change, human rights issues, etc. and can make the case for the necessity of investors incorporating these issues into our investment approaches.  This requires input from both financial professionals and from experts from other domains as well.

So it's not necessarily only an investment industry credential that they should be looking at, but where their interests and passion can be engaged in their work… 

Where do you see the opportunities or growth areas for career paths in responsible investments and ESG?

I think that a lot of sustainable investing professionals will emerge from the likes of NGOs and campaigning groups because of their knowledge of the negative impacts of some issues that financial analysts discount. 

There will be an increasing demand for data scientists. There's a real desire to take in more ESG data and figure out ways that it can be incorporated into a larger dataset. 

There will be a demand for employees that have knowledge of climate change, deforestation, water, human rights and other ESG specific themes. 

On the soft skills, I think those who can write intelligently and speak persuasively will always be in demand.


CV at a glance: 

  • Boston Common Asset Management
    • Principal, ESG Specialist 2018 – present 
    • Vice-president, Institutional Investment Services, 2013 – 2018 
  • EIRIS, Head of Client Services – North America, 2003 – 2013 
  • Responsible Investment Association, Assistant Director, 2001 – 2003 

To access other interviews and Sustainable Finance Careers Report follow the link: esg-data.com/careers