A Conversation with Colette Cohen
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
Colette is from a small town in Ireland and attended school in a convent
After leaving school she studied Chemistry at Queens University in Belfast
Colette has nearly 30 years industry experience working in the UK, Norway, US and Kazakhstan prior to joining the Oil and Gas Technology Center (OGTC) in late 2016 as their founding CEO
Thanks to her international career, she has moved home 18 times (soon to be 19) so is quite adept at the removals process!
Outside of work she enjoys spending quality time with her husband and two springer spaniels
She is passionate about dogs and is a Trustee for Springer Rescue for Scotland, while offering a foster home for many dogs over recent years
Colette is also an advocate for STEM, women in engineering, alongside her work with the POWERful Women network
1. What enticed you to pursue a career in the Oil & Gas Industry after studying chemistry at University?
I applied for three companies during ‘milk rounds’ at University, including ExxonMobil, Smith Klein (now GSK) and BP. These were the only ones attractive enough to leave Ireland for at the time and I was lucky enough to get second interviews for all three. I couldn’t make the second interview with SK as it clashed with my finals and there wasn’t any flexibility to change the date. I was excited about the role with ExxonMobil as it would involve working on the Formula 1 fuels, however I only lost out as they chose to appoint someone with a PhD - which I felt was a huge compliment! The interview with BP went exceptionally well, they had a fantastic recruitment process and I got on really well with the team so they offered me a job straight away. I was genuinely thrilled to join as they had an exceptional graduate programme, the money was good and it meant I could pay off my student debt with the intention of returning to do by PhD. That one is still on my to do list.
After joining BP I moved to Aberdeen and spent 16 weeks the graduate programme studying the foundations of the industry before going straight offshore to Forties Alpha. It was a fantastic time in my early career, we were a group of 16 graduates, all new to the city and the industry so I built a really close network of friends. When I was back onshore, we’d always catch up so I was often out socialising…..I have many good memories from this time.
2. From quite early on in your career you worked internationally, what advice would you give to someone who was offered an opportunity to work abroad for a period in their career?
Grasp it with both hands!
At the time it may seem daunting, it may take you out of your comfort zone and test your capability. However, it will provide you with invaluable experience including exposure to new cultures and ways of working. It will expand your network which is absolutely key to a successful career. I still keep in touch with many people from across the globe, knowing I can always contact someone wherever I travel.
3. What attracted you to pursue a management career as opposed to focusing on a technical one?
I was working in a consultancy as a technical expert, I did a lot of the same work over and over again -- building complex reservoir models with a speciality in thermal water flood modelling. I definitely couldn’t see myself doing this for the next 20+ years. I also found it frustrating that I couldn’t be involved in bigger decisions, those that influenced the outcome at a more strategic level rather than a technical one. For example there were times when some of the decision making went against our technical recommendations, so I wanted to understand why…. and have an impact. So that was really a key turning point for me.
4. You have held several senior positions globally in your career including your current role, what do you do in your spare time to balance the pressure that must come with such roles?
A good work life balance is so important.
If you allow it to, work can consume you 150%. In order to bring your best self to work, you need to have a good balanced home life.
After a busy day my husband and I go a walk with the dogs. We have a rule…the first 30 minutes is allowed for work related conversation and then that’s it. We focus the rest of our time on our personal life.
And we love spending time with friends and family, especially outdoors. In the past my husband and I have enjoyed a lot of mountain biking, however where we moved to in the US, it wasn’t good for that, so we took up golf instead. And I’m glad we did as it’s a very sociable sport, we regularly play together, and we’ve built up a fantastic group of friends around the world.
I also don’t believe in ‘presenteeism’; the working day does not have to be strict 9-5. I expect people to manage their workload and balance this around other personal commitments, whether it’s their family, gym or dogs. I don’t want anyone to seek permission for leaving early to make their child’s Christmas play or even a class at the gym.
I also try not to email after 8pm at night, which suits me – but others prefer to spend early evening with their family and kids and do email catch up later, it has to be what works for you. Ultimately, it’s about balance and managing it in the best way for you.
It’s also important to ensure your partner and personal life is aligned with your career goals and objectives. We are all trained in the industry to make annual business goals, but we don’t often make personal ones and we should. Each New Year my husband and I sit down and discuss this for the year ahead, which keeps us connected and working in harmony.
5. You have previously spoken of working with difficult managers during your career. Do you have any words of wisdom you can share on how to make the most of what can be a very stressful situation?
What I wished I had known when I was younger!
I think it’s best to take a step back and try and see things from the manager’s perspective. The majority of the time the manager wants you to do better. It’s simply their style of communication is poor or the message may be getting lost in the delivery, despite the intent being good. So explore what your manager is trying to achieve with their feedback and turn it into something constructive.
Also, ask yourself – are you communicating in the right way? Think about your audience and the output they require, what level of detail, technical information or messaging. A CEO does not need an in-depth presentation of every technicality when they are juggling several priorities and presenting to the Board. Help your manager or senior leaders by providing them with the information, in the language or format they need it.
6. You regularly speak about the importance of having a network of trusted advisors / mentors in the industry to call upon in times of need. Do you have any tips on how to build mutually beneficial relationships to create a strong network?
You have different networks in your life that provide great support – family, friends, colleagues etc. First, it’s important to remember that networks go both ways. It’s important to be useful to your network, remembering that will be returned to you ten-fold.
Second, there are different types of networks. You need to create intentional networks based on where you want to go in your career, people who can support your aspirations and goals. It’s more than just connecting with people on LinkedIn or saying hello at an event, you need to be actively engaged with them. That means that your network needs to know what your goals and aspirations are, and why you’re the right person to deliver.
And of course there’s your support network, who you can turn to at times of advice or when you need an introduction in a new country or company, or the answer to a technical problem. These are hugely important too and something I have found essential throughout my career.
7. As the OGTC celebrates its third birthday, what has been the most enjoyable part of your time so far working as CEO?
I’ve really enjoyed working with such a huge range of stakeholders. From government, industry, tech developers, schools, universities, through to other industries - aviation, manufacturing, nuclear to name but a few. Discussing new ideas, ways of working, technologies that we can apply to improve our industry – it’s been an amazing experience.
I can look back now and realise how much I’ve learned from this, alongside setting up a new start-up. I don’t think I appreciated it was a complete start-up when I joined, everything from cleaning the office on day one, through to ensuring we had the right IT, systems and process in place. It’s been a huge learning curve!
But three years in we’ve already co-invested over £125 million, with over 200 projects up and running and seen nearly 20,000 visitors through our doors. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved in such a short time.
8. Do you have any advice for others seeking to further their careers in the oil and gas industry?
I feel that is very important to have a mentor, particularly mid-career. This time can present the biggest challenges, when people move from being a technical or subject specialist into management. The rules of engagement change!
How people deal with you, your leaders and peers are different. You have direct report relationships to manage, also relationships with more senior colleagues, for example Exec or Board. These can be very different from what you have down previously in a technical role and can take a while to adjust too.
A mentor or professional coach can be invaluable here and I recommend everyone considers this. It will allow you to shine at your brightest when you need it the most!
And finally 4 thoughts to leave you with:
Grab every opportunity you’re given with both hands
Align both your personal and business goals
You can do anything, don’t let someone else be your limitation
And perhaps most importantly, see your own brilliance and own it!