David Nichols is a principal and member of the Executive Committee in the Advisory Services practice of Ernst & Young LLP (EY). He is the Americas Inorganic Growth Leader, focused on driving new growth opportunities in Advisory through acquisitions, innovation and alliances with key external companies. Nichols previously served as EY's IT and Digital Transformation Leader for the Americas, where he helped clients adopt technology and digital solutions into all aspects of their business strategy, operations and workforce. In this role, his primary focus was supporting senior executives to help bridge the gap between business and IT by providing solutions in the areas of strategic technology, technology management services, security, enterprise architecture services, and technology infrastructure services.
Thank you for your time today. What would you say your career has taught you so far about leadership? On the macro level, I have learned that leadership consists of a cluster of issues around the experiences you have and the tools you have in your professional kit, and a cluster of issues around people. Where those two clusters intersect is where success becomes possible.
Early in my career I would encounter successful leaders and instantly think that they had somehow received all the breaks — got assigned to the best projects, got to assemble the best teams. After much experience it finally dawned on me that the majority of those people made success happen, and were active in steering events to successful outcomes. You could say that this was part of the foundation of my learning about where experience and people intersect.
How did this early experience equip you to be active in your own projects and business relationships? It taught me not to take anything for granted, to ask appropriate questions, and to understand and state the outcomes that constituted success of the project in very clear terms. It helped me resist the temptation to believe that everyone but me had some basic understanding or knowledge that I had to somehow catch up to while also managing my projects. Becoming better at avoiding this “deficit-management” made me much clearer in setting expectations all along the way. Setting up ground rules at the beginning of a project is not sufficient. They have to be reiterated and reinforced throughout.
And the people side of leadership, including leadership of yourself? Much learning on many levels, some project related and some career-related. For example, I was never a natural networker. I felt a mild disdain for what I thought was empty glad-handing and preferred to simply work hard, believing that this would be enough to advance. It was not. I now firmly see networking as an essential function of leadership — for the unexpected learning that results, from the added perspective it gives, for the occasional connection that opens up new possibilities for a successful project and career outcome.
It seems obvious to me now how the people side of leadership has both an internal and external dimension. My understanding of the “inner game” of being successful never advanced so fast as when I was taken under the wing of a more senior member of the firm and mentored. He would tell me things about what I did well and what I needed to work on that would never have come up in project reviews. Sometimes the advice would be something simple about the mechanics of networking successfully (be memorable), and sometimes it would be about the importance of social settings for conducting business. Opportunity doesn’t just happen in the office or on the phone. It is wherever you sense it and take action.
Are you suggesting that successful leaders are working and networking all the time, never recharging their batteries? No, not at all. What I’m saying is that you must let your natural curiosity show and open yourself up to people who are not like you, who have different passions, different approaches, and different ways of connecting things. I didn’t do nearly enough of this early in my career, and wound up in a position of trying to maintain boundaries around the job — not giving too much lest I turn into someone I didn’t want to be. Now, I consider the job to be an extension of me in the broadest sense. There really is no sense of when I’m wearing my business hat and when I’m not. I’m just me. I wish I had known this in college. I made too little of the opportunities to step outside my comfort circle even then. Not anymore.
How has this attitude made a difference for you? For example, I was a non-golfer until pushed pretty hard to join a group from work that was going. I grudgingly prepared for it, went, and discovered that I absolutely love the game. Never tried it before, and as a result wasn’t included in many opportunities to build relationships because I claimed not to play. Limitations are self-fulfilling.
Leadership in the type of business I do is not just an internal set of principles to keep teams aligned and focused, it is also directed at relationship cultivation and management with clients, influencers, decision-makers outside the firm. Initiating relationships and exploring possibilities is sometimes much easier in social settings than at formal meetings. Golf if a great venue for that.
How is your perspective on leadership evolving now, based on your success and your learning? My perspective on leadership, and just about everything else these days, is centered around self-reinvention. The pace of change in technology-focused disciplines is so fast and relentless that you must absorb as much information as you can about what is driving change in your marketplace and where your firm’s and your clients’ greatest opportunities lie. The worst thing that can happen is to slide toward irrelevance by clinging to old approaches when the world has moved on. Luckily, the tools and services we have for gathering information today also permit us to engage and interact with others driving change and interested in its implications.
Again, experiences and people continually redefining success.
Thank you for your time and insights. I know our readers will find them valuable. You are very welcome.
This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?