Strong, healthy workplace cultures start with intentionality and, as we learn on this episode of Leaders With Ambition, clearly defined core values are the bedrock. Nick Waterworth, co-founder and Executive Chair at the Ambition Group, shares with host Nicky Acuna Ocana the forward-thinking global recruitment company’s origin story, from its inception in 1999 to the bright post-pandemic future now unfolding.
You’ll learn about the ethos that shaped what Nick and his co-founder Paul Lyons envisioned as their mission right from its outset, including both a focus on a personalized customer experience and a global approach that has made Ambition an innovative industry leader across the UK, Asia, Australia and the U.S.
Even as Ambition has navigated steady growth through the decades, its corporate ethic and personality have remained the same: Intimate, values-driven and rooted in well-established networks, deep relationships and industry knowledge.
This lively conversation covers the entire journey, from Nick’s career highlights to the inevitable bumps along the way to a host of exciting new projects hitting their stride. He also offers advice about the importance of engaging mentorship and gives us a glimpse into his leadership priorities in the face of a global pandemic. (Hint: Nick emphasised transparency, communication and empathy – a formula that resulted in his team emerging from Covid-19 stronger than ever.)
The episode concludes with words of wisdom from Nick, who shares a bit of the secret sauce behind Ambition’s special alchemy: A close-knit culture, shared purpose and honesty.
Embarking on the Journey
From growing up in Warwick as a “spectacularly poor student” (with a gift for sport) to the early passion for economics/economic history sparked by an influential mentor who helped Nick set his course in life.
Nick discusses how applying for a statistics job on The Strand wound up as a life-changing opportunity to train as a recruiter in their London office – a fun job that “exceeded all expectations!” Nick then made the decision to pursue growth by migrating to a competitor, joining the banking recruitment team at Michael Page, a company he recognized “was going places.”
Nick explains why it was an easy “yes” when Michael Page offered him the opportunity to help open its office in Sydney – where he landed in 1985 for a stint of two years that turned into a long-term career and life path. He explains what it felt like to land deals and make connections in Australia without LinkedIn and the other social media conduits we use to establish contacts today.
How coaching helped Nick develop his leadership skills and ability to apply nuance in the management of people.
A new direction
The road trip during which Nick and his co-founder Paul Lyons conceived Ambition’s business model and how, founded in 1999, their vision took shape.
What made the core of Ambition and the tenets on which Nick and Paul based their company value set, ethos, structures, international orientation and financial organisation.
The laser focus he has and why not trying to be “all things to all people” is key to building a straight-ahead path to global success, a disciplined “inch wide and a mile deep” approach.
Nick discusses the role both him, his wife and board member Paul Young have played as long-time sources of wisdom, support, guidance and professional insight. Passing the BBQ test - why affirmation from stakeholders is the most powerful – and satisfying – form of reputational advocacy. An industry gold standard!
Nick talks about realising the vision and how Ambition has grown and expanded despite the inevitable setbacks and bumps along the way.
Reaffirming Corporate Principles
The decline in morale that occurred when Ambition temporarily strayed from its core values and how the organisation recovered through Nick’s strategy of transparency, clear communication, a return to basics, focused leadership and full disclosure.
He revisits some of the speed bumps and what it was like starting an office in Hong Kong on the eve of a major SARS outbreak. Sustaining “plummeting” business and corporate stress through Covid-19. He talks about diversity & inclusion, emphasizing that implementing equity is a non-negotiable, normal, natural thing to do – and an asset to corporate culture overall, “It’s just good for everybody involved!”
Taking the leap and moving to Australia and making a savvy last-minute switch to adopt Ambition as the company’s name.
Staying nimble enough to morph and grow into the organisation that the founders imagined and hoped to establish from earlier days.
Achieving success (regardless of naysayers along the way).
Navigating through the Asian marketplace and establishing roots across global cultures. Remaining true to Ambition’s values-driven orientation and ethics.
Shifting the UK office’s post-Brexit focus towards professional services. Expanding into India and Singapore in the software space.
Launching AmbTech’s suite of tailored IT support services.
Enjoying a bright, up-tempo landscape and new leaders moving the team ahead!
Nick touches on today’s workplace culture and why he believes that 100% remote work isn’t the best option, early on in your career but a hybrid blend of in-person and virtual team building offers a flexible, effective model.
Words of wisdom
'You’re going to have a better (and more successful) life doing things you enjoy.'
'Don’t choose a course of study because you think it’s the “right” thing to do.'
'Know your purpose! Values are the bedrock of a healthy company culture and your ability to attract and retain great teams.'
'Cultivate mentors (formal and informal) whose outside perspective you can trust.'
Key quotes from Nick Waterworth
“Sometimes it might be a weakness, but I’m not very good at giving up on stuff!”
“Values were very important to us as founders... We wanted a business that cared about our people, our stakeholders. That was something we really built into the organisation.”
“I value having formal mentors or simply people you trust and can look to for advice in different situations.”
“Where we stand now is incredibly satisfying and I love it. I still every day am genuinely delighted and excited to be involved. And that’s not corporate speak!”
“Going through a nasty time in some ways perhaps refocused us on the basics and right style of leadership... I really didn’t do anything all that clever. I was just straight with people.”
“I remember you coming to every single office, speaking to everybody and being so open. That really was a big turning point. It came from the heart and the values system that is very dear to all of us; our values of pride at Ambition.” (Nicky)
“The prospect of not having equal pay for equal work – I just don’t get it. Why would you do that or think you’re going to get away with it? Why would you think that it’s going to be anything but poisonous for your culture?”
“The heart of Ambition is around values… and a focus on different elements and cultural nuances and how we can help support and move that agenda forward.” (Nicky)
“Building better futures is our mission. We’re very focused on growth and playing to our strengths.”
“Work should be fun. It’s serious and pays the bills … but you’re just going to do it better if you’re having fun. And fun can mean different things in different places.”
Nick has in excess of 30 years in executive recruitment, covering Australia, Asia and the UK. In 1999, he was one of the founders of Ambition Group Limited, along with Paul Lyons, who in the early years of the Group helped establish the IT recruitment arm of Ambition.
Nick also launched Accountability, which specialises in accounting support recruitment around Australia. Between 2007 and the end of 2013, alongside acting as a main board member, Nick worked as Managing Partner for Watermark Search International, the Group’s executive search offering.
In January 2014, Nick returned to the role of Executive Chairman and is now leading a team of 6 experienced Divisional Managing Directors around the world.
Nicky has led high performing recruitment teams for over 20 years. As the Regional Managing Director of Ambition UK, Europe and US, she leads a team of highly-skilled recruitment consultants who are experts in their niche specialist areas. With an extensive network of senior and board-level contacts, she is also heavily involved in Executive Search, focusing on Director level appointments across Business Services for a range of Professional Services firms.
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