A Team Capital interview with Mark Nichols, CEO of the renewable energy company, CH4e. Mark was formerly Group Director of Business Development for The BOC Group and Chair of their Technology Council having previously led their East Asian businesses.
TC: With business evolving and globalising at an ever increasing rate, business leaders now need to understand and create opportunity across different cultures, markets, technology platforms and business models. How can enterprises and the individuals within them become best equipped to meet this challenge?
MJN: Clearly, it is impossible for any one individual to be omniscient across each of the dimensions you identify but I believe what you can do is help individuals to become adroit at quickly understanding their essential elements and in so doing, start to equip them to identify and act upon opportunities across them. Based upon my own experiences, I believe that one can help develop this ability by consciously exposing those individuals with the aptitude to quite different roles and geographies as part of their career plans.
For those organisations and individuals which broadly embrace such a development philosophy, the result should be a marked increase in their agility in identifying and exploiting new opportunities, whatever form they present themselves in, be they technology, business model, market related or a combination thereof. I emphasize agility, as spotting and quickly acting upon opportunities becomes ever more important within a world which is increasingly connected and where business cycles are becoming ever more compressed.
One should note though that such “cross boundary” plans will often be limited by the scope and scale of a given organisation and when it is, an individual may well need to move enterprises to broaden their exposure and potential. Correspondingly, organisations can increase their own potential by hiring individuals who have previously delivered in a number of roles with different dimensions. Also, the fresh perspectives and energy that naturally accrue from moves within structured but diverse development plans are very powerful positive forces.
TC: At what stage in an individual’s development can such “cross boundary” development be accelerated and what route can they take?
MJN: Executives at the CEO level move across radically different market sector boundaries and many have a track record of doing so. I have a view that you can undertake diverse moves at lower levels, irrespective of age or tenure, if the individual has the right transferable skills i.e. they can assimilate new situations quickly, learn the key facts and dimensions in short order and readily adapt their approach to fit a new situation.
Just as some peaks are not climbed in a direct route to the top, some cross boundary moves may initially appear to be sideways and even downwards for the individual and any issues relating to remuneration need to be resolved practically. Perhaps by bearing in mind the long term contribution that the individual will hopefully deliver as a result of this and further such moves.
Unfortunately, one does not know for certain whether an individual will succeed or fail in a materially different role until you place them in it. I have found the trick is to take calculated moves which progressively test individuals such that the risks to them and the organisation are managed. It can then follow that having successfully delivered on one “cross boundary” move, an even greater span can be contemplated for the next one. Movements only stopping when natural limits are seen to be reached; be they those of the individual or the employer. Of course, what one must avoid at all costs are moves which are greatly beyond the stretch of an individual which will end up causing both them and the organisation great harm.
TC: Is such an approach appropriate for highly technical or specialised environments?
MJN: It is just as important for an organisation which wishes to be successful to also have excellent career plans for those who remain within their technical discipline. Whilst such plans may be more vertical in nature as it were, they need to run comfortably alongside those which are more diverse in nature. I believe strongly that one must involve technically gifted individuals beyond the sphere of their subject matter expertise as they have the capacity to bring fresh perspectives and real support and challenge to the broader business. As a result, organisations can not only deliver better outcomes but also help meet everyone’s intrinsic needs.
TC: How does one know one’s development limits?
MJN: Interestingly, not everyone knows their limits nor indeed promotes themselves for new and different roles. I have had the privilege of working with individuals who epitomised Henry James belief that “Until You Try, You Don’t Know What You Can’t Do”. One started as a contract fitter and ended up as a head of marketing via four other diverse roles including country manager of the Philippines. In each of the roles he undertook, he made profound and sometimes seminal contributions. Similarly, in one of my technology start-ups, I was fortunate enough to work with a deeply knowledgeable and skilled chemist who within 18 months was leading the development side of the business. He also developed to become highly credible in front of demanding investors; something he himself would have never imagined doing at the outset. In common with these individuals was that they never once asked for a change in role, both acted with humility and perhaps, were not fully appreciative of their true potential until they overcame each new, different challenge.
In truth, I had no idea of their potential until they embraced and mastered each new role. The only real support I believe I gave was my time, encouragement and helping them reflect on their new challenges. Based on this experience, I would venture that as individuals, most of us do not know all our limits and we can only truly find them by pushing our boundaries or at least being receptive when encouraged by others to do so.
TC: What does this mean for the board?
MJN: In essence, I think the approach equips a Board to deal with an ever increasing rate of change. Increasing the level of adaptable talent enhances the innovation, flexibility and capacity of an organisation and you can grow the number of broadly adaptable people by giving them ever increasing and diverse responsibilities.
I also believe that you are never too old or young to learn new and different things and on a personal level, I have acquired radically different skills and knowledge in start-up businesses over the last four years. It is true that the experience I gained in leading large tracts of world scale companies was invaluable in developing the new technologies and business models within them but going the other way, I wish I had previously been able to deploy some of the approaches and behaviours learned in these smaller businesses to accelerate the delivery of outcomes.
One needs a mindset of getting a sensible proportion of people moving to new and different experiences at a frequency which is sufficient for them to both properly absorb the new learning and deliver in the role. Adaptability is one of the most important traits you must have if you want an enterprise which is responsive to change.
TC: Thank you very much.
Mark Nichols is CEO of the renewable energy company CH4e and was formerly Group Director of Business Development for The BOC Group and Chair of their Technology Council having previously led their East Asian businesses. He is a FCCA who has over 20 years’ experience operating at the most senior levels in world scale companies in many different roles and more recently added the leadership of a number of new technology start-ups to his portfolio of experiences.