Adaptable Talent: Are the rules changing?

A Team Capital interview with Mr Mark James Nichols, Non-Executive Director of Xtract Energy Plc and Advisory Board Member of Critical Eye, on adaptable talent and its impact on business performance. Nichols was formerly Group Director of Strategy & Business Development for the BOC Group and Director of Strategy for Laing O’Rourke, the UK’s largest privately-owned construction firm. Nichols is an FCCA who has over 20 years’ experience operating at board level in the energy and chemicals sectors.

TC: With markets becoming increasingly intertwined, business leaders need to master an array of cultures, markets, competitors and workforce differences. How can enterprises and individuals fulfil these needs?

MJN: Over a period of 35 years spent in 5 distinctly different industries over 3 continents in many different functions and roles, I have come to believe that the realisation of human potential in business correlates highly with the degree of open mindedness that employers and individuals are prepared to apply to career paths. My view is that well thought out moves across organisational or other boundaries are a route to accelerated experience and learning and result in significantly increased NPV for both parties.

For the individual, the field of future opportunities broadens with every new and different piece of experience that one gains. For those organisations which broadly embrace such a development philosophy, the result is a marked increase in organisational capacity and flexibility which can be applied with speed to the next challenge. It is also hard to argue against the benefits of the fresh perspectives and energy that comes with such moves.

TC: At what level within the business can potential be accelerated?

MJN: One often sees people at CEO level crossing significant boundaries. I have a view that you can undertake profound moves at much lower levels, irrespective of age or tenure, if the individual has the right transferable skills. To make such moves requires the courage to value skills above specific knowledge.

A sporting analogy is a mountaineer who, in order to conquer his chosen peaks, has to learn many different climbing techniques and apply them in different terrains and conditions. His or her development plans will specifically be designed to acquire the requisite skills and experience. Also, climbers will often traverse or even descend to find the right path to a summit. From a people perspective, they also have to learn quickly to form judgements upon the members of new teams as to whether they will place with them the ultimate trust (or indeed not).

TC: Is such an approach effective in highly technical or specialised environments?

MJN: Vertical career paths necessarily provide narrower and deeper knowledge and experience which are, of course, highly valuable to an organisation and is often the norm for the more technical disciplines. Notwithstanding this, technically based individuals or specialists also require stimulus and development beyond their specific spheres of knowledge and experience to help meet their intrinsic needs as well as enabling them to bring a support and challenge to the broader business.

TC: What challenges do organisations face when attempting to ensure successful cross boundary development steps?

MJN: In comparison to a vertical move, it is even more important to establish an individual’s capabilities when attempting a cross boundary one. In order to be considered, candidates will have already demonstrated some natural abilities within their current environment such as leadership or judgement. They will have also demonstrated an ability to quickly learn the technical and business specific elements.

However, as Henry James wrote “you don’t know what you can’t do until you try” and the truth is that you do not know for certain whether a selected individual will succeed or fail in a materially different role until you place them in it. The trick is to progressively test individuals such that the risk reward profile increases with each move and movement stops when natural limits are reached. These limits can be those of the individual or equally be those of the company upon the individual.
TC: What do you see as the limits of the individual?

MJN: Interestingly, not everyone knows their limits or indeed promotes themselves for such development. One member of my team in Asia started his career in Australia as a contract fitter and rose to become a regional manager. Following which I then asked him to run one of my most challenging countries in South East Asia and subsequently to move across to be Head of Marketing for Industrial Products across the region. Throughout his career with us he never once asked for a change in role as he did not fully appreciate his potential and until we progressively tested him, neither did we. I would venture that as individuals, most of us do not know all our limits.

What does this mean for the board?

MJN: I believe it means that the flexibility and capacity of an organisation is enhanced by maximising the level of adaptable talent. To do so, it is important to get people with the right qualities and who show the potential to adapt, moving to new experiences as quickly as possible. And when is an optimum time to start accelerating the acquisition of experience? The sooner the better in my opinion as the learning is more exponential than linear but one is never too old to learn!

TC: Thank you very much.

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