Nicola Richardson

Lessons Learned from a Life-Long Business Journey

I had an early introduction to the world of business. From the age of seven, I was practically brought up in the tearoom and home-made cake shop that my parents had taken over when my dad left the RAF.

From a young age, I worked in the business as a waitress, and when I was seventeen, my father ended up in hospital for several weeks.  I covered his role at the front of the house as well as doing all the admin and cash and carry work.

Those years taught me invaluable lessons about the about the ups and downs of small businesses. The biggest takeaway though was the sense of being a team and going the extra mile that my parents had instilled in me.

When I left home at eighteen, I moved to London and I had several jobs, including one role as a stockbroker clerk. Early in my career, I remember being pretty much written off because I was going through a divorce, and I was struggling to cope.

My next move was to join the Civil Service in Lincolnshire in 1987. I worried about holding everything together as I made another transition, but I needn’t have. I remember a time when our department was due to move to another floor. Everything needed such careful organisation. The manager suddenly went sick and it caused panic; everyone was running around like headless chickens. But I stepped up, calmly took control, and the move to the new floor went smoothly. As a result, the Senior Leads noticed me, and for all the right reasons.

Promotions in our local office in Boston were limited, so when my youngest daughter reached 14, I decided to take the plunge and apply for a promotion elsewhere. I didn’t really believe I’d be successful, but I applied for two roles anyway, one in Grantham and one in Peterborough.

Amazingly, I was offered both and I accepted the Peterborough role. 

Pretty soon, the excitement turned into trepidation and pangs of impostor syndrome. Who was I to think that I’d succeed in this role I’d applied for? I worked myself up into a right old state. I needed to find something to calm my nerves, so I visited a herbalist and they gave me a calming potion. After the first dose, I felt completely zoned out and when I read the ingredients, I noticed that it had Valium in it! Needless to say, I didn’t take any more. Besides, when I started my new job, I realised that the fears were all in my head.

So, the role in Peterborough was the start of my managing and leading career. The first team I worked in was fun, but it certainly gave me a baptism of fire and I learned so many lessons as a result of managing them. The management team schooled me in collaboration, being vulnerable, and looking out for each other, which in turn rubbed off on to my own team.

From there, I moved to managing operational workloads across the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk areas, and finally leading the office including an office closure. Those times taught me many things including managing upwards and how to allocate workloads to someone when they are a higher grade than you. The key lesson I learned here was listening, acknowledging concerns, and then agreeing a way forward.

After that role came Nottingham. I was an Operations Manager, and I loved this job the most. It involved managing managers and working with my manager, setting the direction of traffic.

My manager was all for professional development and she encouraged me every step of the way.  I have fond memories of her approach and what she taught me.

Though I adored the job, it could be hectic and at times, it felt very pressurised. The main driver of this was that our targets were monitored and fed back to the government where questions would be asked about our results. But it was in this role that we built a culture of inclusion and continuous improvement which I took to future roles.

Processes were reviewed, customer journeys were examined and improved, and teams were included in all of it.  It taught me the very important lesson that you see better improvements and results when you include your teams and truly listen to them.

After quite a few years in this role, I felt like I needed a new challenge. I got a promotion back to  Peterborough, managing teams who did an entirely different type of work.  I was there for six months, and I had just started to settle in when I was asked to return to Nottingham and take on the role above my previous role. I jumped at the chance and knew I could make a difference.

This time I was part of the Senior Leadership Team. It was definitely an eye-opener! I had to change my approach from being the detail person to the ‘less is more approach’. That was tough at first, but I coped.

What I did see from the vantage point of being a female Senior Lead was how much male leads dominated the senior roles. At times, it felt a bit like an old boy’s club. Luckily, this has started to change, though the very senior ranks are still male dominated.

Several Managers later and it was 2014. Work was stressful and on top of that, my dad was poorly in hospital. I made the gruelling four-hour round trip to visit him in hospital after a long day at work. This went on for three weeks, then my dad passed away. This tipped the scales for me. I could no longer manage the stress and I had a heart attack.

In my time as a manager, I always dealt with people with kindness and compassion. It costs nothing to offer someone support when they are going through something. I didn’t get that support, so I decided to look into starting my own business.

I studied for a professional consulting diploma, and in late 2015, I launched The People Mentor, my management consultancy and leadership mentoring business.

I worked part-time as I built my business and I moved to a Continuous Improvement role. It was at this time that I felt as if ageism was creeping in, as I was being overlooked for roles. One day, I felt I could no longer keep quiet about it, and when a senior leader visited, I told him exactly how I felt.  I felt so much better for sharing. The Lead had been completely oblivious to it.

Finally, opportunities started to materialise, and I began leading projects for new products. Those were exciting times and looking back, I can see that I learned so much about managing projects and interacting with stakeholders.

My biggest takeaway from that period was that agile ways of working do work.  And that if you have a concern, it’s perfectly fine to share it, as long as you do it in a kind and respectful way.

In March 2021, I finally left the organisation and now I concentrate on my business full-time. I feel incredibly lucky that I have been influenced by so many great leaders and managers and that in turn, I have been able to influence others.

Would I do anything differently? Honestly, no.

The highest highs and the lowest lows have all been part of my journey. The mountains and the valleys have shaped me. I wouldn’t be able to serve clients in the way I do if I’d missed out on even one of those experiences.

Did you enjoy this blog? You can read more inspirational stories here.

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