B4SI News

In Conversation with Jonathan Dobson, United Utilities

Please describe your role and responsibilities, how many years you have been in the company?
My role at United Utilities is part of a small team of three, that aims to protect and enhance our reputation as a responsible business. It is a diverse role that covers all aspects of sustainability management; strategic responses to emerging issues, engaging with internal teams on how to improve, and collating and reporting our performance data including our community investment data. Being based in the company HQ is a great location to engage and challenge different parts of the business from. I’ve been with United Utilities for nearly 20 years doing various roles, which has given me a fairly good understanding of the business, the region we serve and access to a fantastic network of people who can provide answers to almost anything.

What was your background previously and where did your interest in community begin?
With a family history in dairy farming and degrees in environmental science and water management, working for a water company on catchment management (a job I didn’t know existed when I was at school) seemed a pretty good fit for me. From there I joined the environment team after seeing the scope and variety of the work they did. That involved looking after our environmental management system and sustainable development plan. When the environment team merged with our CR Team I got introduced to a whole new aspect of the good work we were doing through our community investment activities. And to be honest it’s been something of a steep learning curve to understand the issues, drivers and impact we can have in communities. Over the past five years or so the challenges within communities seem to be getting more extreme.

How has your community investment program evolved at your company?
Our community programme has, over the years, become more focussed on the issues that matter in the North West. Many years ago, it was a bit more of a scatter gun approach where we supported a plethora of issues, causes and projects across the region, with no sense of how it was all addressing the big issues for us and the communities we operate in. It is still evolving as well – with the move towards being more purpose led as an organisation – how we add value to the communities we serve is becoming more of a focus. I think we are well placed to tell our story and more importantly move towards showing the impact we are having.

What are the challenges you encounter in driving the sustainability agenda and how do you stay inspired?
Sustainability is such a wide ranging subject that one of the main challenges is keeping up to date on developments across the whole spectrum of environmental, social and governance issues and then knowing how they might affect the company. In terms of mobilising action there are the challenges of simplifying the ask, building a compelling case, and with a lot of issues identifying the right opportunity at the right time to get support and momentum behind what you want to do. Alongside all of the examples of companies, large and small, that are making really positive changes to address sustainability challenges, what really inspires me are the individuals who give up their time, and make the effort to get involved in their local communities.

What is your biggest accomplishment or learning so far?
In the role I would say the biggest accomplishment has been maintaining our position in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for over 12 years. For a regional water company to be holding our own against multinational organisations across the range of sustainability subjects is pretty satisfying.

With strategic sustainability and community issues being so big and taking a long time to realise significant changes I found that having something away from work where you can see a change instantly from your actions was helpful. I used to prepare cricket pitches (you can see the difference when you have mown grass), and I now coach an under 10s rugby team which is highly rewarding.

What is your motto in life?
Be the best you, you can be. It’s something I remind my kids before they go to school each morning.