Posted: 15 Jul. 2022 10 min. read

Women in Risk Advisory: Mari Elbek-Espelid’s Journey

For Mari Elbek-Espelid, manager for Risk Advisory at Deloitte Denmark, working in risk advisory is more than simply a career choice. It’s an opportunity for her and her team to make a difference for clients—helping them strategize, grow, and transform. “And no two days are alike,” says Mari, making her job that much more exciting.

Mari is among the incredible women being profiled in Deloitte’s “Women in Risk Advisory” series. She’s recognized for her commitment to sustainability and reputational risk management, as well as her passion for creating an inclusive work culture. We were excited to sit down with Mari recently to discuss her career journey.

Entering the field of strategic risk management

After studying English, cultural studies, and communications at Aarhus University (Denmark), and having worked in communications, advertising sales, and human resources, Mari came to the field of risk with a well-rounded background and holistic perspective.

She interned at Deloitte Denmark in 2014 while writing her thesis on sustainable consumption in the fast fashion industry and its drivers and barriers. When Deloitte offered her a permanent position as a consultant on the Risk Advisory and Sustainability team, she jumped at the chance. Her passion for sustainability is rooted in the vast potential to make a difference in businesses and society as a whole.

“There are so many synergies between the work that we do in the Risk Advisory department and how we can actually apply it with the different tools and methodologies we have at Deloitte,” Mari says. “It’s been an ongoing fascination for me—this opportunity to work on a very broad range of topics that ensure resilience and sustainability at our clients.”

When asked about what inspires her most about her job, she mentions the ability to “have a look at the entire value chain of an organization—and to identify and mitigate risks across strategy, operations, supply chain, third party vendor management, HR, cybersecurity, and sustainability.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to risk management and the sustainability field, Mari notes, which makes work fulfilling and exciting.

“We have our same toolbox and methodologies, but our project focus depends entirely on the client, where they are in their risk and sustainability journey, and to what lengths they’ve implemented risk mitigation into their organizational set-up and culture,” she says. “Every client is unique, and we make sure our solutions address that.”

Day in the life

Mari’s day begins with spending time with her three children, ages 5, 2, and 6 months old.

On any given workday, Mari manages three to five client projects at a time, often with a couple of consultant-level employees on each team. She joins and spearheads client and internal project meetings, facilitates workshops, delivers training, and conducts interviews with clients. As manager, she’s responsible for ensuring that projects are successful, on time, and within budget—making sure that the client is happy along the way.

“I really enjoy the ongoing dialogue with our clients—understanding their organizations and what drives them, so we can tackle issues that will make a difference,” Mari says. “You feel that you’re building an important relationship.”

In addition to client work and relations, mentoring her team is another part of the job that Mari especially enjoys. “It’s very fulfilling to help younger coworkers navigate their careers and provide feedback to make sure that we all learn and help each other get better,” she says.

The importance of sustainability and risk mitigation

In her work, Mari is particularly passionate about sustainability initiatives and helping clients with their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices.

She says that when she started in the industry, sustainability was not yet widely seen as a top priority for companies; it was often not an integral part of an organization’s decision-making and set-up. But today, it’s important to go far beyond paying lip-service to sustainability and ESG.

“There’s been a massive shift,” Mari says, “and more and more companies are incorporating sustainability and ESG into their corporate strategies. It’s becoming much more data-driven, with KPIs that companies and executives need to live up to.”

Mari notes that this shift toward greater accountability has been driven by many stakeholders–in particular, consumers (through their buying power) and employees as well. Younger generations and the future workforce often use sustainability and responsible business as levers to determine if they’re interested in working for certain companies. They care deeply about these issues and want to work for an organization that takes responsible actions—not just by having a positive impact on society but by giving employees a chance to help drive that impact, as well.

Mari mentions that legislation has also helped escalate the interest in and need for sustainable practices. Together, these factors have prompted companies to be more structured and operational in their approach to sustainability, choosing to focus on the areas where they have the most impact on society, the environment, and climate.

“I think for most companies today, sustainability is moving toward becoming part of maintaining the organization’s license to operate,” Mari says.

Salient projects: work with the United Nations

In addition to sustainability, Mari’s work in risk spans topics and disciplines. A couple of years ago, she undertook a project for the United Nations and its agencies—working with others from Deloitte to ensure a robust governance was set up for mitigating sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. Her taskforce looked “under the hood” at current policies and procedures, existing mitigation strategies, investigation procedures, communications (such as training materials and awareness campaigns), and victim support processes—and conducted interviews with a variety of stakeholders.

“We presented our findings and recommendations for future improvements to the UN’s board. It was really interesting to work on this type of project, knowing it’s building on the trust citizens and other countries have for the UN, so it’s important they demonstrate they’re taking responsible actions,” Mari explains. In addition to this, she adds that “the reports we delivered are publicly available on the UN agency websites, so all UN staff and other interested stakeholders can access them and take our recommendations forward from there.”

Pandemic-driven shifts

Today, Mari helps many organizations deal with a range of emerging and evolving risks and business challenges brought on by the pandemic. In spite of these challenges, Mari highlights some moments of growth that organizations have seen over the last two years:

  • A culture of greater “openness”—with employees feeling more comfortable and authentic, sharing more of their personal lives, and reassessing career goals.
  • Increased collaboration—with teams finding new ways to work together, meet deadlines, hold productive meetings, and build relationships.
  • More flexible schedules—as organizations shifted to remote work. Mari notes that many employees have adopted more flexible hours to balance work life and home life and have appreciated the extra time with family.

Creating strong communities of women in risk

These shifts have underscored the importance of support and community. As a female leader in a traditionally male-dominated field, Mari has always found the idea of communities especially important—as they represent a way to bring more women into the industry and allow employees to build each other up. At Deloitte Denmark, the Risk Advisory department has an internal female network that empowers women by sharing career and personal stories, discussing work projects, and providing advice.

“Understanding that everyone is on a different journey and at different places along that journey is really important to facilitating an inclusive culture,” Mari says. “My senior managers, directors, and partners have been very open and encourage me to be transparent in what I have going on in my life and where I need support.” Mari uses this approach toward her project team members, as well—holding open conversations with staff and helping team members prioritize what’s important to them.

“It’s about the experiences you bring to the table and the quality of the work that we do that’s most important—not necessarily where and when you get that work done,” she says.

Not only are formal networks helpful, but informal mentoring makes a huge difference in career paths, as well, according to Mari. “I have been lucky to work with exceptional women and men during my time here at Deloitte, and many of them have helped me understand how to best use my strengths and competencies, follow and be true to my passions, and learn to prioritize when it comes to making decisions related to my career goals,” Mari says. She also advises women to discuss and promote the work they’re doing and share their goals and interests when it comes to pursuing the next step in their careers.

“You get really far if you’re very clear on your priorities,” she says, “because organizations are then willing to meet you in your next phase of career growth or even in a new subject matter that excites you. That’s really what motivates me at Deloitte; there are many opportunities to extend myself and try new things. When you figure out what path you want to take, are passionate, and have a can-do mentality, I truly believe that the sky’s the limit.”

View Deloitte’s Women in Risk Advisory Series.

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