Ian Nicholas knows the value of taking opportunities. As a young operations graduate trainee, he found himself working on the same corridor as British Steel’s employee relations manager.
New to the world of work, he had been working through roles in logistics, planning, purchasing and supplies. But when the chance came up to work on projects in human resources, Ian grabbed it.
It was the start of the journey that has seen Ian rise through the ranks and eventually take the unusual step from HR to Global Managing Director.
In this interview, Ian reveals how he is a strong believer in not only learning and development, but also being able to think on your feet, grasp opportunities and trust the people you work with.
Q: How did your career path take you to where you are today?
A: My career has largely been in human resources, but I started with British Steel and did various jobs there. These included operational roles as well as HR roles and I did my CIPD qualification while there.
I then moved to Chubb and progressed in various HR roles to be their HR director. That is when I met Reed because we outsourced recruitment from there and Reed won the contract. So, I was a customer of Reed’s before I joined the company, and I’ve now been here for 19 years, largely doing human resources roles.
When at Reed, I opened and ran our HR specialist recruitment division, starting-up several business units there, and then I ran what is now our Reed Talent Solutions business. Aside of these roles, my main duties were as HRD for the specialist recruitment businesses. After all of that, I found myself as a chief HR officer for the group, working with James Reed, our Chairman and Chief Executive.
For the last four years, I've been the Global Managing Director of our recruitment businesses here at Reed.
Q: As you progressed through your career, you were presented with various opportunities with different roles and challenges to take on. How important is it for people to be prepared to embrace such opportunities?
A: It certainly worked for me. Throughout my whole career, I've only actually proactively gone looking for a job and applied for a job once, and that was when I moved from British Steel to Chubb. The rest of the time I've been approached for opportunities and clearly you weigh up each one, but I've just gone for it whenever I think I can.
I don't think you are ever fully ready to do a complete role. There's always going to be gaps, but as long as it's a measured response, I think you should go for those opportunities. I'm a big supporter of learning a whole business, understanding a whole business, and I think that will help you progress within any organisation.
Q: Your initial move into HR came almost by accident, but one advantage you had over other HR executives was that you had that wider knowledge of the overall business. How important is it for people who move up the corporate ladder to be willing to learn about and understand as much about the overall business as they can?
A: It's really important to embrace the whole organisation in whichever role you do, because in every single role you're not necessarily going to be across everything.
You're going to be so focused on your individual support function or whichever area you're working in, so it's important to take the time to step back and look at the wider business.
I always advise people to take any opportunities they have to get involved in different projects or any other initiatives that they can to see different parts of the business, to make sure they understand the whole organisation. That's only going to help your career progression within that organisation.
Q: How important is it for a good leader to understand the importance of strong employees and to trust their opinions?
A: Very. I have a little phrase, which is to recruit people that are better than you. I think if you surround yourself with the right people, that can only help.
Some managers, and I can't understand it, are almost scared of recruiting really good talent because it intimidates them. But you need to recruit really strong people and have them around you.
I'm also a big believer that if you recruit talented people that have expertise, then you should listen to them. Why would you recruit a specialist in, for example, marketing, and then not listen to their views and take their views above anyone else's?
Q: You made the perhaps unusual move of crossing from HR into being global managing director for the business. What was the biggest challenge when you made that move and how did you manage to overcome it in the end?
A: The advantage I had was that people knew me, but the biggest challenge would be that previous managing directors would have come through operations. It's unusual for somebody to have been in a support team, like managing the HR function, and become the global MD. But at the end of the day, I did know the business very well. I knew the people very well and leadership is leadership.
I think if you approach that situation, like anybody would, you're going to have some nervousness. You are going to question if you can you do the whole job. But if you surround yourself with the right people and lead in the right way, then you can’t go far wrong. I'm a big believer in transparent leadership, being very visible, very transparent, and certainly for me it's worked incredibly well. We've had three, coming up to four, very successful years.
Q: What advice would you give to somebody else looking to make a similar move?
A: Grab the opportunity. As I've just said, you're never going to feel fully ready but if the opportunity excites you, go for it. Ask yourself the question, could anybody else do a better job? Would anybody else be a better choice? And if you've got that self-confidence, I would just embrace that opportunity.
Stay humble. Always stay humble. Make sure you’ve got trusted people around you that you will listen to, but at the same time be confident in your own self and take the opportunities when they come.
Q: How important is training for people who are looking to move up and onwards in their career?
A: It’s an interesting question for me, the training question, I'm a big believer in training and development. Firstly, we're always learning. Everybody should always be learning and if you look at the people at the peak of their abilities, whether that be in business, in sport, in any walk of life, they're always willing to learn and recognise they can improve all the time.
So, I’m a big supporter of learning and development, and we run a lot of good programmes.
However, if you look at my career, I haven't received much in the way of formal developmental programmes. A lot of what I've learned, I've learned on the job, by grasping an opportunity. I’ve learnt as I’ve gone, sometimes being thrown in at the deep end as some people would say.
So, I do think that sometimes you're just going to learn on the job. I guess what I'm saying is learning is really important, even if you don’t have a formal programme to support you on your way. You can just learn and pick things up as you go.
I enjoy delivering training and I actually learn a lot from the delivery of training courses as well. There'll be managers or people in attendance that will have a lot of experience in certain elements. Even if you're delivering training, you can pick things up from them that will help you learn along the way.
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