There are lots of routes to success. Quite aptly, Joanna Woolf, CEO of Cogent and with a background of more than 20 years in industry, including Oil and Gas and Chemicals, took an alternative one to chart her path to the top.
At age 16, Joanna Woolf had had enough of fulltime education and left school to take up an engineering apprenticeship at Simon Engineering, studying for a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering part time at Stockport College. The apprenticeship provided just the right combination of work/earning and education to keep Joanna’s interest; but realising that if she wanted to access a wider spectrum of careers and potentially open doors into graduate programmes she needed another qualification behind her, she augmented this with an Engineering degree from Manchester University.
I don’t think degrees are essential, but they can help get you into the right places and increase your chances of success. But I also think that the right apprenticeships and work-based routes can also achieve this. Ultimately, it’s all about the relevant skills and experience you accrue along the way that counts.”
Education and skills development have always been close to Joanna’s heart, and she totally walks the talk: to meet her (achieved) ambition of becoming a CEO, she gained an MBA; and last year she completed her Day Skipper qualification (sailing and skiing are her two great hobbies), realising the great responsibility involved in skippering a large sailing boat with her family on board. “I like to have the theory underpinning the practice and also understand the right/best way of doing things from the experts. I will probably go further with this.” It’s an attitude that has been applied consistently throughout her education and career.
Science based apprenticeships are growing as the status of the scientific technician workforce grows. This is a really important area to get right for the future and where the workforce is ageing; there are now substantial progression routes into jobs.”
Joanna has worked in industry for over 20 years, including within engineering, international business management and at Board level. After her role as Operations Director for Albion Inorganic Chemicals, Cogent opened a very different door while allowing her to remain within industries that she knew well; it was the perfect blend of a new challenge in a familiar sector – and the coveted opportunity to become CEO.
Cogent is the Sector Skills Council for the science-based industries, including Life Sciences and Nuclear, two strategically important growth industries. It is Cogent’s mission to establish a sustainable, demand-led skills infrastructure entirely owned and led by employers within the sector that underpins business growth in the UK.
We are at a really interesting time at Cogent as the government skills agenda turns more to employer ownership. This is a great opportunity for employers to take the lead on skills and really get what they need from the skills system. Our role at Cogent is to support employers in making this happen. Having the right skills base is critical for businesses operating in the UK. I want to help make sure that employers are drawn to investing in the UK because the skills base here is better than anywhere else and gives them a real business advantage.”
Ironically, while Cogent focuses on skills development, Joanna’s role as CEO means that she has less direct people responsibility than in previous management roles, where it was often a significant part of her job.
However, she has actively used her position to promote gender equality through the signing of the UKRC CEO Charter. Married with two children aged 16 and 14 – and a 14-month-old black Labrador who keeps the whole family busy – Joanna personally understands that women who want to have a family and a career will always need to balance their priorities. “I have been lucky to have a partner who shares the family responsibility, as it can have an impact on women’s careers, without a doubt. But for those women who want to play a leading role I think the opportunities are growing all the time, with more and more role models around for young women to learn from.”
Joanna is certainly one of those role models, in an industry sector where women are notoriously in the minority. However, Cogent itself – no doubt due in no small part to Joanna’s seven years at the helm – must be recognised for its strong women contingent: there is an almost 50/50 gender split.
So, what’s on the cards next? “I think I have more to do at Cogent for now!”