Lessons from the C-suite: Ian Nicholas, Reed

Ian Nicholas, global managing director at Reed, shares his career tips after making the switch from HR to MD.

I started out… Having very little idea on what I wanted to do. I left university as a geography graduate and didn’t really know what I wanted my career to be, so I ended up in a graduate scheme with British Steel where I rotated around different disciplines.

The start of my career in HR was a result of doing some work for the HR director as I was in the same corridor as him.

I knew this was the right career path for me when… HR is versatile, which helped me learn the ins and outs of each area and made the transition into global managing director easier.

More lessons from the c-suite:

Rob Jupp, The Brightstar Group

Lisa Pinney, the Coal Authority

Peter Laurie, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way… Recruit people that are better than you. I am a big believer of this – if you find talented people with the right attitude towards work, learn to manage them effectively and give them the autonomy they need.

My proudest achievement… was being asked by James Reed to be global managing director for Reed. I don’t think the transition from HR into a C-suite role is very common, so I’m really proud to achieve that. My second proudest achievement was being listed on HR magazine’s Most Influential list in 2019.

My biggest mistake… I would say that you never learn if you don’t make a few mistakes. When things are going well, it’s very easy to take a back step and let it flow, but I have learnt that this can result in complacency.

Don’t be too risk averse; always be prepared to make mistakes.

My biggest inspiration… Probably my family. I have two daughters and every day they find new ways to inspire me – their enthusiasm and capacity for learning is fantastic.

They inspire a lot of what I do, and, like a lot of parents, I work to give them the best opportunities.

Keeping me awake at night right now… Technology and the pace it’s evolving. Technology and AI impacts our business, and we have to embrace it otherwise we will get left behind.

The speed of change is unbelievable and we have no idea what things will be like in five years’ time.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be… There’s an immediate challenge in terms of inflation and cost of living – especially with people wanting salary rises and companies not being able to afford it.

But the environment is a big thing for our collective future – one of which I hope people and businesses are doing something about.

"Recruit people that are better than you. I am a big believer of this"

I need my HR director to… What we need is for HR teams to over-communicate – so our employees know how much we’re investing in them and the tools and rewards available.

Managing morale within flexible teams has been difficult – a lot of management training is required as leaders are having to manage teams differently to before, something which our HR director is working very hard on.

More HR directors would become CEO if… They can remain commercially minded. It’s very easy for HR to focus on good people stuff, but they can forget the hard commercial side of the job.

I ask my HR team every week what they have done to generate revenue, and how they are making sure cost lines are under control in order to embed that commercial mindset.

What I’m reading right now… I don’t actually read a lot; I listen to podcasts. I am currently listening to The High Performance Podcast with Jake Humphrey.

My top leadership tip… Be very open, transparent and honest, as people react well to that. I do weekly updates on the business.

This is great when I’m sharing positive news, but even more important when the updates aren’t the most positive – such as in the pandemic, when people were on furlough. Honesty is appreciated.


This piece appears in the May/June 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.