From operational to strategic leadership: Nick Collard, Chief Customer Officer at Holland & Barrett

24th July 2020
Alka Gandhi
Associate Partner

Berwick Partners were delighted to speak with Nick Collard, Chief Customer Officer at Holland & Barrett. Alka Gandhi spoke with Nick about his transition from operational to strategic leadership and his personal experiences in building a broad commercial skill set, as well as how these skills have helped him during his time on a variety of boards including Morrison’s, DFS and, of course, Holland & Barrett.

As an experienced board member, what do you believe CEOs are seeking from their leadership team today, and has anything been brought to the forefront as a result of the crisis?

That is a broad question, but a couple of areas particularly jump out for me personally.

Firstly, the need for a degree of resilience in a world that is constantly changing; I think CEOs and boards are looking for individuals who have worked through significant challenges and remained focused on solutions because, by tackling these issues, individuals bring learnings and knowledge.

Secondly, CEOs need a team that are highly developed beyond functional expertise. As businesses move to smaller boards, where members bring breadth of experience rather than just siloed vertical expertise, it allows for more effective and timely decisions.

Thirdly, CEOs need the ability to respond and get things done quickly. For example, the COVID crisis has provided an opportunity to learn how to accelerate certain projects. At Holland & Barrett we delivered a digital plan in two months rather than 18 months. It was not easy or perfect, but the lessons learnt by the team will be hugely relevant and applicable to any business wanting to implement change. The crisis has also forced businesses and leaders to be more focused; looking at the top four or five things that really need attention.

Having held senior roles across Operations, Marketing, Commercial and Digital, what advice would you give to emerging leaders to avoid not being siloed into one area of expertise during their career?

Honestly, I believe a lot depends on the business you work for. The most important thing is you need to take responsibility and drive your own development agenda, which includes gaining business breadth. If that means taking a sideways move now, to move two steps forward in the future, then do it! My personal view is that you should seek breadth not only within function but also in sector and organisational cultures.

I deliberately sought breadth across these areas; working in FMCG and retail, food and non – food along with businesses that had different ownership models and cultures. I made the conscious decision to do this. I actively pushed the business I worked for to make this happen and where it wasn’t possible, I made an external move to broaden my skills.

Ultimately the majority of this must be driven by the individual. Sometimes we all need to be a little braver in our decisions.

During your career, what has been the biggest career challenge you have faced and how did you approach it?

Probably whilst I was at Morrisons; at that time the business was facing several significant challenges. I joined as Trading Director with a relatively clear mandate, but within a few months my direct manager moved on from the business and I was promoted to the Board. This was my first Board role and I was pretty much thrown in at the ’deep end’. I had several challenges to juggle and overcome; market conditions, a group of strong and tough characters on the Board and no support. It was simply a case of ‘survival of the fittest’ and the way that I survived was by embracing the unexpected opportunity. I learnt a lot about myself as a person in the process. During this stage of my career I became more resilient and learnt the importance of having courage in your convictions, how to work with demanding characters, manage a large team and, most importantly, how to keep people motivated during a difficult time.

What can business do to try and facilitate genuine discussion of their development plans or progression options for their future leaders, and what can individuals do themselves?

We all know that in tough times, training and development becomes less of a priority and budgets are often cut.  I believe this is the wrong approach for long term success, leaders and businesses need to understand this. As leaders, we must be held to account for aiding the development of our teams.

Having said that, I would also refer to my earlier point that individuals also need to take personal ownership. Sometimes you can be faced with a boss that doesn’t value development, so you have to think creatively about solutions. That may mean building networks both internally and externally to get the mentors that you need.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders aiming to progress to board (exec) level? What should they be thinking about on their career journey?

I think the most invaluable thing is to find your own voice – push yourself to the forefront where required. Make sure you have your own opinion; not a variation of your boss’, but one that allows you to offer an informed view and to challenge/debate where appropriate.

Equally, it is also very important to simply ‘relax’ – be comfortable in your own skin. It may seem obvious but sometimes we forget to ‘be and work in the moment’; focus on doing the right job and in the right way. Don’t just focus on the next step because if you are doing a great job now, then I believe the next opportunity will present itself or what you are required to do to get it will become clear. Afterall there is only so much we can control, and it is healthy to remember this.

With hindsight, would you have navigated your career development any differently?

I don’t think so. I am not a great one for regrets. And I have been fortunate to have enjoyed everything that I have done so far.

For more information, please contact Alka Gandhi, the lead consultant in our Retail Practice.

Categories: Retail