‘Courageous, experimental and passionate’ – Nicki Hickson, EY’s former director of coaching, is taking on an exciting global role, while successfully balancing career and parenthood. Liz Hall reports
After 16 years at professional services firm EY, where she was most recently director of coaching and lead for highest performing teams – UK & Ireland, Nicki Hickson has joined FTSE 100 business RELX as head of management development.
Hickson was highly commended in this year’s Coaching at Work awards, in the Internal Coaching/Mentoring Champion category. Comments from judges and those nominating her highlighted how she’s business-savvy, inspirational, determined and an active contributor who makes things happen.
Former colleague, Philippa Thorne, associate director & professional coach, talent development – UK & Ireland at EY, for example, said Hickson is “courageous and experimental in trying out new things and is a role model for sheer persistence in driving and influencing change in a large organisation”.
They’re all qualities that will stand her in good stead in her new role. At RELX, a 30,000-strong global provider of information-based analytics and decision tools, Hickson will be working with its top 200 talent globally to develop and coach senior leaders, supporting career development and succession planning.
“I’m passionate about working here and making a difference. It’s a really purpose-led organisation that I’m delighted to now be a part of, building on my predecessor, Ann Bengtsson’s, great work. I have trips planned to Amsterdam, Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia, and I’m really looking forward to meeting leaders around the world and getting to really understand the business.”
Her decision to join RELX was due partly to how impressed she was by the calibre of leaders she met during the interview process.
“Their values and integrity shone through as well as their commitment to developing their senior talent. RELX has made a significant investment in the career development of its top 200 over the last 13 years under Ann. The management development programme is very well-established.”
Of her time at EY, Hickson says, “I had many fantastic years there, it was really formative with amazing opportunities. I was able to reinvent my role in a way that kept stretching me.”
As EY’s director of coaching between April 2011 and August 2019 – a role now taken up by Philippa Thorne, she supported partners and directors through executive coaching to be even more effective and successful in their leadership roles and in the market.
She set up EY’s Professional Coaches Centre, leading a team of internal coaches to deliver one-to-one coaching and team coaching to senior leaders. There’s now an established team of internal coaches supporting around 500 coaching relationships each year.
While in this role, Hickson also focused on change management and encouraging the shift towards a coaching culture across a business of 12,000 people. This involved supporting the coach manager network, designing coach training, providing consultancy support to the business in relation to mentoring schemes, designing team coaching interventions, and enabling culture change. Prior to that, from September 2003, she was HR director.
She’s particularly proud of “persuading the business to invest in coaching by proving the ROI and business impact.
“It led to us building a fantastic coaching capability, supporting more than 500 leaders on an annual basis through a team of internal coaches.
“In more recent years, I hugely enjoyed driving the high-performing teams approach and specifically working with global account teams for EY’s largest clients to ensure cohesion and collaboration, by focusing on team dynamics and building trust. I worked with inspiring leaders who taught me a lot.
“[In] one of the teams I worked with for 18 months, we saw a tremendous increase in revenue over the period in which we worked with them. The global EY leader was very happy to attribute lots of that to the coaching.”
While at EY, Hickson led the Highest Performing Teams approach within UK & Ireland and trained 50 consultants to run team coaching workshops across the business. She supported four of EY’s global account teams, and other senior leadership teams. Her role included individual coaching, interviewing all team members and collating 360 feedback on leaders to support their development, running team assessments to gauge how the team rates itself, and designing and facilitating team interventions to improve dynamics and performance.
For a time at EY, she also led their Future Partner Development Programme, which it runs with Oxford Saïd Business School. The development of this internal coaching approach was featured as a case study in this magazine (‘The Big Four’, vol 10, issue 1, 2015), and in Building and Sustaining a Coaching Culture by D Clutterbuck, D Megginson and A Bajer, and Mentoring New Parents at Work by N Seignot and D Clutterbuck.
During her career, Hickson’s learnt not to make assumptions. She recalls, for example, how she went in to roll out 360 feedback for a senior leadership team in the Czech Republic in 1999 but soon realised that there wasn’t a word in Czech for feedback.
She designed introductory courses on coaching and feedback and “the team absolutely embraced it”.
She’s also learnt that “people have to really experience good coaching to understand the benefit. If you’re trying to sell coaching internally, I’d always have senior stakeholders experience it so they become good role models and advocates for coaching.
“You also have to accept that if you’re trying to change to a more coaching culture, it’s going to take a really long time –it’s a good 10-year journey. It evolves over that time. And it’s about enjoying the journey as well!”
Hickson recognised the need for EY to focus on developing a “coaching habit every day” in the wider business. She used the Hawkins & Smith model as a framework, from Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy (2007) and set up a Coaching & Mentoring Network to encourage organisation-wide behavioural change by developing stronger coaching skills, providing practice opportunities and encouraging the role-modelling of great coaching skills every day. The network’s focus on developing a coaching culture continues today.
She also established MentorMatch, a self-service database and practical tool to encourage higher levels of coaching and mentoring activity, enabling individuals to identify mentors with the right background or skillset to support their needs. It’s still active, with around 650 registered mentors at varied levels.
One former colleague full of praise is Ian Paterson, who left EY to co-found Cote Consultants. He cites how early on, Hickson was clear “that the way to drive coaching was through influence and going where the energy was….it was pull rather than push. Her metaphor for this was to ‘water the shoots of the flowers’ as they started to push up through the earth. This approach was sympathetic to EY culture.”
He says that having established a sound foundation of good coaching and feedback from the business, Hickson decided to engage directly with the firm’s leaders in a strategic way, to discuss how coaching could help them deliver the results they wanted.
“This led to a bespoke approach for each of the four service lines, ranging from supporting female talent to pitching for new work. Nicki also introduced the concept of ‘tokens’ that each part of the business had to ‘spend’, thus introducing a sense of scarcity. This approach both made coaching directly relevant to the business objectives, but also significantly enhanced senior leadership’s engagement in coaching.”
Getting into coaching
Some 20 years ago, while at GE, Hickson completed a coaching course with training company Sheppard Moscow: “Coaching was a natural fit with my style – reflective. I like observing and listening.”
Her last role at GE was head of performance and development.
In 2003, she trained as a counsellor with charity Childline in Leeds, completing 75 hours of volunteering.
“I really loved the training, listening attentively to the young person, with no judgement, and handling some really challenging situations. This was also my first exposure to supervision. I think this [time] gave me the bug for this type of work.”
When she joined EY, she started to coach as part of her role as an HR director, doing this on a more formal basis from 2005 onwards.
After having her first child in 2010, she moved away from a broad HR role, setting out her intention to set up internal coaching in EY. “They were very keen so at that point, I started to do lots of coaching and it pretty much became my full-time role.”
One thing she really values about what coaching can offer is “the space to really think and reflect, particularly in the always-on world that we now inhabit. Talking about an issue out loud is such a different experience to letting the thoughts go round and round in your head with no escape route”.
Hickson has worked with more than 200 coaching clients, building up more than 1,000 coaching hours: “The advantage of working internally is that you can build up a lot of hours over a short time.”
What informs her coaching?
“I am a broad church. I have a background in neuroscience. I graduated from Keble College, Oxford University, with a 2:1 BA (Hons) in Physiology and Psychology but chose all the neuroscience options. I was really impressed by its approach to the brain and behaviour. And it’s fascinating to see how this field has changed in the last 25 years since I [first] studied it and how popular it’s become. People have now started to identify the potential for its application in organisations so behaviour can be better understood and leaders can lead more effectively.
“It’s something that can be proved so when you talk to leaders about neuroscience, they do really get it, particularly those with a logical background – leaders at both EY and RELX fall into that category. And coming from a science background myself, I need the proof too!
“When you ask rather than tell, you can see the neurons firing. Asking is more effective than telling. And the evidence about the importance of where you focus is very strong. You can really shift behaviour but you need to focus. It’s the whole neuroplasticity piece. Understanding this really helps when supporting others to appreciate how to change their behaviour.”
Her coaching practice is also informed by NLP, psychodynamics, solution-focused and (Nancy Kline’s) The Thinking Environment. She’s started to use elements of the latter with teams to help them make more effective use of meetings. “Elements such as turn-taking and taking the time to really listen to everybody’s input. Particularly with global virtual teams, it can be really hard to know when to step in. If you know you have your turn coming, it can really help.
“And more recently I’ve started to learn about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) coaching which I find fascinating. I attended an excellent Coaching at Work workshop on ACT with Dr Rachael Skews. The whole idea of psychological flexibility really resonated with me, and the importance of being present, choosing your response and doing what matters.”
She achieved the EMCC European Individual Accreditation – Senior Practitioner – in 2012 (renewed in 2017) and is certified to use a wide range of psychometric tests including Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – steps I and II, OPQ32, Hogan Personality Inventory, Hogan Development Survey, Reuven BarOn emotional Intelligence inventory, and FIRO-B.
She’s certified as an internal coaching supervisor with the OCM, has a Neuro-Linguistic Programming diploma, and completed Ashridge’s Consulting and Change in Organisations programme. In 1994, she gained an MSc in Human Resource Management and Business (CIPD qualified) from Aston University.
“I like to learn new things. I can’t stop learning in this space.”
“I’d have to say my mum and dad have been key influences. We’ve just celebrated my dad’s 80th birthday as a family and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had such a stable and happy childhood, one where such strong values were instilled, and my talents were supported and encouraged. [Such a background] breeds confidence and integrity, and I’m hoping my husband Phil and I can instil these values in our children, Jack, nine, and Eloise, six.
“As well as having a very sharp and logical mind, my dad has a very strong ethical code. He worked for the Inland Revenue for 40 years.
“He instilled the importance of doing the right thing, and also always encouraged my sister and I to believe we could be anything we wanted to be.
“My mum’s quite different. She has very strong emotional intelligence and intuition about people. She’s extremely generous, and is also a fantastic hostess who built my social confidence. She developed my ability to build trust and rapport quickly, and be comfortable talking to anyone.
“The combination of these values and traits have been the foundation of my success as a coach.”
What might readers be surprised to learn? “I represented Oxford University at pool and darts!”
Hickson loves sport. “I’m a Manchester United [football] fan. I play competitive netball for Knutsford netball club twice a week. I also practise yoga, and love to go walking with the family in the Peak District. I like coaching outside. Walking and talking works really well.”
Before this interview, Hickson’s husband said to her, “Don’t forget to talk about being a working mum!”
“I think it took me a little while to work out that success is multifold, with my career and being a really good mum and managing a good relationship with my partner – it’s not just one narrow focus. My focus is about having a fantastic career and also enjoying other parts of my life.
“I’ve been really fortunate in the organisations I’ve worked in that flexible working is on offer. For the last eight years, I worked four days a week at EY which made the role possible as I had to work in London a lot but am based in south Manchester.
“At RELX, I have a full-time role but they’re happy for me to be based at home. I can be in London easily by train and I’m 10 minutes from Manchester airport. RELX is also very comfortable with virtual working as it’s such a global organisation.
“To make it work, you have to be able to maintain your boundaries and be clear what they are as nobody else can do it for you. You always work more hours than the contract because of the senior nature of the role but I made lots of plans for my Fridays so I wouldn’t be dragged into calls. I was busy taking kids to gymnastics or meeting friends for lunch. I wanted to make it fun and special for the kids. If you’re prepared to take a 20% pay cut, you need to make sure it’s worthwhile for your family.
“My husband and I really tried to balance it. He’d work three and a half days and I worked four. He was in the Air Force for 16 years, including tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, then set up his own business in consultancy in a similar field, facilitating leadership development. We share all the childcare and everything else.”
Their attitudes to career and parenting are rubbing off on their children: “My son wants to save the oceans. My daughter said, ‘I want to be pop star, ballerina, doctor – and a mummy!’ ”