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Posted on: December 17th 2021

Women in Leadership

Name: Helena Cole

Role: Finance & HR Director

Company: Aquila Air Traffice Management Services Ltd

A bit about you: I was a teenage mum, I gave birth whilst in 6th Form but stayed at school and did my A-Levels. It was the 1980s and I think I was the first one to do that at Invicta. As you can see I was always rebellious which has helped in my career. I now have one daughter who is 35 and 4 grandchildren who range from 9 to 14, the last two are twins. I have been married to Richard for 25 years and I live in Southsea. I am interested in politics, walking and I love to keep fit.

What is it like working in your company? I work in the defence industry and have done for nearly 20 years. It is really male dominated as a lot of people are engineers and only 8% of engineers are women. I really don’t mind that and now I have reached the top a lot of women have told me that I am a role model to them to show that it really is possible to get to the top even in our industry. The company I work for at the moment services the air traffic control systems for the RAF which means that I have been to a lot of air bases and even got to go round the Battle of Britain Memorial flight. Those are really old planes and I got to go behind the scenes and even inside one of the bombers. I often tell people that being an accountant doesn’t have to be boring, depending on the company you work for you can do some amazing things. I once got the chance to test the rigid inflatable boats for the navy which meant spending a whole day out on the water putting this really fast boat through it’s paces. People would pay to do that kind of thing and I was actually getting paid to be there.

Why did you decide to go into your chosen field? I spent a lot of my 20s not knowing what I wanted to do. I had a small child, a degree in History, a masters degree in Women’s Studies but no idea what I wanted to do as a career. I ran a business with my husband but it wasn’t particularly successful and I stood for Parliament which was fun but none of those were going to last me forever. Then in my 30s I was temping and I got sent on a couple of finance jobs and I loved it so I decided to become an accountant. I trained whilst working and it took me 3 years to get qualified. Since then I have been promoted every couple of years but I still love it as much as I did when I started.

What qualifications and work experience did you need to reach your current position? You don’t need a degree to become an accountant but it helps, but it doesn’t matter what the degree is in. The degree teaches you some of the critical thinking skills you need but you can get those elsewhere if needed. From there I studied for CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountant). If you don’t have a degree you can start at AAT and from there take CIMA. Accountancy is a mix of qualifications and experience. I was an accountant for 20 years before I became a Finance Director and that’s about the right kind of time.

What do you enjoy the most about your job? I really love the logic of numbers, the kind of accountancy I do isn’t about doing company accounts and looking at what has happened in the past it’s about trying to work out what is going to happen in the future. That’s the bit I like, can I work out a way to make something happen so we can be more profitable? But also it’s the people, I have to work really closely with people to understand what they do so I can work out how much it is going to cost. I think it’s part of the reason why I was asked to take on HR as well as Finance. The bit I love now is I get to decide a lot on the culture of the organisation, so I can decide to help people out when they are struggling and I can make the rules to make things easier for people and that’s really great.

What obstacles have you overcome in your career? There were a lot of obstacles about starting my career later. There were people who asked why I was not already a Finance Director as I should have been one in my 40s if I started at the normal time. There weren’t obstacles about me being a woman, in fact I think it helped. A lot of companies want to be more diverse and I know that being a woman really helped me climb the ladder. I never got a job just because I was a woman but there were some that I know if two people had been equally right for the job I might have got it because I was female.

Why do you think it is important to have a strong female representation in your industry? We really need role models for other women, there aren’t many female Finance Directors, there aren’t even that many female HR Directors. What you will see a lot is a more heavily female work force at the lower levels which becomes increasingly more male as it gets higher. I was bought up to believe that I could do anything and being a woman isn’t a barrier (it was the 1980s and this was unusual) and I want to show other women that this is true. When I was at Invicta, Mrs Blackburn used to tell us we were the top 25% in the country and I believed her and believed I could do it if I wanted to. Hopefully by the time you are in your 50s having women in senior levels of organisations will just be normal.

What advice would you give those wanting to take a similar career path? If you want to be an accountant I am afraid there is no getting away from the fact that it is hard work and long hours but if you love it you really don’t notice. Do a degree in a subject you love and keep your options open. If you still want to be an accountant then you can join a graduate training programme in a big company or start in a small company. If you are going down the small company route then go to an employment agency, accountancy jobs can always be gained through agencies as they are rarely advertised. I would also recommend that you do some work experience so you can see what it is really like before you start.

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