Getting started in responsible business: a virtual chat with Emma Cooke

Heart of the City | 20 January 2021 | News
Getting started in responsible business: a virtual chat with Emma Cooke

New members have joined Heart of the City this month, ready to start their responsible business journeys. We know when you’re starting something new, it’s always useful to hear from someone who’s been where you are now. That’s why we asked Emma Cooke, Head of Citizenship at Heart of the City ambassador Herbert Smith Freehills, for a chat. Emma used to be a Heart of the City member and now sits on our board advisory panel.

You’ve been at Herbert Smith Freehills for over nine years now, and have worked in responsible business roles for 15 years. Can you tell us how you started your career in this area?

It goes quite far back, as the idea was instilled at an early age. Looking back, I’ve realised that my parents were ahead of their time as when I was young they had a shop that sold lots of organic products and they sold items per scoop, encouraging people to bring their own containers to save on wasted packaging. This is now a really popular idea with lots of re-fill shops just like this popping up.

At a young age I was very environmentally and socially conscious, so when I started my first job in the City I was really surprised that the company I worked for didn’t recycle anything and had no support for charities in place.

I’d started to become a bit disillusioned about where I was working, but during a rotation in the marketing team I had the opportunity to pitch an idea to the CEO and focussed on the business case for responsible business initiatives. Shortly after, the Observer published an article questioning the ethics of certain companies, of which mine was on the list. Knowing I was passionate about this the CEO approached me and asked me to work one day a week on developing a responsible business strategy and from there it developed into a full-time role, a team and a global programme.

Looking back at those early stages of developing a responsible business strategy from scratch, what or who helped you to make it a success?

Early on I was lucky enough to come across Heart of the City and quickly signed up for a free place on the Newcomers programme (now called the foundation programme). At the time I had no budget and little knowledge of what a responsible business strategy should look like. I started by wanting to set up a recycling scheme and charity donations, but soon realised that it was so much more than this.

From Heart of the City, I had the support to develop a business case and consider what a strategy should look like and what plans I needed in place. Heart of the City also assigned me a fantastic mentor from KPMG, who provided advice, sympathy and encouragement along the way.

I also realised that it is vital to find sponsors or champions within your business. It is a difficult role to do alone, so find those that are also passionate about it and share your ideas.

And any tips for our members on pitfalls to avoid?

Firstly, I’d say don’t spread yourself to thinly. There is always so much you can be doing and tackling but focus on what you are passionate about and look to your champions to help you.

Also, set yourself realistic targets to start with as to make real long-term change it can take time. This will stop you from getting disheartened if you can’t achieve everything you want to straight away.

For people just taking on a responsible business role, or doing it alongside their main role, what would you say are the key skills they need?

For me, the first would be resilience. In these roles we are creating change and it takes time and it doesn’t always go to plan, so the ability to bounce back and carry on with enthusiasm is vital.

I’d also say influencing skills as to make change you have to bring people along on the journey with you. You’ll have to influence people at all levels and within all areas of the business.

Finally, I’d say being able to build relationships and networks is really key. Often you will be the only person doing this role within your business, so it’s important to meet others doing something similar, so you can share ideas and support each other. Heart of the City will help you to build this network and there is also the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS) – and you can find lots of useful groups on LinkedIn.

I’d suggest having a look at the ICRS’ competency framework that lists the skills and behaviours that CSR professionals need.

Finally, what continues to inspire you and makes you love your job?

Seeing the change that you’ve helped make happen and knowing that you’ve made a difference. Just one example is the apprenticeship programme we set up when I first started at Herbert Smith Freehills. I love seeing those apprentices now working across our business and doing great.

A big thank you to Emma for talking to us and for all your support over the years! If hearing from Emma has inspired you, you’re in luck! Applications to join the 2021 foundation programme close on 28 February and we have free places available for SMEs based in London. 

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