Susan Elston

Susan Elston

Senior Vice President Offshore and Marine

Sodexo UK & I

Susan Elston began her working life in the civil service but quickly realised it wasn’t for her.

Instead, she embarked on a career in the hospitality industry and then retail catering – whilst also completing a master’s degree in business administration.

She now has many years’ experience in the offshore industry: she became managing Director of Offshore and Remote Sites for Sodexo in 2011 and went on to be appointed Senior Vice President for its Offshore and Marine business in the UK and Ireland.

Susan has also served as a board member of Oil & Gas UK and of two charities, Foyer and Inspire Ventures.

My very first ambition was to be a teacher. I’d no aspirations to be in business or management. Joining the oil & gas industry was the single biggest thing I have ever done in my life. I knew that it was a challenge and that I’d have to learn everything from scratch, but I also knew I had found my home in this business – I had a real affinity.

When I found myself on the Board of Oil & Gas UK I remember thinking I would be found out any day, that someone would say: “No, sorry, we just want you to come and pour the coffee!” I found it remarkable to have a voice – and to experience a sense of inclusivity – at that level.

“I’m a big supporter of sponsors, especially for women”

Work-life balance isn’t just about spending time at home. You have to work at it; you literally have to put things in the diary. When I’m away I take my gym things and, if it’s for a longer time, I make sure that I assign time for things other than work. You have to stop yourself working from dawn until dusk; it’s easy to go back to your room and take out your laptop again and continue working.

“I knew that it was a challenge and that I’d have to learn everything from scratch, but I also knew I had found my home in this business”

My best mentors have been from outside my own organisation. I felt I could have more challenging conversations with them. I’m a big supporter of sponsors, especially for women. I don’t think it’s as easy for women to talk in their peer environment about the things that are worrying them or issues they have to overcome. One of my bosses at Sodexo said: “Look, I know a few people outside the organisation, let’s approach them more formally”.

As a female leader, I think it’s very important to do this for other people – to make these introductions. Mentoring is for a point in time and for a set period. I haven’t had a long-term mentoring relationship, but have benefited from them for limited periods at certain times in my career. They’ve been really useful. That extra insight does make a really big difference.

It’s worth making the effort to go to networking events – but the value lies in contributing. I’ve been that person in the corner nursing a glass of champagne. You have to find the nerve go to over to groups and say: “Do you mind if I join in?” That’s when you discover they’re actually talking about holidays! People aren’t always having the most high powered conversations in the world. It’s about making those connections and relationships.

Once you have ‘served your time’ people will notice and then ask you to come along to something else. It doesn’t just happen straight away. There is a route to being appointed or invited to be on industry or professional bodies. At the same time, you also need to be able to say ‘no’; be selective and understand where you can add value.

First ambition: Teaching Enjoys: Running marathons
Advice to your 15-year-old self?Look at what you’ve learned and what you’re good at. From there, you’re likely to make the right decisions.
A moment of inspiration? Listening to myself being introduced as a speaker at an industry conference, I suddenly thought: “Wow, I’m one of those important people!” I have to thank the industry for what I’ve achieved – no other environment would offer the same opportunities.