How adventure made Chantal Cooke a better leader

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Chantal Cooke’s spirit of adventure – including a passion for horse riding, whale watching and long road trips – provided plenty of inspiration when it came to setting up her own PR business

“I was burnt out. All I wanted to do was get under the duvet and not come out again. And that’s just not me. It’s not my personality. At that point I knew there was something seriously wrong!”

Ten years spent relentlessly working on the launch, promotion and day-to-day running of her radio station, Passion for the Planet, had taken its collective toll on Chantal Cooke. In 2010, she decided to take a step back and embarked on an amazing adventure. It turned out to be the best decision of her career.

The itinerary included a 3,000-mile road trip across the US from New York to California via Yellowstone National Park. That was followed by a month in Botswana and Kenya to observe the great African wildlife migrations and a week spent sailing a yacht off Port Grimaud in south-eastern France.

Cooke recalls: “By then I was ready to start work again! I knew I had to do something but wasn’t sure what that something would be.”

Before co-founding Passion for the Planet, in which she still retains an interest, Cooke had worked as a producer and broadcast journalist for BBC Radio, followed by a brief spell in public relations. “In a way, the stars aligned because a publisher approached me and said ‘would you like to write a book from a journalist’s perspective about how businesses can do PR?

“At the same time a few people contacted me and said ‘if you’re not doing radio full time would you like to do our PR?’ My first thought was ‘are you sure?’ Before I knew it we had a business, we had clients, we were making money and we were taking on staff.”

The danger was that she would fall into the same energy-sapping cycle of non-stop work again. Fate intervened when her partner was offered a contract at a radio station in the Western Isles. “So I decided I would come up here for six weeks and I immediately fell in love with the place. I suddenly realised that this is what I needed.”

Cooke returned with a clear vision for how Panpathic Communications, her PR firm based in south London, would run. “I wanted it to operate in a way that meant everyone could have a life or lifestyle. For me, that means going on adventures. For somebody else it could be spending more time with their kids.”

She adds: “I am focused on results and we are one of the few PR companies to offer a guarantee to all our clients to get results. But that’s the nuts and bolts. For me, a business is so much more than that. We don’t have offices. We meet up periodically for a nice meal at a nice hotel in a nice environment. If somebody works for me and says they need to drop off or pick up their kids from school, that’s OK as long as we know upfront.

“We focus on two areas, which may seem very different but they overlap – small businesses with a service offering as well as authors. And quite often the people who run those businesses are authors of non-fiction books.”

Sense of adventure

The work-life balance allows her to spend at least one month a year in the Outer Hebrides. That begins with a two-day trip from London to North Uist. “I love the freedom of getting behind the wheel and being in control of the journey. At the same time I still have a company and staff that I have to look after, which means I do have to be connected and coming up here isn’t a holiday.”

However, it does allow Cooke the chance to indulge in her childhood passion for horse riding. “If you go along what is known as the airport beach the riding is spectacular. I love the fact that the horses get to be horses rather than just confined to a riding school. I’m fitting work around time spent at the stables.”

And last year she took up snorkelling. “It was a little bit scary. It isn’t a warm Caribbean Sea, I was freezing and had three wet suits on. It’s wild free-diving rather than a controlled environment.”

Recent adventures have taken her further afield from whale watching in Quebec and the Antarctic to spending time with a tribe in Tanzania. And she fervently believes each adventure contributes in its own unique way towards making her a better boss.

She concludes: “If you’ve been around in a certain field for a long time you need to find new ways to be challenged and that makes me think about clients in a different way to break a few barriers. It all harks back to that decision that I made when I committed to building this company but also recognising that life is a balance. And, when you think about it, having an adventurous personality surely goes hand in hand with being an entrepreneur.” 

Gallery: Chantal Cooke in North Uist

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About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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