Nikki Hill is an executive coach passionate about helping professionals find their voice and stride as they step up in their careers. She’s worked in organisational behaviour roles across luxury fashion, telecommunications, food retail and financial services. In her personal career journey, she describes her multi-interest studies in Edinburgh, Cambridge and London, her experiences in the Far East and Europe, and her ongoing self-development. This is Nikki’s story:
“I remember the moment a lightbulb went off in my head and I knew what I wanted to do in my career. I was in a lecture theatre in London, learning about the GLOBE study of leadership, and all of a sudden my interests in culture, psychology, business and careers collided. It was Week 2 in a Foundations of Management course at the London School of Economics (LSE) I’d signed up for after graduating from university and I was hoping it would help give me a sense of direction about what to do next.
Up until then I’d had a whole range of wildly different career ambitions. I’d started university at 18 studying Law at Edinburgh University, with grand aspirations to be an international human rights lawyer. By the end of the first year I never wanted to read another statute again and my two sets of work experience - shadowing a barrister in Brisbane, Australia, and a family solicitor in Oxford, United Kingdom - had only cemented the fact that I loved the idea more than the reality of practicing law.
Take two involved studying English, Drama and Education at Homerton College, Cambridge, and conjured up visions of working as an editor or starting my own theatre company, before shifting to teaching after ten years or so ‘in industry’. Towards the end of my final year I’d been introduced to the idea of management accounting which I thought sounded rather appealing. It seemed to be about understanding the story behind numbers and being able to influence decisions based on insight derived from how a company was performing in different areas. I reasoned I could do that for a theatre and still be connected in that way. And, that was why I signed up for the Foundations of Management course that led to my epiphany - I went in wanting to learn more about accounting, and discovered a love for something completely different!
Suffice it to say I’ve had varied interests along the way, and my falling for Organisational Behaviour (business psychology) as a passion felt notably different... The jobs that seemed most connected to Organisational Behaviour were in Human Resources (HR) and I secured a three month graduate internship at the CIPD - the United Kingdom’s professional institute for HR.
For the first time, the idea of what I thought I wanted to do matched up with the reality of the role. The more I learned, the more I was interested. I definitely struck it lucky being asked by the CIPD to support a research project on ‘How to Attract Top Graduates into the HR Profession’ and I had great freedom in designing and running the study, interpreting the results and making recommendations. I learned how important it is to stay curious and open minded when looking for the right fit for your career. We spend far too much of our lives at work to not care about what we do or settle on a path too early based on what seems to be a good idea, even when experience tells us otherwise.
That internship bolstered my CV to the point I was able to find a permanent role within six weeks of leaving and I joined the world of luxury fashion as a Talent Assistant at Burberry. At the start of my career it felt like an incredible opportunity to be paid to learn about the business and how a Talent function worked, in exchange for formatting slides, updating records and learning how to manage our Director’s diary and travel. Years later, the operational support I’d provided meant I could recognise names of individuals who had been on our programmes and knew how much our offer had evolved.
A year in, we went through a complete restructure and my role was at risk of redundancy. As a result, I was informed of every live vacancy across the company, including a three-month secondment to Shanghai as an HR Coordinator. I put myself forward for that, knowing I’d still be at risk once those three months were up, while also recognising that I’d have an incredible experience in the meantime and you never know what it might lead to...
My experience in China
After a one-hour phone interview with the HR Director for China on a Friday, I was informally told I had the role. I was due to head out to Hong Kong (where I’d grown up) on a family holiday ten days later, so I immediately packed up my life in London, and went straight from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Shortly after landing in China, I headed to their brand new office opposite Jing’An Temple. Six weeks in, they asked me to stay for a year, and then another, with a promotion to Talent Advisor for China partway through. The experience taught me the value of seizing opportunities, how to build rapport and connection literally anywhere and how to accept help from others whilst at the same time being more independent than ever.
Over the course of my six-and-a-half years with Burberry, I co-created and ran two development programmes from inception to completion: one for future Retail Managers and the other for graduates wanting to pursue a career in Merchandising and Planning. I learned how to facilitate workshops on:
I also completed my MSc in Organisational Behaviour whilst working full-time and gained an academic appreciation of motivation models, leadership theories, how to predict future performance through assessments and how to support wellbeing.
In my final role there, as Talent Manager for Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA), I completed a coaching certificate and worked with 10 high-potential senior managers on a one-on-one basis as they completed an 18-month leadership programme to prepare them for director roles. I also was responsible for our region’s bi-annual talent review process, including ensuring that we were as fair and robust as possible in how we assessed performance and potential. And, more importantly, what we then did with the reviews: challenging leaders to identify successors and provide future opportunities for those who would soon be ready to take on more, as well as any further development they needed to be successful.
...Stay curious and open minded when looking for the right fit for your career.”
Experience of other organisations in different industries
Having settled into my role as a manager, I felt like my next development opportunity should be to learn how Talent, Learning & Leadership worked in other organisations, in completely different industries. But first, a career break to travel across Europe. I’d been fortunate to explore many countries in Asia, being born in Abu Dhabi and living in Hong Kong for 16 years. Despite studying in the UK, I’d still never been to Spain let alone Poland, Slovenia or Croatia. So I rented out my flat and went to 23 towns and cities across 12 countries over the course of five months. I loved seeing how cultures and languages gradually shifted as you crossed over neighbouring borders and left with a far deeper appreciation of local history and heritage. I also learned I was capable of bringing a seemingly far-fetched dream (quit my job and travel!) come to life, as well as my appreciation of financial security that I discovered when I no longer had a salary coming in each month!
I was approached on LinkedIn about a role at BT (formerly British Telecom) whilst I was away and wove the application process into my travels - numerical testing in Prague, video interview in Bratislava, flying out of Zagreb to attend an assessment centre in London and then flying into Ljubljana afterwards, eventually e-signing a contract at a restaurant with wifi in rural Tuscany.
I started my new role as a Talent Assessor five days after landing back in London, assessing the project management capability of employees from graduates to directors. Whilst it was valuable experience in understanding reasonable adjustments, designing new exercises and working in an operational assessment centre environment, I missed the development side of my role and looked for opportunities where I could go back to helping others grow in their careers.
Six months later I was in a Pret A Manger kitchen, making sandwiches and salads in my first week orientation as their new L&D Manager for Support Centres (known in other companies as Head Office). Everyone, regardless of role, starts in shops, learning about products, processes and customers. Over the course of two years there, I introduced a new development framework for non-retail employees, held over 100 one-to-one personal development conversations, brought in guest speakers and ran ‘TEDTalk Thursday’ sessions on a monthly basis to get people interested in learning beyond a classroom or their immediate day-to-day work. I also managed the professional development budget and prioritised requests according to whether they were compliance-related, would enable us to achieve strategic objectives, would support day-to-day roles or would help employees grow into future positions.
Formal steps into Executive Coaching
Believing as I do in prioritising your own development, I invested in myself and completed a Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching with the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC). Each module made me fall in love with coaching more. I was struck by how profoundly a person could get to the root of a problem and come up with their own solutions, with deft questioning and observations from someone who was there to help them achieve their goals. A real highlight was learning how to use a range of creative tools and techniques - from using visual cards, objects at hand, or spaces in a room - to provide a different perspective, spark new ideas and explore options more deeply.
I loved the experience so much that I wanted coaching to be a core part of what I did everyday. So I looked for opportunities where I could do that and - through fortunate timing and reconnecting with an old colleague - applied for a part-time role in financial services that meant I could start up my own coaching practice as well. 12 months in and I’ve been voted an ‘HR Hero’ by my colleagues and have the joy of working with professionals transitioning into a new role to find their voice and their stride, so they can thrive as they step up in their careers.
In my coaching practice I focus on helping clients:
I particularly love the moment when someone sees a situation from a different angle and everything shifts for them - new opportunities present themselves and they have a choice in what they want to do next. It’s also wonderful working with clients over time and seeing their confidence and happiness grow.”
I enjoy working with professionals transitioning into a new leadership role to find their voice and stride, so they can thrive as they step up in their careers.”