Sandra Odendahl

Vice President & Global Head of Sustainability at Scotiabank

Sandra Odendahl is Vice-President and Global Head of Sustainability at Scotiabank, joining the bank in November 2019 with almost 25 years of experience in environmental science, corporate sustainability, and responsible finance.  At Scotiabank, Sandra leads the team responsible for corporate sustainability, climate change strategy, social impact management, and ESG reporting. She also serves on the bank’s Global Inclusion Council and co-chairs the Control Functions Diversity and Inclusion Committee.   

Before joining Scotiabank, Sandra was President and CEO of Carbon Management Canada, a Calgary-based environmental company helping clients develop and scale up innovative carbon management technologies and strategies.   Previously, she held several roles at the Royal Bank of Canada, including leading Corporate Sustainability, Social Finance and Environmental Risk Management.   In the early part of her career, Sandra worked in the natural resources sector as an environmental scientist and engineer in Toronto and Vancouver.

Sandra is active in her community and enjoys serving on several non-profit boards and advisory panels.  She is a Board Director and Audit Committee Chair of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.   She also serves as a Board Director for the Transition Accelerator and NEXT Canada.  

Sandra has a Master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, with a Certificate in Management, from the University of Ottawa.   She is a licensed professional engineer (P.Eng) and Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) charter holder.   Sandra lives with her husband and two children in Toronto.

Work and impact

Well, as of the new year, my role at Scotiabank is Vice President and Global Head of Sustainability. For the past two years until recently, my role was Vice President of Social Impact and Sustainability. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about the broader role as well as what the current focus has now shifted to. 

Both my previous and current roles have included leading ESG or sustainability reporting.  This includes annual ESG reports, gathering information from all parts of the bank on our environmental and social highlights, how we’re demonstrating good governance and contributing to economic resilience, etc.   My team also oversees sustainability strategy and programs, so for example, how do we embed environmental and social considerations into procurement?   Banks have a lot of branches and occupy a lot of office space so we also look at environmental management in real estate operations to reduce energy use, reduce solid waste, use materials that lower impact in furnishings, etc.

The Sustainability team also supports sustainability with our business partners across the bank. Say a business partner is in commercial lending and is thinking of environmentally focused offerings for commercial clients. We either are the ones to propose an idea to them that we flush out together, or they may come to us and say, ‘we’re looking at something and we would like to get your help.’

My team also does research and thought leadership pieces or summary documents. For example, during COP26, we wrote a newsletter every two days giving the highlights of what was happening at the COP26 conference in Scotland. I have a team of two who do social innovation and social impact work, including human rights policies and initiatives. We operate in countries all over the world, so we want to pay attention to human rights issues both in the way we conduct ourselves as employees and as a company, but also the way that we examine the clients and the business partnerships that we enter into. In addition to those things that are part of my mandate today, previously my mandate also covered community investment or donations. The bank has committed to set aside 1% of profits in Canada to contribute to the community every year.  In that part of the mandate, which is very common for someone in CSR, or social impact and sustainability, I previously oversaw the donation strategy and portfolio.

The top area of focus in 2020, my first year at the bank, in terms of ESG, was all about developing and launching a focussed social impact strategy.   We developed ScotiaRise, which is a $500,000,000 10-year commitment to support economic resilience, and it launched in January 2021. As of now, we have about 200 different community partners all over the world, working with us on initiatives that support three pillars.  The first is improving access to secondary and post secondary education. The second pillar is getting newcomers to Canada up the curve faster, integrated into the community and able to use their international skills faster. And the third pillar of activity with Scotia Rise focuses very much on improving job and career possibilities for groups that are historically disadvantaged in the job market, in their sector, or in their countries, and helping them to move up the economic ladder. 

2021 was very much focused on the bank’s approach to becoming a net zero bank, so very focused on climate change strategy, on characterizing what our clients are doing in terms of their emissions, and what kind of strategies we can undertake with our clients to help decarbonize the economy.

I’ve literally been working in sustainability my entire career. It’s really interesting to see so many people talking about sustainability and ESG, when up until just a few years ago, it was really hard to get mainstream people’s attention to the importance of some of these issues and how they were turning into chronic, existential, survival of humanity issues! But now, a lot of people get it and a lot of people are trying to contribute and figure out what their role is. I entered this space starting with my undergraduate and graduate degrees both in chemical engineering. In graduate school, I did my Master’s on the environmental impacts of pulp mill bleaching. After completing my undergrad, I deliberately chose to do a master’s in something where I could apply my engineering interest and knowledge to something to do with the environment.  I was very lucky at that time to be doing work in an area that was becoming newsworthy, and that led me into the workforce. You know, back in the late 80s, early 90s, dioxins and chlorinated organic compounds were found to be coming out of pulp mills, and dioxins are carcinogens. And so there was a lot of attention on how you make paper which everybody uses, even in the digital age. How do you make paper white, without causing all these contaminants? You know, if you’re going to work in the environment, you need to understand ecology and toxicology. And I was coming from a chemical engineering background, so I had to learn about all these other things, because it was all about figuring out the actual ecological impact of this industrial process.  First, I worked in Montreal at a Research Center for an integrated resource company, and I then got recruited to work for an environmental consulting firm. It was a midsize firm, maybe 200 people, based out of Toronto to help work on their Pulp and Paper client engagements, and that quickly expanded to include a whole bunch of other resource sector clients. A really great thing about being in consulting, especially early in your career, is that you end up having exposure to a lot of different things, depending on where you’re needed. I learned a lot about the resource sector and honed my expertise in environmental and social impact assessment while working at a mining project. In Indonesia, I got to see how the financing of these projects including the World Bank and private finance needed to make sure that the project wasn’t going to get shut down or wasn’t going to face huge disruptions because it had too many environmental or social issues associated with it.   I was very interested in finance, so I set up a conversation back in Vancouver with one of the bank executives to understand more about banking.  And she said, ‘I’m going to send your CV back to Toronto because if you’re interested in getting into banking, I think your background could be quite interesting.’  Sure enough, I ended up getting a call from a senior manager at the bank, who was looking for a resource sector analyst, not environmental, but generally looking at issues in the natural resources sector. We did a video interview which, honestly, 20-some years ago was really revolutionary technology, so I had to go to a special office in Vancouver that was set up for it.

And that’s how I was hired by Royal Bank as a resource sector risk analyst, by a guy who is now the CEO there.   At the time I said ‘Look, I don’t have an MBA or anything,’ and he said ‘there are MBAs everywhere I look around me, but I don’t have anyone on the team who’s actually worked in and understands how things work in a mine, at a pulp mill or at a hydroelectric project. So, your skills will be very complementary.’ So there I was in the banking sector, where I thought I would stay a very short time, but where I ended up spending most of my career.

I wanted to work on environmental issues ever since I was completing university and learned about the tension between environmental, social, and economic impacts and objectives in society. That would be the common thread through my entire career. I’m fascinated by ‘how do we solve this this tension?’ We need good jobs and development and products and services that people need to survive or luxury items people want. How do you produce and deliver them without messing up the environment and society? I think it’s a fascinating problem.

I’m interested in excited about the degree to which there’s a huge jump in recognition of the importance of environmental, social, and economic impacts of a business and development. I’m also excited that finally ESG is not just for sustainability professionals. It’s not just for scientists and engineers, which certainly was the case 8 years ago. If you want a career in sustainability, you can take a sustainability lens to whatever profession you’re interested in, and I’m very heartened by that. Because honestly, I’ve been saying that for the past 20 years, whenever I am invited to speak to university students. People say, ‘How do I have a career in sustainability?’ and I’d say to choose what you’re good at and what you like to do, but take the sustainability lens into it. Now, the marketplace is catching onto that, which is great.

One misconception is that ESG and sustainability are the same thing. Now I know sometimes people use ESG as a substitute for sustainability, so you have to understand what they mean. But I guess what I mean, is sustainability as a concept has been around for at least 35 years and it is this idea of “people, planet, profits”, or “economy, society, and environment “all need to be considered in any kind of activities, business development activities or whatever. 

ESG is similar, since obviously the E and the S are also part of sustainability, but the G, governance is more of an overarching thing and ESG is originally a financial analyst’s term. I actually know the guy who helped coin the ESG term. I was part of the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative way back in its early days, and the head of the initiative at that time and a group of folks around the table had the insight that financial analysts needed guidance on the non-financial things they should also be looking at when assessing investments in companies. They already knew how to assess the financial part, or arguably the economic part of sustainability, but they didn’t always think about the environmental issues and how they were going to affect a company’s future, or the social issues, or the governance. So ESG was meant to be that additional checklist for a financial analyst to make sure that they were thinking about more than just the financial bottom line when assessing companies. So, the misconception is that ESG is the same as sustainability, but it’s really not meant to be.   And I think that’s caused some confusion as well, where people are complaining that ESG isn’t delivering real impact in society. Well, it was never meant to. ESG was meant to be a way to evaluate whether a company’ financials were going to be adversely affected by E, S, and G issues. It wasn’t meant to be a framework for a company’s strategy to manage environmental, social and economic issues, like sustainability is.

Life and aspirations

Well, there’s not a lot of typical workdays lately, because of the amount of attention and enthusiasm around sustainability and ESG. It’s been pretty busy. My workday involves a lot of meetings. That is something that happens when you become an executive – you’re less about crunching the numbers and doing the research yourself and more about either guiding a team on what needs to be done or managing the flow of information up, down, in and out of the organization. 

For an example of my typical day, I can tell you about yesterday.  I started with a meeting with a risk manager in the bank who wanted to understand the bank’s sustainability strategy, because he recently came over from another bank and had some ideas on environmental and social risk management. He wanted to understand how the bank works so that he can figure out who best to work with, if he wants to implement some of the stuff that he thinks we might want to do a little differently. I also had a touch base with somebody with whom I co-chair a Diversity and Inclusion committee in the bank with that covers control functions like risk management, audit, compliance, and legal and corporate affairs. I also had one-on-one meetings yesterday with two of the leaders on my team. One person does operations and finance for the team so we talked about budgets, and the other person is the sustainability lead on our ESG reporting and strategy.  Then, a couple of meetings with external clients. One client has an IT product that we might be interested in using to track greenhouse gas emissions, so his account manager introduced him to me so that we could learn about their technology and whether we would want to use it as a bank, or if some of our clients might want to use it. Then I saw a pitch from an organization that is looking for funding for a really cool program they’re launching to help homeowners reduce their energy consumption and create a lot of tools and information and excitement around. So that’s just an example of a day.

During the pandemic (working from home) my day starts at 8:30AM. I’ll review my emails and my to-do list, with coffee in hand, answer a few messages, and then jump in the shower. Usually, I’m at my desk by 9:00AM. But since the pandemic, I now have meetings that start at 5:00PM, so the work-life balance is not great.  My goal for this year is to start to put in boundaries again, because there’s no boundary between going to work and coming home and it’s starting to get a little crazy.   The workday never ends.  Yesterday, I had a video call that went from 4PM-5:30PM. And then at 5:30, that’s when I had time to actually attack a few things, and I had a lot of stuff to review. Another thing when you’re a manager or a leader, is that when your team does work and if it’s going to very senior people, you’ll want oversight on it. So, in the evening I was reviewing a presentation deck, providing feedback, crunching some numbers, and the team was offline at that point, so I was doing the updates myself, which is totally fine.  Then went for a walk with my husband and son after 7, came back and had a late dinner, and then logged back in for an hour from 9PM-10PM.

One of the challenges is determining how to prioritize, especially when you’re genuinely interested in the topic. As I was saying earlier, I chose to work in sustainability before all the cool kids were doing it and it’s something I’m deeply interested in and always have been. A lot of people on my team are the same, which is amazing, but it creates two problems. One is that everything is interesting. So you have to take a deep breath and step back and go ‘what’s actually important to the organization that I’m working for? What should I be putting forward and advocating as a priority for Scotiabank?’ It’s not just about what I find super cool and interesting about this. And the other thing I find challenging is when you find it all personally interesting, and when it is a topic of great interest all over the bank and outside of the bank, it’s hard to draw boundaries. It’s hard to say ‘I can’t do that because I’m turning off my computer at 7PM from now on, so obviously, we’re just gonna have to say no to this this year.’ If it was less personally interesting, I wouldn’t be reading about it on the weekends, and nobody would be asking me about it at the dinner table. Then I imagine it might be easier to turn off.

I think another challenge is navigating your way around a really big company and figuring out what the informal channels of power are. You can look at organization charts to figure out what is the way to get something done on paper, but in reality, so-and-so is really good friends with so-and-so and they’re both senior leaders so you probably want to make sure you also get this other person on side. I guess it’s a little bit of politics, but I would call it informal channels. That is hard, especially if you’re new in an organization and particularly for people that are new in organizations during the pandemic.  You’re not just running into people in the hallway, you can’t as easily establish an informal network and get intel about what’s going on and how to get things done.

I think what’s next is making sure that I can support the bank in getting this net zero aspiration to be real. I think it’s going to be extremely challenging for all banks and all companies. I think it’s also going to take more collaboration across the banks.  I previously have played a leadership role in that area, bringing the five or six big banks together on things where we can work together, and I’m starting to do that again.   I also value my personal commitments to volunteering in my community and a lot of my volunteering now is serving on not for profit boards and doing student mentorship.   So, I want to make sure that I’m continuing to deliberately carve out the time to contribute to not-for-profit boards. I sit on the board of NEXT Canada, the Canadian Climate Institute, and the Transition Accelerator, and it’s been hard to carve out personal time for those because work’s been so busy. The good thing is, they also align very much with my work, so that’s made it all worthwhile.  I want to make sure that I can continue to do that.

Advice for the next generations

In my position I think one of the important skills or qualities is having cross sectoral knowledge and experience. I have found that the fact that I have both the science and engineering background combined with the understanding of finance and banking has been really, really helpful. Even the younger people in my team, earlier in their careers, typically have at least two different types of education and background. So for example, economics and sustainability, or an undergrad in biology and then an MBA.  That’s the type of type of combination that I’m finding very helpful in corporate sustainability roles. 

I don’t know if it’s a skill or it’s a personal trait, but I think you have to be deeply curious about how systems work. You have to want to understand the existing system, whatever it is, because if you’re going to try to disrupt something, and a lot of times in sustainability it is still about disrupting, you’ve got to want to understand it first. 

I think a related skill is being able to unpack a problem, another thing I think is really important. Do you actually know how to identify and unpack a problem before you run off to try to solve it?   I will put in a plug for engineering here – it’s all about solving problems. You learn to spend a lot of time making sure that you’ve delineated the problem properly, or else you’re going to run off in the wrong direction and waste time and resources doing so.

I would say the same thing as what we talked about before. I don’t think it’s so much about a specific degree, as it depends on what part of sustainability you’re going to work in. But it definitely helps to have complementary degrees, certifications or background, to get that cross pollination of ideas, and to be able to speak to people from different perspectives as well. For example, you could bring sustainability into law. So you might have a law degree, and maybe you studied international environmental law, and then you did a certification or got a college diploma in energy systems. The point being, that we really need to have that crossover of ideas. The other thing I would say is it’s important to understand the industry or sector you’re doing sustainability work in.  So, if you want to do sustainability work in mining, well, you’d better understand mining!  Maybe you need to be a geologist or have some sort of geology background, combined with additional education and qualifications on environment and ecology or environmental policy. In any case, to work effectively in this space, over time through your jobs and experience, it will serve you well to have more than one type of training and education in your background.

I talked about it a little bit earlier, but curiosity. I really enjoy working with people who seek to understand either by asking questions or doing their own research. I also like people who have a worldview that comes from them being well read, from knowing what’s going on in the world so they can try to figure out how it all fits together. The ability to go from high level big picture down into their area of specialization to some degree and move back and forth is important. It depends of course on the level of the person that I would be interviewing or working with, but I’ve interviewed and worked with people at fairly junior levels who possess this bigger worldview and a lot of interesting outside interests, as well as expertise in the thing that we’re doing at work. I like that.

I would not change a thing. I mean, there’s no perfect career path, but I look at other people at my stage in their careers who have gone through working at things that they didn’t really enjoy that much, or where they questioned whether they were contributing or not, or they didn’t look forward to Mondays. I’ve loved in my career. Everybody’s got good days and bad days at the office, there’s no question. But overall, I have loved every job I’ve ever had, even the ones that were hard. And I might have at some point decided, it’s time for me to look for something else either within the company or at a new company, but I still would still say I’ve loved every job I’ve had, and I’ve learned immense amounts from every leader that I’ve worked with. So no, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

In terms of career advice, one thing I would say is that you’ve got to look for that intersection between what you like to do, what you’re good at doing, and what people will pay you to do. So you’ve got to be a little bit practical. I’ve never believed “just follow your passion, do what you love”, as that only works if you’re rich.   If you’re a normal person, you should do things that at least give you a solid two out of three. And I would also say recognize that nothing is irreversible. For me getting into banking, I didn’t get into banking thinking that I wanted to be a banker to be very honest with you, I thought, ‘hmm, this is interesting. I’m kind of curious about finance.’ And honestly, the biggest thing was that RBC was willing to pay for me and my fiance/soon to be husband to move from Vancouver back to Toronto, which was 1000s of dollars. And I was like ‘huh, there’s a company that wants to hire me is going to pay for our move. I don’t think I want to be a banker, but we’ll stick it out for a year and a half and see where it goes because it’s kind of interesting.’ And lo and behold, I’ve spent pretty much my entire career in banking and have super enjoyed it and have felt I’ve been able to make a contribution. So don’t be afraid to try something that looks a little bit off the wall, if you think you can learn from it.  You don’t have to stay in it for the rest of your life. You may actually find it will give you a whole new perspective on the world exposing you to new sectors, new leaders, a different business model. And if you don’t like it, stay with it for a year and a half and then look for something else. Nothing’s irreversible in terms of career choices, so try stuff out if it looks interesting and you think you can make a contribution as well as learning something.   And then you’ll find your spot.