By Charndré Emma Kippie
Nicole Bodenham, Human Resources Director and Board Chair at Pearson South Africa, has established herself as an end-to-end commercial business partner with a specialisation in enabling synergies between individual and organisational success. She is currently the HR Lead for Pearson Africa, as well as the global English Language Technology and Marketing Teams.
Building on the principles of Clarity, Confidence, Impact and Enablement, and embracing reimagined ways of working, Nicole has established the HR function and served on the board of several multinational businesses, including Elizabeth Arden SA, Coty Africa, and Pearson South Africa. She has also worked with inspiring tech organisations across South Africa including Silicon Cape, Workshop17, Hyperli and Click2Sure. Her tech experience equipped her with an indispensable understanding and appreciation of agile, nimble, impact-driven, and fundamentally human ways of working, where questioning norms became the norm and making a positive impact was the driving principle.
While having benefited from insights gained from living and working in Europe and Latin America, Nicole is clearly passionate about harnessing the potential of local solutions to build a future state aligned with sustainable, inclusive, innovative, collective human values.
Nicole completed a Bachelor of Social Sciences Degree at the University of Cape Town, having received the Dean’s Merit Award for outstanding performance while juggling three majors: Psychology, Organisational Psychology and Political Science. She is currently completing her Masters in International Business Administration, at SOAS, University of London.
What are your main career objectives? How do you hope to make a difference?
Harnessing the beautiful diversity of human beings to enable innovative problem solving, value creation, social and environmental wellness through lifelong learning opportunities and experiences.
Please could you tell us a bit about your background – how did you get to this point?
I was fortunate that my family prioritised my education and encouraged my love of reading. Books fuelled a curiosity and a belief that there are always ‘other ways’ of seeing things, that life is filled with opportunities to learn. Even as an adult I am still fiercely curious about most things and quite addicted to reading.
My curiosity was partnered with a very practical awareness that hard work and grit was required to live the life I aspired to. I worked as a Clown at the Spur in Newlands and as a sales-assistant at Edgars while I was at school. While at university, I worked at Mount Nelson and at a few smaller hotels, bars, and restaurants to sustain myself and fund my studies. Workplace experiences like these provided me with opportunities to learn about myself and other people in the work environment and embedded exceptional customer service principles into my work philosophy.
“Elbow-grease,” luck, and exceptionally valuable volunteer-based work experience, helped when my attempts to engage in the formal workplace failed after graduation. I suspected that I had something valuable to add to South Africa and needed to find an opportunity to test that belief. Cold-calling organisations that provide HR support and services eventually helped me get my foot in the door with an advisory consulting firm.
Mentors and coaches nurtured a faith in myself that was grounded on the idea that we can arrive at solutions if we give ourselves the space and time to pause, assess, reflect, and understand ourselves and our environment with openness and generosity. I learned that bringing different perspectives into decision-making with humility exposes our personal blind spots and enables richer outcomes.
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 South Africa. Lacking access to drinking water, flushing toilets, and having limited access to basic services and food, left me more aware of what I did not know about how communities lived at home, and I became conscious that I did not understand the struggles that many South Africans faced daily. It seemed unacceptable and within humanity’s reach to rectify. I spent five weeks in Cuba which was awe-inspiring. Although poor by Western standards, communities thrived. There were good standards of education and good basic living standards. There was a rich sense of compassion, kindness, and community, and it offered an insight in terms of how, despite limited material wealth, exceptional wealth could nevertheless exist. It was an eye-opener to me that there were ‘other ways’ of doing things, and that those other ways might require us to measure success differently.
Before returning to South Africa, I spent 2 years in the UK working for non-profit organisations. I volunteered with an incredible women’s advocacy group which was founded by inspiring female refugees from across Africa while working full time with the UK National literacy Trust and the Wandsworth Volunteer Sector Development Agency. I returned from the UK wanting to use what I had learned in Latin America, and the UK to make a positive impact in South Africa.
I worked briefly on a project for the Namibian government and then moved into a role as an advisory consultant for PWC (Price Waterhouse Cooper). 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 Elizabeth Arden. By sticking my nose into finance, marketing, sales and operations projects and volunteering to help wherever I could, I ended up driving a global IS change management project based in Spain and China.
Towards the end of the Elizabeth Arden Change Project, I had my son 8 weeks premature – this traumatic experience reoriented my priorities. When he was two, I left the role as an executive board director at Elizabeth Arden Africa to work closer to home, while continuing as a non-executive board director for the team. I realised that the world expects women to take the nurturing role in child-rearing, and that even with a co-parent who supports challenging those existing norms, social and work structures do not often enable that. This needs to change.
I joined Pearson in 2014 as the HR Business Partner for Africa. Pearson struck me as an incredible place to work because of its intentional focus on human-centred values and positive community impact through learning. I stepped away from Pearson in 2016 and re-joined this global learning company in 2020 as the HR Director for Africa and as an executive board member and company chairperson. I re-joined a company that inspires me because of its intentional commitment to supporting development and enabling our teams and learners to flourish. Sustainability is woven into everything we do as a business, and a reason I feel so passionately about the role I play in ensuring that everyone (all South Africans) achieves their potential through learning. It is incredibly exciting to see how we engage with technology to reach more learners with more impact. There is an extremely bright road ahead.
What excites you the most about the work that you do?
Exploring, identifying, and harnessing peoples’ diverse and unique talents and experiences, helping them to nurture those gifts so that it makes a positive impact in local and global communities. This in practice means reimagined ways of working to enable reimagined ways of engaging with learners, leveraging rapidly evolving research and tools in technology and pedagogy.
The past year has required us to pivot. From an HR standpoint, what has Pearson done to navigate through this “new normal”?
Pearson South Africa immediately engaged in a conscious leadership programme that was aimed at empowering leaders as holistic, vulnerable, impacted humans, to support the wellness needs in their teams. We felt that conventional norms around ‘good’ leadership, traits traditionally defined as masculine, needed to be revisited. Ways of working traditionally defined as feminine, were more aligned with what our teams indicated they needed at this point. Empathy and vulnerability were needed to connect meaningfully with team members. We needed to establish safe spaces that enabled shared communication and an understanding of challenging lived experiences for employees and leaders when the separation of the home space and the workspace unexpectedly collided, and we were catapulted into virtual working in the context of a global pandemic. We needed to do our best to accommodate and support our teams, but first we needed to understand what they needed.
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
- Reimagined ways of work – drag/resistance
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 – elements that AI (Artificial Intelligence) 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 the things that we have been doing up until now. If there is a justifiable reason for doing it, then to challenge whether the way in which we are doing it is future-focused.
- Ground all decisions, namely, 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
- Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) – Philosophize this!
- Tara Brach – Humility
What is your ‘why’ i.e. Bottom line? And how do you stay motivated?
I am grateful that despite a challenging background, that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to have exceptionally good education experiences. I was lucky to stumble into mentorship programmes without initially realising how critical good mentors are in career progression – the support, guidance, sponsorship and trust they have given me is invaluable.
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 which our fellow human beings 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, to ensure that organisations equip themselves with appropriate tools to achieve their goals, 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 on understanding yourself well enough in order to get experience in your areas of strength; to become great at what you do; and to make sure that you make an impact in whatever field or industry you end up in.
- Love your whole self. We cannot be perfect in everything, and that is 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 exceptional performance, strong values, impact and ongoing learning.
*Keen to get in on the HR conversation? Check out the upcoming Top HR publication, here