Inspirational Woman: Helen Foord | Founder, ELE Global

Helen Foord

My name is Helen Foord and I’m a strategic communications professional, specialising in providing advice to the legal sector.

I’m particularly well-known for my work advising on how they can move forward as responsible and purposeful organisations. I do this through my work as CEO of ELE Global, the UK’s first specialist responsible strategic professional services communications agency and we’re really blazing a trail in this respect. We’re working for organisations ranging from single-partner law firms through to global practices and barristers chambers in locations ranging from South America, Africa and the Middle East through to the USA, Europe and the UK.

Although I have years of experience working in law firms and chambers much of my time, now, is spent managing and growing our team of freelance experts. We’re a virtual agency so have a large, multi-disciplinary team based all over the world. This brings its own challenges for motivation, project management and recruitment but it can also be exciting being able to offer flexible working to the very best people, supporting their life choices and building teams that suit both the client and those working on the project.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Absolutely not. I’m a great believer in making sure you’re aware of the opportunities being presented and not being afraid to grasp them. My father worked in sales and marketing and I grew up helping him out on exhibition stands. I thought I might like to go into marketing and Oxford Brookes offered me a place to study and row (which was my passion at the time). From there it was really a sequence of keeping my eyes open and moving from one learning experience to another. After a spell working in IT start-ups a junior role came up at a large law firm and then, after many years in the sector, I was made redundant in 2008. At that point I turned to someone I value greatly as a mentor (even now) and she suggested I might try going freelance. I haven’t looked back since and have not only grown the business but taken it through a complete refocus and rebrand, to concentrate on my passion for purposeful business practices and creating systemic change across the business world.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Of course. Anyone that hasn’t, really hasn’t worked hard enough! I’ve come to realise that there are some things I’m great at and others I rely on experts to advise on. I made some poor choices in terms of those experts – in the early days – and very much paid the price – both professionally and emotionally.

I’ve also come to realise that, as a business owner (and I think this is particularly relevant to women business owners and leaders), your emotional strength (and weakness) has an impact on your business performance. Success doesn’t come just because you work on your business. You also have to work on yourself and your wellbeing. I’ve had to do a lot to conquer my insecurities and to learn how to handle some pretty challenging situations, without immediately assuming I was to blame or letting everyone down just because I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I think the thing that makes me proudest is the way ELE Global has been set up to also support a wide range of pro-bono and social enterprise initiatives. For example, as a team we’re working on projects including the Just Festival (Edinburgh’s social justice and human rights festival that happens during Fringe time in August) and ElephantsAbroad (which we set up some years ago and are now about to relaunch, to support women in West Africa with business training, mentoring and funding). For me, our biggest achievement isn’t our client list, it’s that our flexible structure makes it possible for us to work on these projects (as well as plenty of smaller things), using our skills and networks to make a real difference.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I have an unswerving belief in there being a solution to every challenge. However dark things have seemed I have never doubted my ability to, somehow, puzzle out the solution. Sometimes it has required pretty drastic action but I think this faith in my ability to do this has not only resulted in success in this business but also in numerous client projects.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think mentoring is utterly critical to true success. I have always had mentors and wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I need someone to call me out from time to time, to push me beyond my natural comfort zone and to make sure I know when I’ve done a good job and should be proud of myself! My mentors have been a mixture of men and women and have all been people I’ve happened to meet in my professional life. I am sometimes skeptical about the value of paid mentoring relationships – partly because I believe we all have a responsibility to pass on the support each of us receives in our careers.

For this reason I have also mentored others – formally, through relationships with Further and Higher Education establishments and industry bodies, but also informally with those I’ve met in my career. These can range from recent graduates contemplating a freelance career through to more established peers that need someone to share ideas with and debrief.  It’s every bit as valuable to me to have these relationships as I hope it is to them.

I’m also passionate about the role mentoring can have in creating systemic change across the business community. I work hard to share my belief in the power of responsibility and purpose to change the business world from the inside. Mentoring (and being mentors) is a great way to help people consider things differently and open their minds to more responsible ways of achieving their commercial goals.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I’d like to see more women mentoring men. I was involved in a legal sector mentoring programme and part of a debate on the subject of Gender Equality. I was somewhat frustrated to be part of a panel made up entirely of women, talking about how more women needed to have female mentors. Of course – I couldn’t agree more. But I believe real change will come from how we develop men and their thinking in the professional world. If more men learned to see women as inspirational, rather than scary – as focused, rather than bossy – I think we’d start to see a difference in how organisations approach Gender Equality.

I also think it’s important, within the legal and professional services sector, for organisations to report on Gender Equality completely. I was very inspired to work with a global firm the other day that had taken the – very bold – decision to report on its Gender Pay Gap not only for employees but also across the partnership and to include data on ethnicity as well. It’s still, in my opinion, far too easy for partnerships to apply a sense of smoke and mirrors to all areas of equal opportunity reporting. The message we shout, loudly, at ELE Global, is that transparency is a really powerful marketing tool. This firm might not have published the best results but by publishing both them and their action plan for improvement they now have a really positive recruitment and retention message.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Velour bootcuts in a Hawaiian print are never a good look. In seriousness, I think I’d tell myself that nobody is losing as much sleep over things as I am. I’ve learned that I have a very strong inner critic and I’d tell myself that this isn’t a real voice. I wish I’d learned to argue back to that voice sooner. I could have saved a lot of trouble, over the years.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

At the moment I’m in the process of writing a book that sets out my methods for helping legal sector organisations move from Corporate Social Responsibility, to Responsibility and then to Purpose. I want to show that you don’t get a tick in the box when you simply invest a certain amount of turnover in CSR – that isn’t good enough!  I want to show that strategically well-planned Responsibility and, in particular, Purpose can underpin spectacular organisational growth as well as making a difference. The hope is that we’ll be able to release the book later this year and support it with a training and workshop programme to start getting the message out across the professional services.

You’ve talked a lot about purpose. What does this mean to you and why is it so central to your work?

As long as I can remember I have had a passionate desire to contribute to changing the way the world works so as to support those that need it most. At school I was involved in campaigning for better conditions in Romanian orphanages, raising money for a local youth project and I represented Great Britain at the first international symposium for Adaptive Rowing (before working for many years to establish it in the UK, leading to it becoming a Paralympic sport).

In recent years I’ve become particularly interested in the power professional services organisations have to create systemic change within the business sector. I don’t think systemic change happens as a result of governments imposing extra taxes or fines, but through businesses recognising the benefits of changing, and creating a groundswell of change from within the sector. And that’s what we aim to do at ELE Global through responsible and purposeful legal services communications and strategic planning.

The B Corp movement seeks to balance purpose and profit and I find it exciting that organisations, such as law firms, can not only establish a solid foundation for their own growth but pass this on to clients. I don’t see purpose (or responsibility) as ‘nice to haves’. Done right – perhaps even advised by a specialist agency like ELE Global – they can underpin real organisational success and growth. And, ultimately, it is only by each business taking a stand and behaving in a responsible and purposeful way that we’ll see questionable business activities disappear.

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