Wesley Gee

Chief Sustainability Officer at Work Design

Combining academic expertise with extensive professional experience, Wesley leads Works Design’s sustainability practice and the studio’s business development. He provides guidance in stakeholder engagement, materiality and performance measurement, as well as ESG/sustainability communications and reporting. Wesley contributed to the development of the GRI guidelines and served on sector working groups with the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). He is a judge for CPA Canada’s Corporate Reporting Awards and is a faculty member for the Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Institute at The Conference Board of Canada. He also lectures for the Sustainability Diploma and MScSM program at the University of Toronto. Before joining Works Design, Wesley was senior sustainability consultant at Stantec and senior advisor at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR). He holds a Master’s in Sustainable Business from the University of Leeds.

Work and impact

As a Chief Sustainability Officer, I am responsible for our professional services around sustainability advisory and ensuring our own house is in order. Although we are a small design studio, we must look at ways to reduce or, in some cases, offset the environmental impacts of our office. This is done by looking at how we travel, what used to be office practices and what may be office practices in the future, the items that we source, and the type of work we do in the community. 

A big part of what our studio does in sustainability is primarily helping companies identify what their priorities should be. Much of this comes by engaging with people within their organizations, their outside like clients or customers, investors or analysts, and even sometimes community members or charitable partners. 

We try to walk the talk or demonstrate some level of integrity. If we tell our clients that they should be engaging with others to understand those priorities and expectations and look at how to best address them, we must do that. We engage with our clients and our employees so that we are not just focused on how to be up with our competitors. What matters the most is that we have a culture that respects and values the opinions of people in the organization and that we can make decisions based on not only the needs or the wants of our clients but what can make us a great place to work.

My past and current focus areas are primarily on sustainability, engagement, communications, and reporting. As a part of reporting, it includes an alignment to global frameworks and standards like the GRI, SASB and the TCFD. It is essential to stay on top of things both objectively and subjectively.

I am the first person in my family to go to university. Although I had a lot of interest in biology and social sciences, I chose to study business because I figured it was a degree that could get me a job. However while I was doing that, I was taking classes in biology and sociology at university and also managed to get into Masters’s levels classes during my undergraduate in what was then called “business in the natural environment”. The more I was engaged with civil society organizations, government organizations, businesses, the more I could see that action was happening within this space. My interest was always how business, the natural environment and society can work together to solve the world’s problems. So I started working for various organizations, including AIESEC, which I am still active for today on the board. That gave me a lot of opportunities to learn cultural awareness about what was happening in the world. It brought me to many different countries, including the Philippines, Netherlands, Belgium, and New Zealand. It helped me develop a broader perspective of what sustainability really means, as here in North America, it is more around the natural environment, but if you look at the Philippines, it is more about social equity or human rights. All of these issues exist everywhere but having a bit more of a worldly view and experience certainly helped me understand more about what I want to be involved in. 

After working for a few years, I eventually pursued a master’s degree in Sustainable Business, which helped me get a sustainability job as a full-time job. Back in 2005, it was a rather challenging thing to do as there were not a lot of sustainability jobs. So I was happy to get that first full-time job because, before that, sustainability was just at the corner of my desk, it was an extension of my job. Since 2006, I have been able to continue to further my focus as at the beginning, it was more about trying everything and seeing what the things that bring me joy are, and what are those that I do not like to do. Touching various domains has helped me narrow my focus into the engagement communications and reporting space, which helped me get out of my comfort zone. 

I shifted from a more technical service company like Stantec into a creative firm like Works Design, which I would not have imagined that I would fit into because I am more of a technical and objective person. However the more I worked with creative people like writers, art directors and graphic designers, the more I could see how important it is for emotional and rational people to work together to help solve the world’s problems, or at the very least help companies clean up their act, by focusing on areas where they can genuinely be more competitive, and also be able to better serve society.

As probably with many who you’ve spoken to, I have had this search for meaning about why we exist and how we could better serve others in a way that can inherently bring us joy. It took me some time to figure out how we can make an impact and although you might be technically good at certain things, they can bring you little joy. Therefore, if you continue to sharpen your knowledge, strengths, abilities, and other growth areas from a career standpoint, it will get you closer to doing something that will bring you a sense of purpose. With many people interested in getting into the sustainability space, some are coming in with an outstanding level of enthusiasm but without a real understanding of what it means to work within it. I have advised at times to focus on the two or three things that you really may enjoy and where you think that you have strengths, and then strengthen those areas rather than trying just to be a generalist. By just being a generalist, you cannot serve anyone because you will not be seen as being able to make an impact.

First of all, I am excited that sustainability is becoming more embedded in different organizations, that boards and executives have actual roles and responsibilities and that goals and targets are being established rather than these being random acts of kindness or just talking about. Companies identify genuine risks and opportunities for them, rather than just public relations. However, I am also cautiously optimistic because I know that there is still a lot of progress that we need to take on issues around human rights or inclusivity. 

What also excites me about the space that I am in is being able to integrate sustainability within an organization that thinks more about its purpose and how they may want to serve society rather than just being a profitable organization for shareholders; to rather be able to encourage cultural innovation and collaboration to help solve problems and to think more long term. And I guess, as a part of that, I’m just generally excited about these kinds of longer-term commitments that I see organizations can take. However, I do not want to develop rose-colored glasses: I want to be optimistic and positive, but I also want to make sure that my clients do not get too comfortable with where they are.

Misconceptions about my profession are that we are “public relations” and we exist to boost a company’s image or reputation. I think that may result from the work that we do with clients, but that is certainly not the objective. Firstly, it is being able to help companies understand who their key audiences – i.e., their most important stakeholders – as well as the things that they actually care about and what their expectations are related to a company. Some of the advice that we often give is trying to frame those issues from other people’s perspectives, rather than only from one’s own. That is a way to connect to people rather than to share a statement that says that you are excellent – nobody wants to hear that.  We believe the work we are doing is improving how companies connect to others and to not only inform, but also engage with others and solicit some level of feedback.

Life and aspirations

I think work life balance is a bit of a fallacy. Work is part of your life, and hopefully it is an important part of your life. What I try to do every morning is get up around six, do some exercise, meditation, walk my dog, mentally get ready for the day. My typical workday is probably working from around 8:30 am until around 6:30 pm. It is ok for me because I enjoy what I do. However, since I have a family, there are some balances and I try to have some breaks sometimes to spend time with my kids and wife. Working in areas you are passionate about makes it feel less like work. A typical pandemic day involves a lot of video calls. There are calls with my colleagues to have check-ins with some of the people I manage, but because I own the studio, I have management calls a couple of times a week, and there are also many calls with clients. 

If we look at what I did the same day last week, I first had a regroup meeting from 8 until 9 followed by a kickoff meeting from 9 until 10. I then had another business development meeting with a prospective client from 10 to 11 and later had some time between 11 and 12 for admin, checking my email, and more around business development. I spent the afternoon checking in with clients and finally had a meeting at the end of the day to check our monthly numbers. It was a pretty busy day, where I tried to just take some pauses once in a while because my desk was virtually two feet away from my bed. There are some benefits to that, you know, during the pandemic, where maybe I just lie down on my bed for two minutes and that very act is relaxing and can clear my mind. The average day will hopefully be better in about a year from now, meeting colleagues or clients for lunch once in a while and having more personal connections, but I think we are all just making the best of this situation.

I think a challenge is being able to manage my schedule, as there are just so many different things there. Being in this role, you are pulled into many different directions and have to set some expectations. I have a great sustainability team and I need to make sure that they have a certain level of freedom to work on different projects with colleagues and have support. What I find challenging sometimes is balancing the support I want to give and my ability to trust others. Since I am responsible for bringing in work, an important thing that I always need to remember and appreciate is that the current clients are the most important people to be working on rather than prospective. It is much easier to keep a client, to make them happy, and evolve with them than bring in a new client. It is fulfilling when you can experience having worked with a client for maybe 4 or 5 years and that things evolve.

Since the beginning of November 2021, four of us now own the studio. In this first year, the first goal for us is not to break anything. We want to make sure that we are steering the ship and making sure that the culture is reasonably strong, and that the kind of processes and systems are working reasonably well. Once we feel comfortable about managing the business and getting into a flow, our focus will first be on processes and systems. This implies considering the ways that we can collaborate better; Internally, what are the tools that we have; what are some of the things we could be simplified; the other is really just thinking about what are professional services? And how do those line up with clients’ expectations, and where do we see those things going. So how can those things evolve? It will also be able to focus on which industries, which companies or other organizations we want to pursue actively. We will soon want to be reaching out to the type of companies in the industry that we feel can make a meaningful impact across North America. We have been around for over 30 years, we are not like a startup and it is not about growth just for growth. We do not have a goal of doubling our employees and our business by a certain date. It is more about maintaining a strong culture and doing meaningful things in areas where we can have an impact. If we grow in some modest organic way, that is fine, but we do not want that to compromise. For the foreseeable future, our goals will be tied to our role in branding, corporate communications, reporting, engagement, and a strong balance of strengths around sustainability and investor relations.

Advice for the next generations

A great skill to have is in project management, having some level of discipline within that space to understand what it means to set up, manage and coordinate projects, and understand how to use specific tools that can help you do that easily. It is not just an administrative function, it is about having clear communication and checkpoints as well, with your colleagues within your company, but also with the client.

A second skill set is communication. There is a real gap in how effective people are sometimes in communicating verbally and being reasonably good writers. Being a good listener and a curious person is critical in my role or a similar role. When you work at an organization that provides a service or a product, the inclination is that you go in and try to pitch your product or service and yourself. That is a big no-no, in my opinion. The first thing you want to do is develop a genuine understanding, interest, or curiosity in whoever you want to work with.You want to show that you are looking to understand what are some of the needs, priorities, expectations, goals, and initiatives that are coming up, is key to see if your company can in some way be able to serve them in a better way than what they are currently doing. 
The last skill is having a genuine interest and curiosity in your field. This means conducting research, reading and even setting a goal of once or twice a week having a quick zoom call with an organization or an individual who you want to learn more about what they do, or about their industry, to be able to sharpen your knowledge in a fairly nuanced way. In addition, speaking to others, even with a different point of view, may allow you to better understand the complexities involved in a sector or an issue.

I used to be fixed on the need for people to have a master’s degree in sustainability but I am less convinced about it. It is undoubtedly a good thing for people to think about if that master’s degree is genuinely aligned to areas where they want to pursue their career. But fortunately, there are a lot of different avenues that people can take these days. 

I think it is helpful in my space to show that you have a background in some degree of sustainability in your undergraduate or graduate degree. For instance, it can be in a technical space, in communications, in some level of business. You also may want to be able to take certificate or diploma programs to have training in specific areas. It is essential to show that you know what you are talking about, rather than just being an enthusiastic person.

Curiosity and a genuine interest or passion for this space. I also value someone who is collaborative and humble, as it is good to be confident and recognize where you are good at but know that everything within this space is constantly changing. So it is essential to continue building your knowledge. It’s also important to be in touch with both the emotional and rational/objective aspects. There is a level of objectivity necessary with our work and being incredibly mindful and interested in understanding the emotional side is essential to doing well in my world.

It is hard to think about what I would do differently because it got me to where I am today, and I am pretty happy about that. However, there are some things that I would do differently. I probably would not have taken several courses in university that I just felt pressured to because that is just what everybody else is doing. I would have liked to use my time a bit more productively. I want to continue to have discipline in my life and focus on eliminating the distractions, be more centred in terms of 2 or 3 things in my life, and just try to do those well.  But I think everything that I did in my past got me to where I am today, and I do not tend to have a lot of regrets. 

My best life or career advice for youth is to try different things and see what sticks, because none of you know what you want to do in the future. I certainly did not, we just have a general sense. For example, when I first went to university, I thought I wanted to be an accountant, but I did not have the faintest clue what an accountant was. So do things out of your comfort zone, do unconventional things, and do not feel like you need to follow the same path as what is typically considered “successful” because that path generally is not that successful, it is just like everybody else.