When Nicolle Burt CMgr MIML took her first steps into her career, she could hardly have imagined where she would end up almost four decades later. Originally trained as a graphic artist, she never intended to follow the path she did. But, as any experienced leader will tell you, that’s the nature of the beast.
Nicolle knows that the diversity of her skill set has played an important role in her success. More than this, it is also the diverse experiences and thinking that she brings as a First Nations woman.
Now working as a consultant to the public service, Nicolle shares her insights on developing and utilising a broad range of skills across your career.
From “failed artist” to successful public service consultant
With her training as a graphic artist, Nicolle intended to work in the advertising industry. It was the 1970s and she soon realised that finding work as a woman in this industry was almost impossible. Instead, she pursued a career in hospitality.
“I worked in hospitals, hotels, restaurants and resorts,” she recalls. “I managed bars, I cleaned toilets and I ran food franchises. There is a huge amount of diversity in hospitality and it gave me a really strong customer service focus. Working in hospitality for so many years helped me to develop my interpersonal skills and my ability to communicate effectively. This has been the foundation for my success.”
Eventually, Nicolle realised she had learnt all she could and that it was time for a change. She sat one of the last national public service exams and entered the public service before eventually taking a package. After this, she became a public service consultant.
“It took me a while to adjust to working in the public service,” she says. “In hospitality, your service is quick. If you don’t have a happy customer, that’s the end of your business. Whereas in the public service, it’s quite long and laborious as you navigate the bureaucracy.
“Having that understanding of how the public service works has been invaluable in my role as a successful consultant.”
The ability to adapt
One constant throughout Nicolle’s career has been flexibility. She has been able to adapt to the requirements of different roles because she is flexible. She puts this down to her customer service background.
“When you work in a customer centric environment, you learn to be flexible and adaptable,” she explains. “Circumstances are constantly changing and you have to satisfy the demands of many different customers, often at the same time.”
Nicolle has then been able to apply those skills in other roles, particularly as a consultant, to achieve the outcomes she needs.
“One of the challenges of working as a consultant is that the client doesn’t always know what they want,” she adds. “You need to guide them and ask questions to help define what output they need. Once again, that flexible and adaptive approach is key.”
It’s not just the diversity of your skill set that matters, it’s also your ability to apply those skills in diverse ways. Using adaptability as the example, it’s not just about adapting to different environments or being flexible with customers. This is a skill that can help you work with many different types of people.
Nicolle has gathered her skills, abilities and learning and applied it to her role as a consultant.
“From a failed artist to working for myself as a consultant in Canberra, I’ve worked in so many different departments and areas,” she says. “I’ve worked in Australia and overseas and in departments as diverse as defence, health and infrastructure. Each of the departments I’ve worked in has had its own unique culture. And then working as a consultant, it’s a very different experience from being an employee.”
Diversity as an asset
The experience Nicolle had as a young woman entering the workforce is vastly different to the experience women have today. As a First Nations person, she has also experienced systemic racism.
“In my early days in the hospitality industry, it was extraordinarily sexist,” she recalls. “As a First Nations person, in my hometown, everyone knows who I am and my mob. But when I leave my hometown, I’m often challenged about my indigenous identity and background. That was really tough in the 70s and 80s, but there’s now more understanding of First Nations culture and recognition of what we bring to the country.”
From her own personal experiences, Nicolle knows that diversity is an asset in any business. She is not afraid to call out prejudice and to share her lived experiences with other young people who might find themselves in a similar position.
“Everyone brings a lived experience to their job, even leaders,” she says. “That experience informs how we behave, interact and work. As a leader, you don’t know what someone has going on in their private life and you can’t judge their lived experience by looking at their resume. What is important is that you listen.
“When you listen to people, you can understand where they’re coming from. As a leader, it’s your job to cultivate other leaders. When you listen to them and invest in them, they ultimately make your job easier.”
Always add value
Over the last few decades, the nature of paid employment has changed. New jobs and industries have opened up more opportunities for people and the notion of the lifelong employee has faded.
For Nicolle, it’s not so much about the jobs she goes into that matters. It’s about how she can add value. This is her measure of success.
“I only go into roles where I can add value,” she says. “It’s not about how many jobs you’ve had. It’s about how you add value to the tasks you’re engaged to do.
“Often when people go into a job, there’s a couple of months of learning and then they plateau. That’s when they become bored and often end up leaving. In my view, once I’ve hit that plateau, if I’m not still adding value then I’ve completed my job. So my task then is to develop somebody else.”
Nicolle encourages people to consider their value add when taking on a job. And for leaders to look at the value people can add to their team, not just the experience they bring.
Building a diverse skill set
The concept of adding value is an interesting one in that it goes both ways. In every role, it’s not only about the value you can add but also about the value the role can add to your skill set.
“Whenever I’m mentoring younger people, I always encourage them to think about what they’re going to get out of a role,” explains Nicolle. “Of course you’re going to get paid. But what are you going to learn from the job that you can add to your bag of skills?
“I’ve been fortunate over my career to learn a lot across many specialist areas and also about the nature and function of bureaucracy.”
For leaders who are considering how to build and then frame a diverse skill set, Nicolle suggests the following:
1. Continually polish your skills
Over your career, you build up a set of skills. That skill set grows and grows with each new role you go into.
But it’s not enough to just have the skills. Each time you use a particular skill, you need to give it a polish. This refresh helps you to add value to the client and further build on your bag of skills.
2. Keep learning
Whether it’s formal learning or professional memberships where you can keep up to date with the latest thinking, you need to have an open mind.
You never know where your learnings might be useful for a role or situation so always be willing to learn. This also applies to learning on the job. You never stop learning, no matter how senior you are. At the same time, we need to also understand that failure is also a key learning process.
3. Look for new ways to apply your skills
Teams work in different ways and no two projects or teams are the same. But you will have transferable skills that you can apply across multiple situations.
The challenge is to be able to adapt or combine different skills to the situation.
Nicolle says that this is a critical piece of leading with emotional intelligence.
“In my view, if you’re flexible and adaptive, that’s a sign of your emotional intelligence,” she explains. “That’s fundamental to leadership. A lot of leaders aren’t necessarily trained in these skills. But they come to the fore because of that diversity of lived experience they have.”