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Alumni Interviews: Charting new territory in environmental policy and practice

Photo of Jeanne NgJeanne Ng is the director of Group Sustainability for CLP Power Hong Kong, Ltd., where she is responsible for CLP Group’s sustainability matters. She joined CLP in 2003 when the Group Environmental Affairs department was established, and was previously director of Group Environmental Affairs. Ng holds a BSc in Toxicology from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Environmental Management from the University of Hong Kong. She has extensive experience in the environmental industry; prior to joining CLP, she held senior roles in international environmental/engineering consulting companies. She was involved in most of the early Hong Kong governmental air pollution and climate strategy and policy studies, and is regarded as one of Hong Kong’s experts in air and greenhouse gas emissions inventories.

Why did you choose to study at U of T?

My father is a U of T grad; he did his PhD in statistics at U of T and then started teaching there in the mid-1970s. Our family left Canada for Hong Kong in 1979. I was sent back to Canada for high school in Alberta, where we had some family friends. When it came to choosing a university, my parents thought it was important to get exposure to a large one, where one could make more connections and that also had a reputation for excellence — that was U of T.

What was the university experience like for you?

I had led a pretty sheltered life, and when I got to U of T I felt lost — it was so big. But for that very reason, U of T forced me to become independent. I got a huge sense of satisfaction just from registering for all my courses on time! Suddenly having all that freedom did go to my head a little. I started enjoying life, taking part in social activities. Of course my grades plummeted — while I gained the confidence that you can control your life, I also realized that you can’t necessarily do everything well. I failed a year but then I bucked up. I experienced failure and I came back from it. It was scary but it felt good. If you’re going to fail, this is the time to do it. That was a big lesson.

It was also a real process of self-discovery. I realized I’m a social person and I loved organizing events and gatherings.

What made you decide on your programs of study?

At first, I wanted to go to medical school and so I registered to specialize in one of the life science programs — toxicology. Deciding on what other minors or electives to take was more challenging and I bounced around a lot at first. I tried criminology but in the end settled on psychology and economics. Through this experience I discovered that I had a wide range of interests, ranging from science and numbers to a fascination with social behaviour and the human mind.

Did you have a career path in mind?

I have always wanted to do a job that contributed value to society. After working for a summer at the Metro Toronto Police, I decided that was more exciting than pursuing medicine and really wanted to join. There weren’t many Chinese on the force then and there was a recruitment effort on. But when I returned to Hong Kong for a visit, my parents put a stop to that plan.

I signed up to do my PhD in environmental management in Hong Kong, which was a relatively new program. I realized I like to do things that other people haven’t done. The program was transformative. I was hired to be one of Hong Kong’s first air emissions inventory specialists for big government projects.

How did your undergraduate studies prepare you for graduate work and this career move?

My undergraduate studies gave me insight into the connection between human health and the environment and so when my plans to join the Metro Toronto Police force were halted, I decided that I wanted to do something meaningful, like tackle air pollution, which was not an issue in Hong Kong at that time yet.

I had the choice to work in a lab and conduct scientific research, but my undergraduate experience confirmed that although I can carry out the repetitive procedures, precise measurements and reporting, I did not really enjoy being stuck in an enclosed environment. I also felt there already seemed to be quite a bit of research going on in Hong Kong in the area of human health and I wanted to contribute more to a newer area that few people had ventured into at the time. Environmental management was definitely one of those areas.

What is consulting like?

Consulting is like training from hell. We worked long hours, had multiple projects on the go. I learned to write reports and manage projects and time I also realized that I hate compromising quality for time. However, I found it very rewarding in terms of getting a lot of experience in a short period of time and recognition from clients and your boss when you have done a great job. You don’t have to deal as much with office politics as, at the end of the day, if you do good work and deliver to your clients on time and within budget, both your boss and client will want to continue working with you and you will get compensated according to how well you perform.

Tell us about your current role as director of group sustainability at CLP Power Hong Kong Ltd.

Although I was probably addicted to my consulting work, after almost a decade, I decided to go over to the corporate side where I felt I could make a difference. I discovered it was important to me that the values of the company are aligned with mine — that we are both striving to create value for the society. When my values are not aligned with a company’s values, it is hard to stay. There is an internal dissonance that simply isn’t worth it. I am lucky that I found a company like CLP. Up until now, at over 12 years, it is the longest that I have stayed at any company.

When I joined CLP, I was attracted to the fact that I would be helping to build the new Group Environmental Affairs department. As I mentioned earlier, I always seem to gravitate towards new challenges. It was not easy, but after a decade, the department was well established, while we saw one or two others come and go. In 2014, there was a major restructuring and I took on the challenge of starting up a new Group Sustainability department, while the Group Environmental Affairs function was mature enough to become embedded back into our core Group Operations department. Leveraging our previous experience, the main role of the Group Sustainability department is to innovate and incubate new capabilities that add value to the business and to help integrate them back into the business once they are mature and established. You need buy-in from the leadership at the top to agree to invest in such innovation and incubation activities, especially if the initiatives are new and beyond regulatory compliance. It is because CLP values such activities, like I do, that it can all happen.

What is the big challenge — and the big opportunity — for sustainability in business?

Many of the sustainability challenges we face today are very complex and quite often, there is not any one silver bullet to solve the problem. Take climate change for example. We really need to scale up renewables, while increasing energy end use efficiency and becoming smarter in the way energy is managed both on the supply and demand sides — but what will make that happen? We on the corporate side used to think we knew all the answers, but these days, we realize we cannot come up with the solutions alone. We need to collaborate with governments and communities to co-create new strategies and solutions to tackle these emerging sustainability challenges. We need to figure out how to strike that balance between environment and social and economic development and that balancing point will all be different in different places at different times.

I believe that we are shifting from the environmental awareness era towards a social one, whereby although we talk a lot about new technologies and the digital age of disruption, none of that can happen without capable and talented people. Companies that know how to identify, develop and retain the right talent for the right jobs will come out ahead.

Tell us about your new role as a stakeholder council member for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

Well it is very new and so I am just getting to know the other council members and the role we should be playing. In the early days, the members helped steer the development of the GRI Guidelines, but now that they are established and may soon become an international standard for sustainability reporting, the role of the stakeholder council seems to be evolving.

You’ve been a key alumni volunteer at the U of T (Hong Kong) Alumni Association, including being president in 1998. What meaning do you derive from it?

Volunteerism is rewarding; it too can be a process of self-discovery. I was fortunate that at the time, the executives were very proactive, had a lot of positive energy and were willing to put in a lot of time. We had great chemistry and all became good friends. I learned that I like to be a connector. So getting involved with your alma mater like this is a good experience, the first step in broadening your network.

I also learned critical persuasion skills: you often had to find the people who have the necessary expertise to do things for which you don’t have the skills and expertise. And as you manage people you find out more about yourself. It made me better at my job, and more effective at asking people to do the things they didn’t necessarily want to.

I have to say it was very exciting to see the 20th anniversary of the U of T (Hong Kong) Foundation — it brought me back to those early years. I remember being there and watching it get established. As I focused on my career, I moved away from direct involvement. The event brought home to me how important the foundation is — that people are working hard for a good cause. In an organization like the U of T (Hong Kong) Foundation, among the alumni there are those that have money and influence, and those who work really hard and give back in time. I’m proud that it pumped out graduates who are talented, who have potential, who have a global view and who are so much more mature. I’m also proud that I’ve reached a stage in my professional life when I can sponsor such a good cause.

Do you have any advice for current students?

First, get to know yourselves. You think you do but you probably don’t. It isn’t easy. You might have unknowingly adopted others’ expectations or perceptions of you without knowing whether they are suited to or accurately depicting you. You have to put yourself in situations outside your comfort zone before you understand what makes you happy, what drives you.

Second, the world is always changing. Knowledge isn’t just facts and figures, but what you do with the information, how you process it. The world is complicated and there are dilemmas and tensions constantly at play. So you need patience to get the information from multiple perspectives, to listen and digest, to suppress the automatic impulse not to agree, before you make a judgement. And then don’t be afraid when you make your decision.

Third, you will forever be a student; the world is changing so fast that you can’t stop learning. We often end up in jobs that weren’t even invented when we were studying and so we couldn’t have been trained for them. For example, sustainability was definitely not an area that existed when I was in university.