Keen to use her scientific background to work in an area with impact in the short term, Eimear Cotter moved from her early role as a research scientist to consultancy and then into public service, where she is now head of low carbon technologies in the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and focused on providing policy makers with the best possible advice, analysis and data.
About Eimear Cotter
Tell us about your education and early career
Initially I studied sciences at Trinity, specialising in chemistry in the last two years. I loved my time there so much that I went straight into a PhD in atmospheric chemistry, which I did in Oxford University. Again, I had a wonderful time there.
After that, I spent two years working for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge as a research scientist. That was a really supportive, mission-orientated organisation and I particularly enjoyed the outdoorsy attitude to life among all the people working there.
I realised then that I wanted to be involved in an area where my work had more immediate results. As a research scientist you’re feeding into a larger good, but the impact comes on a more long-term basis.
Looking to where I could have impact in the short-term I moved into consultancy, working for Arthur D Little, again in Cambridge. And I moved on through a couple of other jobs before returning to Dublin in 2005 when I joined the Department of Transport as a sustainability adviser.
That was a great role that gave me an insight into how the civil service works and allowed me to combine my analytical skills with real-life work in terms of helping to inform policy.
After a couple of years I moved to the Environmental Protection Agency where I spent just under nine years, mainly focused on climate change, leading on compiling national statistics for Ireland and implementing the EU emissions trading scheme.
Why did you decide to do an MBA?
With my science degree and PhD, I could see I was being pigeonholed as a scientific, technical person. I wanted – and knew I needed – to broaden my skills and my knowledge. My motivation was to get a whole new perspective. And I got that through all the different people I met doing the MBA. Of course I learned an awful lot in the classroom, but I also learned a huge amount from my classmates. And there’s also that reflective piece and learning so much about yourself. For me, it was very much about gaining new knowledge, thinking more about my own way of working, and also gaining confidence. When I started the MBA, one of the professors said education gives you confidence and I think that’s so true.
What about your new role?
I moved to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) as head of low carbon technologies in 2015. The opportunity came up relatively shortly after finishing the MBA. When you see a good opportunity you have to go for it, irrespective of the timing.
The SEAI’s remit is to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy in Ireland. We work very closely with our parent department, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, providing analysis and support as it requires it to help and inform evidence-based decision making.
My team is responsible for providing research, analysis and data to inform policy on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
In the energy system as a whole there are three main parts: power generation, the heating sector, and the transport sector.
Ireland is doing well in terms of power generation, where over a quarter of our output is delivered by renewable energy. That’s really significant and puts us among the top countries in the world in terms of the contribution of renewable sources.
We’re seeing more challenges in heat and transport and they’re difficult sectors to tackle. We do see some progress in terms of energy efficiency and renewable in those sectors but we need to see more as we go towards 2020 and look beyond to 2030. It’s a really big prize for us to win if we get this right in terms of reducing our emissions and environmental impact, which is a central goal of all of this, but also regarding bringing economic benefits to Ireland. As a country, we spend about €5bn every year importing fossil fuels to use in our energy system. If we can use our own natural resources to do that, we can keep that money in the country.
What’s your philosophy in business in life?
If I were to boil it down to a few words, I would say work hard and play hard. I love my job and am very committed to it and I’m very passionate about what I do, but I also have a whole life outside of work as well. And it’s really important to me that I can leave work after a full day and throw myself into whatever I’m doing outside and really get that head space. That balance is something I always had –through college and my working life – and I’m keeping it with me. To be effective in work, I certainly need to have that other perspective.
What about your leadership style?
It’s constantly evolving. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I have “a style”. I do tend towards a more participative coaching style of leadership. So, really enabling people to be the best that they can be and to learn and grow and develop. I get an awful lot out of it when I see people stepping up and moving beyond their comfort zone and delivering.
I’ve learnt over the years that I need to be flexible and adaptable to be an effective leader. Every situation and person is different and, as an effective leader, you need to be able to flex and adapt your style to meet the circumstances to get the best out of everyone.
What are your tips and advice for success?
My one piece of advice is really to be true to yourself and do something you enjoy. If I think back over the jobs I’ve really enjoyed it’s been roles in organisations that have aligned with my own values. Understanding what’s important to you – and it takes a bit of time to get to that – will really help you find that job that suits you best and where you’ll thrive and flourish. So to be true to yourself and understand your motivators and your values would be my tip for long-term success.
Who or what are your main influences?
It would have to be my parents. There are three main things they’ve instilled in me.
First is always to do your best – you don’t have to be the best but just always do your personal best.
Secondly, you can do anything. They instilled in me that if you apply yourself to whatever it is you want to do, you can have a good go at everything. And I would give most things a go – I have a very positive attitude in that regard.
Thirdly, my dad has a very good sense of humour and that’s certainly taught me to be able to laugh, and laugh at myself, and I think that’s important. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.
What are your interests outside work?
I love sport and any outdoor activities. I run a lot and that gives me a lot of head space: everything looks different after a run. I also love cycling – mountain biking and road biking – and do lot of that as well.
And I do a lot of reading. There’s nothing more relaxing than getting totally lost in a really good book.
Any plans for the future you want to share?
I still consider myself relatively new in this role and I want to make a success of it. We have a great team of people here, including a new CEO. There’s an awful lot to be done and I want to make sure we’re giving the best advice, analysis and information to policy makers and ultimately Government to enable evidence-based decision making on the best solutions for Ireland in terms of energy efficiency and renewable energy.