Hunter Leader | Rowan Cox

Hunter Leader | Rowan Cox

Executive Director, Atwea College (formerly WEA Hunter)

Not long after joining WEA Hunter’s Links to Learning team in 1999 her passion for education was sparked when she saw a logical approach to providing practical ways for young people to engage in education.

The result was the creation of the Alesco Senior College which has now seen more than 1,000 young people across the Hunter and Mid North Coast successfully complete high school studies.

This approach saw her progress through the organisation where she continued to identify niche markets and logical ways for people to engage in learning. In 2016, Cox was appointed Executive Director and continued, with the support of a volunteer board and staff of about 30 people, grow the not for profit organisation.

Today, the organisation employs 97 permanent staff plus dozens of part time tutors and experienced a 350% increase to income in just four years. In April 2019, Cox took the century old organisation into its next chapter by naming it Atwea College.

  • What makes a good leader?

I think there’s a couple of elements that make a good leader. I think consistency is really critical for good leadership. I think having a really clear vision of what it is that you’re trying to achieve as a leader, because if the leader doesn’t have a clear vision – how can we expect all the other team members to participate in that?

But I think clear vision balanced with a sense of humility is so important. I think it’s really critical that leaders are not afraid to have a conversation or a discourse where they might not always be right.

So I think a clear vision with humility is really important. And then along with the consistency is the setting clear expectations, remembering people are not psychic, that they do need to understand what it is that they’re trying to achieve. And so by bringing all of that together I think those elements make really strong leaders.

  • What do you believe has shaped your leadership style?

I think there’s been a couple of elements that have shaped my leadership style. I personally have a really strong need for developing respect and trust between those people who are working very closely together.

And I think that that then passes along to those who are within my team about having the mutual respect and developing trust between understanding that although my team members may not do everything the way I would do it, them actually achieving the outcome is the most important thing.

And it’s all right to let them go and to achieve the goal in the way that suits their needs best.

I think having the opportunity to be bold and try new things and to see them unfold and to see them work out has developed my leadership style around encouraging others to be bold and encouraging others to think outside the square.

But mostly I think what developed my leadership style has been the opportunity to be mentored by people in front of me who have helped tempo my very strong convictions with being able to see a way forward in a manner that helps other people come with that journey.

So my natural style is to be very strong in my convictions, and to rush at things and make things happen. But I’ve had the opportunity over the years to be mentored by some very successful business people and the leaders before me in the organisation that I’m with, whereby it helps me to see that rushing and making things happen just because I think that they’re a great idea doesn’t always mean that they’re going to come off the way that I see them.

So the opportunity to be mentored in good leadership and balancing those two elements together has been critical for the way I now develop and mentor other people in my organisation towards their leadership style.

  • What motivates and drives you?

The thing that motivates and drives me the most actually is not being tied by convention. I really like to challenge the shoes. I don’t really want to follow a path of we do things because it’s the way it should be done or it’s always being done this way.

I really like to find the logical answer to a problem and then enact that by doing what is necessary and what is logical and what is needed, but not necessarily being tied by them we should do it this way or it should look a certain way or it should be done a certain way, unless there’s an absolute need for that.

I think often in business and with the company as old as Atwea College we could get trapped in the this is the way it’s always been done or this is the way we should do something because we have a very long history and legacy. But my drive really is around finding ways to make things happen because they need to happen, not because they should happen.

  • What is one action or task you ensure you incorporate into your diary each week?

It’s something that I incorporate each week, but it’s something that I incorporate most days. And I think the most important thing for me is preparation time. If I have a meeting, an action, a task that needs to be done I need to make sure that I am calm and prepared and clear in my vision of what is happening.

So, having the preparation time for going into that is really important to me. Because if I go in flustered, if I go in not fully thinking about and not fully being present with what is happening in front of me – decisions and choices get made that either have to be reversed or redone or reconsidered, and it wastes everybody’s time.

So as the leader in our organisation it’s really critical to me that I allow not only the meeting time but the preparation time to go into it. So, that’s either writing a to-do list, making sure that the points that I need to know I’ve written down, or doing the pre-reading that’s required for that. So the preparation time for whatever is coming up is built into diary as much as I possibly can manage.

  • What local businessperson do you find inspiring?

I mean, there’s probably a couple that I find inspiring. When you work in not-for-profit like I do sometimes you’re inspired by those who have a very strong philanthropic thing and then you also have inspiration drawn from people who make good business decisions.

Probably the two that I would name as inspirational to what we do at Atwea College are people like Melissa Histon who’s the CEO and founder of Got Your Back Sister who works tirelessly to ensure that a certain group of our community are fully supported. And she puts in so much effort and so much strength of her vision into what they do all the time.

The other person is our Amber Bibby who works for State Training Services and is now the marketing, other state market manager. And she’s in Sydney at the moment, but she’s been a long-time mentor of mine about being a woman in business and in a traditionally male-oriented education sector and how to have conviction of your belief and to make those things happen.

So, two very strong women are probably the most inspirational. But they do sit on both sides of that not-for-profit business where one is very strong in the philanthropic and the other is very strong in the business.


Atwea College

Atwea College (Formerly WEA Hunter) is one of the state’s largest providers of adult and community education in NSW. It is also one of the sector's most diverse education providers offering government contract training, vocational education training and youth education across seven campuses. Atwea College is also the parent organisation to the award winning Alesco Senior College.

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