A personal commitment to promoting greater gender balance at leadership level in the construction industry, along with a desire to implement best management practice in her own company, led Cora Sutton Smith to taking the UCD Diploma in Corporate Governance.
Sutton Smith is director of operations with CS Consulting Group, which provides civil, structural and traffic engineering services for a broad range of clients across the public and private sectors. “Both my parents are construction professionals and I started CS Consulting with my father and our colleagues back in 2012,” she says. “Together we have built a great company which has grown from just four of us 10 years ago to a team of over 70 with offices in Dublin, Limerick and London.”
It was never pre-ordained that she would follow in her parents’ footsteps, however: “I did a degree in microbiology. But I did summer jobs in the industry and fell in love with it.”
Continuous learning, professional development and a commitment to best practice in business operations have been features of her career. “I did a master’s in planning and development and a diploma in employment law,” she says. “It’s important to ensure that a growing business like ours is run properly.”
That desire for high standards ultimately led Sutton Smith to the UCD Diploma in Corporate Governance. But her participation came about through her interest in promoting the role of women in her industry.
There is a need for greater diversity at board level in the construction industry
“As a director of a fast-growing SME, I realised that high standards of corporate governance would benefit the organisation,” she says. “Also, there is a need for greater diversity at board level in the construction industry. I would like to be able to take on other board roles in future, and a qualification in corporate governance would prepare me for that.”
She was supported on the programme by a scholarship from Smurfit Executive Development and 30% Club Ireland. The 30% Club is a campaign group of business chairpersons and chief executives taking action to increase gender diversity on boards and senior management teams. Sutton Smith received a fully funded scholarship from UCD Smurfit School, which is awarded to an outstanding female candidate based on the breadth and depth of their work experience as well as past academic and professional qualifications and performance.
“I was very lucky to receive the scholarship to do the course,” she says. “I was delighted to get it. I first heard about the course through the 30% Club LinkedIn page. I was following the page and was interested in corporate governance and saw the scholarship come up, so I applied for it. I had a very interesting interview with the course director, Prof Niamh Brennan, and Gillian Harford, who is the country executive with 30% Club Ireland. I think the gender issue in construction spoke to them.
The promotion of women in leadership roles in construction is very important to me
“As director of operations with CS Consulting Group I sit on the board of the company. In general, the promotion of women in leadership roles in construction is very important to me. I am a member of the Engineers Ireland Women in Engineering Group, which is working to promote roles in engineering and construction as viable career choices for girls and women.”
She commenced the Diploma in Corporate Governance course in 2020, during the height of the Covid disruption. “We had some classes in-person, but most were done on Zoom and that was handled very well,” she recalls. “It was very good to meet people face to face. We did manage to have a weekend together after course finished; that was great.”
The people involved and the scope of the curriculum were among the programme highlights. “One of the best aspects is the people you meet, lecturers as well as classmates. They all come from such a broad range of backgrounds and experience. That diversity means you get very wide perspectives. The range of subjects is also very wide. Some are more theoretical on areas like governance and finance and others cover important issues like leadership, ESG, and culture.”
The programme had an immediate impact for her.
“It gave me a practical toolkit to apply to the organisation and my role in it,” she says. “It also gave me the confidence to go for board positions in future. CS Consulting started small and has grown quite quickly over the years, but it is a company run by engineers as opposed to business professionals. That makes it even more important to ensure that all the directors understand their responsibilities. The course has been very useful for that as I have been able to train the other directors in the company. We all want to have best practice corporate governance in place as we scale and grow.”
Boards have to have good risk management processes and recovery plans in place should things go wrong
She believes the programme also helps deal with a pressing challenge: “Diversity is absolutely among the biggest challenges facing boards at the moment,” she says. “The whole ESG agenda is very important to stakeholders. Organisations need to set proper KPIs and targets and make big efforts to achieve them. It can’t be just greenwashing or lip service. It has to be part of the organisation’s culture. Boards are under increasing pressure to make sure it’s happening.
“Crisis management is another issue. Boards have to make sure they have good risk management processes and recovery plans in place should things go wrong. The Diploma in Corporate Governance helps you prepare for future crises.”
She has no hesitation in recommending the programme to others. “I would absolutely recommend it. You meet a great group of people from different backgrounds in the class and the programme is delivered by very interesting and highly experienced lecturers. Of course, it can be quite daunting to take on any education course, especially if have been out of the system for a while. I have family commitments as well as work and found it very doable. All the staff and faculty are very helpful and supportive.
“My advice is to just go for it. You won’t regret it.”