This Sussex Life: Sam Waugh, Sustainability Manager: “Only 2% of the population is more extrovert than me.”
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 11 August 2021
Sam Waugh, Sustainability Manager at the University of Sussex, talks about her love of strategy and comedy, and her vision to create one of the world’s greenest universities.
I joined the University in March 2020 a week before lockdown and it was all a bit crazy. I was sent home and all my meetings were cancelled. Because I used to advise government ministers and was involved in crisis communication management, I asked if there was a crisis role I could do to help. I became the pandemic policy manager, giving guidance for who could come onto campus and trying to coordinate the community response. I set up the CRES (Covid Research Equipment and Supplies task force) and am very proud at how well that worked. I didn’t really start doing my job as Sustainability Manager until October 2020.
I am a generalist. I am good at strategy. I am not a detail person. I like to join the dots, think laterally, get everybody engaged and do the things they are good at. I am not the person that wants to be the expert. I like to find the people who like to be the expert. I am a better leader than a supervisor.
I started out doing pharmacology when I was 18 and I realised it wasn’t a good fit. I wanted to do something helpful for the world, to cure AIDS or cancer, so I went off to do a degree designing drugs. But I quickly realised that, while it was interesting, I was not the sort of person who would be happy spending most of my time measuring stuff in the lab.
I moved to London and worked with homeless people for five years. Then went back to university at Birkbeck. I was doing a diploma course and was going to do a bachelor’s degree. But I was top of the class and it was suggested that I go straight into doing a Masters. So I ended up getting a Masters in Global Politics with International Development.
I worked in local government on housing strategy, and was then seconded into central government. At first I worked for the Home Office and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, housing refugees and asylum seekers. I ended up staying in government and doing lots of strategy jobs – including disability, renewable energy, international relations, and road safety.
I left the Civil Service and ran away to Brighton as I wasn’t so keen on the current government’s policies. I sold my house and I took a year out and started a drama diploma because I’d always enjoyed performing. But I soon realised that it was what I’d wanted at 15 – not now! I need the mental challenge of creating the content and performing my own material.
When I lived in London I did four years of improvised comedy training. I’ve also done a couple of courses on a musical improv. I can’t sing, but if you do musical improv it just makes it funnier. It’s something I want to get back to. If I could I’d have a portfolio career where I got paid to write comedy but also got paid to write strategies and be politically active too. In my ideal world I would devote half my time to writing comedy.
A few people have said that I am a bit like a children’s TV presenter. I’m happy writing, but I am happiest being with a big bunch of people around a flipchart, saying: “Who wants to do this? Who wants to do that?” I’ve learned from psychometric tests that only two per cent of the population are more extrovert than me. I’m always trying to tone myself down, make myself smaller, because I am always the large one.
At Sussex I feel empowered to get on and do stuff. There’s been so much trust shown in me, which has been wonderful. This is the happiest I have been in a job for 10 to 15 years. Most of my jobs have been about implementing change and, as a result, facing lot of resistance. But here nearly everybody I’ve met has been passionate about the sustainability agenda.
It’s so great to work with academics because they are ideas people. They are at the cutting edge, seeing possibilities. The students are also so passionate and committed. It’s really integrated into the values. I have never felt I’m somewhere where change is so easy. The hearts and minds have already been won. The strategy is not just, let’s set a net-zero target and sort out the waste. It’s the whole gamut – social sustainability, economic sustainability, environmental…
What’s radical about the Sustainable Sussex strategy is its breadth. We are addressing all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a roadmap for what we’ll be doing for the next few years. We have asked all the Schools about how they are going to introduce sustainability into the curriculum and, in that way, we’ll be co-creating. There’s a lot stuff that’s quite edgy and interesting. I think there’s a lot of scope for getting the arts and science agendas together – using art to get an emotional response to issues from an intellectual perspective.
I am super passionate about our Pitch for the Planet annual event. We haven’t enough time left to overthrow capitalism right now as some environmentalists would like. We need to innovate our way out of the urgent climate crisis. So I am really excited about where we go next. While this year we looked at environmental change, I think next year we might focus on social, and the year after economic and maybe rotate these themes. Some people still think sustainability is just about being green, but it’s also about the impact on the community and job security.
After a year and a half of being at home I am excited about seeing more people on campus. What’s really exciting is having the chance to move beyond the planning and ideas and having the chance to see a real change in people on campus. I haven’t had that real life engagement in quite a while.