By Charndré Emma Kippie
Nicole Bodenham, Human Resources Director at Pearson, has had a long, fruitful career working with people and strengthening relationships within various organisations. Studying at the University of Cape Town, Nicole completed a BSocSi Degree and specialised in Psychology, Organisational Psychology and Politics. She then went on to complete her Masters in International Business, at SOAS University of London. After travelling to the UK and Latin America, Nicole realised her passion for working with people. Hence, her move into the HR field.
Prior to working with Pearson, she held the position of Non Executive Director at Elizabeth Arden, and thereafter was the Group Head HR Africa for the Coty brand. Nicole enjoys seeing people, systems and visions align to enable innovation, organisational effectiveness and progressive change. She thrives on adding real value to businesses by delivering HR solutions that have tangible results, improving the wellbeing of employees and supporting profitable growth.
What are your main career objectives? How do you hope to make a difference?
Enabling businesses to sustainably balance innovation, value creation and problem solving with social and environmental responsibility by harnessing and enhancing the beautiful diversity of its people. This means seeing the potential in employees who are aligned with the future state and values of the organisation, and setting them up to be active participants in the growth and learning of the organisation, and to enable them to learn and grow in the process, ensuring they are better equipped to make a positive impact within and outside the organisation because they understand and value their own strengths and contributions.
Please could you tell us a bit about your background – how did you get to this point?
I studied psychology, organisational psychology and political science with a fascination in post-colonial identity theory and Franz Fanon. I struggled to find a job when I graduated, despite having ensured I had work experience by applying what I had studied into the non-profit space as a volunteer while at university. Conventional job application processes didn’t get me anywhere.
In 2007, I took a gamble and stepped out of the working world for a year to explore Latin America, learn Spanish and volunteer. This was an incredibly humbling experience where I lived with local families and faced poverty in a way that I had never personally experienced in SA. Lacking access to running water, flushing toilets and limited access to basic services or food left me more aware of what I didn’t know about how communities lived in SA and the struggles that South Africans faced daily. Struggles that I felt were unacceptable and within humanity’s reach to rectify. It seemed unjustifiable that anyone didn’t have access to basic services and decent standards of living. I spent 5 weeks in Cuba which was awe inspiring – although poor based on western standards, communities thrived. There were exceptionally high standards of education and good basic living standards. There was a rich sense of compassion, kindness and community and it really offered an insight in terms of how despite limited material wealth, exceptional wealth could exist. It was an insight into how there are “other ways” of doing things, and that other ways might require us to measure success differently.
Before returning to SA I spent 2 years in the UK working for non-profit organisations. I volunteered with an incredible women advocacy group which was founded by inspiring female refugees from Africa and worked full time with the UK National literacy Trust and a regional volunteer sector development agency. I returned from the UK wanting to use what I learned in Latin America, and the UK to make a positive impact in SA.
I worked briefly on a project for the Namibian government and then moved into a role as an advisory consultant for PWC. Here again I was fortunate to have a mentor appointed to me who is still an active ally in my ongoing career development. My need to see change through to the end resulted in me moving out of consulting and into the HR Director Role for a cosmetic company. By sticking my nose into projects and volunteering to help where I could I ended up driving a global project based in Spain and China. Towards the end of this I had my son who was 8 weeks premature and that reoriented things. When he was almost two, I left the role as an executive board director to work closer to home, while continuing as a non-executive board director. I realised that the world expects women to take the nurturing role in child rearing, and that even with a partnership intended to invert that, social and work structures don’t generally enable that, but this must change.
I stepped into a business, Pearson, that was unlike anything I’d experienced before in terms of its focus on humanity and including space for holistic humans as part of a successful business. I worked as the HR Business Partner for Africa while supporting some local projects. I stepped away from Pearson in 2016 and rejoined the global learning company in 2020 as HR Director for Africa Learning will play a big part in the future of the world. As a global business, Pearson honours its responsibility as a leader in learning to help shape the global citizens of tomorrow (the people who will take up the world’s biggest challenges) and we make learning available to all. It’s why sustainability is woven into everything we do as a business and why I feel so passionately about the role I must play in ensuring that everyone (all South Africans) achieve their potential through learning.
What excites you the most about the work that you do?
Finding people’s special talents, the gifts they can share with the world, and helping them to distil those gifts and then bloom it on the world.
The past year has required us to pivot. From an HR standpoint, what has Pearson done to navigate through this ‘new normal’?
Pearson immediately engaged in a conscious leadership programme that was aimed at empowering leaders as holistic, vulnerable, impacted humans. We felt that traditional archetypes of traditionally “good” leaders was outdated and irrelevant and also tended to promote traits traditionally defined as masculine , where traits traditionally defined as feminine were more appropriate, We found ourselves in a world where we were all collectively struggling, where empathy and vulnerability were needed to connect meaningfully with teams to understand their struggles and to address the daily challenges of living and working in a world where work and life were blurred, and where in most cases meetings were taking place virtually in team member’s personal spaces, their homes, with their family, pets and personal priorities.
Alongside the conscious leadership programme based on Brene Brown’s Braving model, we pushed an agenda that normalised discussing wellness and mental health and introduced an employee assistance programme where employees and their households had free confidential access to trained therapists.
Overall, there was a directive within our business to listen to what teams were experiencing and develop human solutions to support them, primarily as humans, and secondly, as team members.
What challenges are HR professionals experiencing right now?
- Global competition for talent
- Work life balance
- Wellness challenges
- Ongoing uncertainty about the future
What 3 tips do you have when it comes to adapting to (new) HR Tech?
- Accept that the value people bring to organisations is based on their diverse life experiences, their personal journey and the skills they are mastering that AI will not be able to replace. AI can and will be able to replace complex decision tree styled processes and this creates space for human creativity, innovation and diversity driven competitive advantages.
- Challenge why we are doing things that we have been doing up to now, and if there is a justifiable reason for doing it, challenge if the way we are doing it is future focused.
- Ground all decisions, people and commercial decisions, on good data.
Have you listened to any podcasts that have inspired you and your career thus far?
- Jane Goodall – You are reason for hope
- Philosophize this! – Simone de Beauvoir, the Second Sex
- Don’t shoot the messenger – How to fix it
What is your ‘why’ i.e. Bottom line? And how do you stay motivated?
I am grateful that despite a challenging background, where there were days where my family didn’t have food and we lived off donations from teachers, that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to have exceptionally good education experiences. I was also afforded opportunities to find mentors who supported and guided me as I progressed. They saw a spark in me and encouraged me to keep it burning. I believe everyone has that light, and that we all have a mutual responsibility to help each other to shine, to make our world more inclusive, enabling and compassionate.
Outside of work, are you involved in any extracurricular activities and/or community outreach projects?
I am actively involved in non-profit volunteering, specifically within tech and refugee communities. Through these experiences, I understand more about the challenges our fellow humans are facing, and the solutions that various players are trying to implement. I leverage my experience in HR to assist them in allowing their teams to have clarity and confidence in what they do, in order to ensure that organisations equip them with appropriate tools to achieve, and that these actions are all directed at making a clear, measurable impact.
What advice do you have for future generations who aspire to work in your industry?
- Don’t focus on an industry – focus on understanding what you care about and understanding yourself well enough to get experience in your areas of strength, to become great at what you do and to make sure you make an impact in whatever field or industry you end up in.
- Love your whole self. We can’t be perfect in everything and that’s okay, but we also all have something we can be brilliant at. Align with people whose strengths complement your own.
- Find a few good people, who have found their own way, who see the potential in you, who believe in you, who will create a space at the table for you – and hold onto them by working hard, creating a personal brand based on great performance, strong values, impact and ongoing learning.