If you want to get ahead, get a mentor
Andy Cartland, founder and MD at Acre, the market leader in sustainability and safety recruitment, speaks to Paula Sullivan, head of corporate responsibility at computer giant, CSC, about her early career in health and safety and why finding the right mentors is often the key to success.
Andy: Although you head up corporate responsibility now, you started your career in health and safety. How did you get into the profession?
Paula: I originally joined CSC as a facilities manager. I was responsible for setting up new buildings here in the UK and my boss noticed that on my projects, all of the health and safety specifications had been addressed from day one. She was impressed and used my sites as best practice examples for others. She then offered me the opportunity to be part of a newly formed in-house safety team on a six-month secondment.
Andy: Did you say yes to the secondment?
Paula: Yes, and I didn’t look back. I loved all of my safety roles and before moving into corporate responsibility three years ago, I was Director of Health, Safety and Environment for EMEA and responsible for the design and roll out of a HS&E strategy and management system across the region which covered 20 countries and 26,000 staff.
Andy: So what was it about safety that so appealed to you?
Paula: I had a great mentor in my first boss and he taught me to be a problem solver, taking time to propose solutions to issues, rather than just report the issue and leave it to management to resolve. His view was very much that safety was there to support the business, not stand in its way, and so whilst learning to be a safety officer, I developed a very positive, can-do, business focused approach. With that mind-set, we became trusted advisors to the leadership which meant that if things did need swift action, we always had their support.
Andy: What role has mentoring played in your career?
Paula: I’ve always taken a very proactive approach to managing my career and mentors have proved to be incredibly valuable in providing sound advice and guidance. When I was asked to present on safety to our Senior Leadership Team in Washington some years ago, I asked our UK Chief Operating Officer if he’d coach me on my presentation. He reviewed my material and gave me some really useful pointers that helped me get my points across and achieve the result I was looking for. He even called me afterwards to see how it went. So in my experience, most people are very willing to help, they just need to be asked.
Andy: So you’re saying that mentors can be both formal and informal?
Paula: Absolutely. Having a formal mentor, someone you can turn to on a regular basis is invaluable, but it doesn’t have to be a long-term arrangement. As in the example above, finding people to help with a specific, time-bound issue, like a presentation or a project, is just as valuable.
Andy: What advice would you give to anyone who has aspirations to work in a senior safety role?
Paula: There are two types of people – those who manage their careers and those who do a job; and the latter, in my opinion, are not even really in the game. My advice would be to take control of your own career and never fool yourself into thinking that you’re ‘too busy’ for your own personal learning and development. You owe it to yourself and to your employer (or your clients) to be at the top of your game and that means a commitment to continual improvement.
It’s also vital to keep your skills up to date and know what the market is looking for. Although legislation doesn’t change that swiftly, what employers are looking for in terms of managerial skills is evolving all the time. I trained in environmental management when I saw that more and more job ads were putting environment and safety together. I regularly monitor the job market, just to see where I need to focus my own skills development and it’s something I’d encourage everyone to do.
Finally, build your network. I have a strong network of trusted professionals in both health & safety and corporate responsibility whom I meet regularly to share knowledge and best practice.
Paula Sullivan leads the corporate responsibility programme at a global level for CSC, a global leader in next-generation IT services and solutions company, headquartered in the U.S. and employing 70,000 staff across 70 countries. An experienced corporate responsibility leader, Paula is also qualified as a NEBOSH Environmental Specialist and Chartered IOSH Safety Practitioner. Before moving to lead the CR programme, Paula was CSC’s Director of Health, Safety and Environment for EMEA.
Andy Cartland is founder and MD at Acre, the market leader in sustainability and safety recruitment for over a decade. Andy is also a Trustee for Global Action Plan a charity that brings people together and inspires them to take practical environmental action, and an advisor to social impact consultancy, Uscreates.
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