Written by
Tom Ritchie

Published
25 Aug 2017

Career profile: Louise Cooper, CEO, SGOSS

25 Aug 2017 • by Tom Ritchie

CV in brief

  • 2013 – 2017, business development director, The London Early Years Foundation
  • 2011 – 2013, CEO, UnLtd South Africa (voluntary role)
  • 2005 – 2011, operations development manager (various roles), climate change manager , Tesco
  • 2002 – 2005, senior policy adviser, HM Treasury

A day in your life

Tell us about your job, organisation and team.

SGOSS Governors for Schools is a not for profit organisation which recruits business people to be governors of schools all over England.  Our ambition is that every school in England has excellent governance, and most of my team spend their time matching the skills and experience of our volunteers to the needs of schools.  We also have a business development and marketing team which brings on new corporate partners and helps us deliver campaigns. My role as CEO is to develop and agree our strategy with the trustees, then ensure delivery, which means getting the right people in place and, motivating, supporting and challenging the team to achieve, as well as leading on fundraising and business partnerships. I am also the public face of SGOSS.
 

What is the most rewarding and challenging parts of your role?

Most rewarding is working with my team, developing their capabilities, talking to customers to find out how we are doing and getting insight into how we can improve. Hearing when we have placed a great volunteer who will make a difference to a school’s governance is fantastically rewarding.  I am also a school governor, and really enjoy contributing to decisions made at the school, alongside learning from the experiences of other governors, and seeing how outcomes for children are getting better – which is why I do it!

The most challenging aspect of my role is prioritising the implementation of our strategy.

What does a typical day look like for you?

As a family we get up early and have breakfast more or less together, then I help my children with music practice, before cycling to the station and arriving at the office around eight.  Although no two days are the same, typically I have a couple of hours in the morning for progressing plans, then several meetings with different people in the team and external stakeholders. Once or twice a week I will be out and about, either at a relevant conference or event or meeting new people to develop ideas and connections. Generally I get home by six for dinner with children (they are aged six and eight so also the homework, bath, bed routine).  My train journey is incredibly useful for mulling things over and reading papers without interruptions.

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?

I want to make a difference in education and the opportunity at SGOSS arose at the perfect time when I was ready for a CEO role. Fundamentally I had experience and skills to bring, and also I thought I would learn a lot, from the chair (my boss) and in taking on the role.

What skills are essential for your role?

At its heart my role is about leadership, which covers many areas. To break it down to the most important elements, it’s about empathy and communication (in any situation, to get the best from people), strategic thinking, setting goals, decision making, and being the ‘optimist’ who sees the possibilities.  

Career path

How did you get to where you are now? Have you followed the career path you expected?

I knew in my mid-20s that I wanted to lead an organisation with social purpose in some form, and 15 years on, that is what I am now doing.  In my journey I have moved around a lot, across private, public and third sectors, which has been deliberate in most cases, since I wanted to build up different skills and learn about the best ways of doing things. Studying for an MBA at Harvard was pivotal because it opened my eyes to social enterprise, as well the wide spectrum of business.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

While I learned a lot from different organisations, I didn’t always fit in culturally, and sometimes it felt hard to get up to speed and thrive when many colleagues had been there for years. Over time I realised it’s important to be true to who I am and keep focussed on my goals.

There have been many specific challenges along the way and the one lasting lesson is that there will always be challenges!  I am getting better at overcoming these by recognising the ups and downs, and building resilience, which means climbing out of the difficult moments more quickly.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Growing the London Early Years Foundation from 24 to 38 nurseries over 3 years, in that time building a team from scratch and learning huge amounts about marketing and business development.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

Talk to people who are CEOs to figure out if it’s for you.  Find out what you are very interested in and passionate about. For me it is education and young people reaching their potential. Take every opportunity to contribute to organisations more broadly than your function or role – you will learn so much.
 

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

Building skills is really important early in your career, learn as much as you can from the projects you are on and the people around you.

Experience of different sectors (private, public, not for profit) will help you find interesting roles in the future. 

Join a “rocket ship” - growing organisations need people who will grow with them.

Culture matters – talk to people to find out about the culture and vibe and why they like an organisation before joining

Either/or

  • Coffee or tea? Tea, with one coffee most days
  • Sweet or savoury?  A mixture, but I tend to have a sweet treat in the afternoon or evening
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?  Beatles – upbeat, world of the possible
  • Apple or Android? Apple - design
  • Introvert or extrovert? Extrovert – tried working from home (alone) and it didn’t work for me
  • Early bird or night owl? Early bird – always have been
  • Winter or summer?  Summer – love early mornings and long evenings
  • City or countryside?  Countryside with trips to the city

Favourites

  • App:  Simply Yoga with 20/40 mins sessions, I try to use twice a week
  • Film: We saw La La Land most recently, which is fun and up beat in what has been a turbulent year.
  • Song: I love most Ed Sheeran songs on the modern front; sang Brahms Requiem in a concert in March this year, powerful stuff of a different kind!
  • Book: Recent highlight is Head of State by Andrew Marr, a real page turner which predicted the Brexit vote. Generally though I will be reading a business or leadership book.
  • Childhood hero: Ranulph Fiennes – I wanted to be en explorer when growing up
  • Guilty pleasure: Chocolate
  • Place to eat:  Our kitchen table! we don’t go out that much; we do have a very good Chinese locally called the Good Earth – a birthday treat!
  • Holiday spot: Cape Town – we lived there for 18 months
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given:  Success in your business life/career can never replace success in your personal life.