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Why OD? Tony wanted to work with people not planes.

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In this episode we share an interview with Tony Nicholls, Principal Consultant about how and why he got into Organisation Development.
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Welcome to the fifth interview in our Podcast mini series. Why OD? In this episode we share an interview with Tony Nicholls, Principal Consultant about how and why he got into Organisation Development.

Tony started out designing fighter aircraft, but realised he wanted to work with people not planes. Listen in to find out more about his journey.

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Transcript of the interview with Tony Nicholls

Claire Newell 1:45
Right. Hello, Tony Nicholls. Do you want to introduce yourself a little bit? Just give a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Tony Nicholls 1:53
Yeah, so I'm Tony, and of course, I'm a Principal Consultant at Mayvin. We're an organisation development and design consultancy. And I've been with Mayvin for just over five years now.

Claire Newell 2:04
Gosh has it been that long already.

Tony Nicholls 2:06
Yes. It has been that long already.

Claire Newell 2:09
So the reason I'm doing this little podcast mini series is because I think OD or organisation development is not something that most people have heard of. So I've spoken to a couple of consultants recently about how they got into it. And I just find it really interesting hearing how people found themselves on a path that led to this thing we call OD. So yeah, how did you get in to OD?

Tony Nicholls 2:37
Yeah. So I fell into it. That's my short answer. The long answer is, I think it's how I was doing things anyway. So what does that mean? If we go right back to the beginning, my original career was in engineering aerospace.

So I was, you know, helping design fighter aircraft and quickly found that that just wasn't floating my boat. It just wasn't doing it for me. Because it was just too much. The maths and the computers and numbers and there just wasn't enough people in it I recognised.

So I wanted to do something I heard about this thing, you know, management. Let's get into management. So I wanted to move into people, you know, more working with people. And effectively, you know, long story short, became more and more interested in the people aspects of organisations and organisational life and management.

Became fascinated by what makes an organisation work, recognising that it was about people, it was about relationships. It was about the difference between what is command and control and when is it useful and when is it not. And found myself moving towards development and training as an area of interest. And what I wanted to do.

So I did the operational management roles, sort of cut my teeth, with sales and operational management type work. And then dabbled in development and coaching, and sort of landed myself an actual formal training manager role, which moved me. That shift into okay, here I am working in the people space, doing training in a sales environment ostensively.

And from there started to broaden my interest in more things HR, so became an HR director. And it was whilst I was an HR director that I noticed that I seemed to be doing things slightly differently to some other HR directors. Who would be much more focused on the processes that HR has to look at. In terms of you know, the personnel side of things, pay the org charts and things like that.

Where I was much more interested in a more strategic HR perspective, which was so let's talk about culture. Let's talk about leadership. Let's talk about how the whole organisation is structured in a way that work gets done well, from an engagement perspective, etc. So much more. I guess it was much more sort of strategic and holistic, perspective on what makes an organisation effective.

And in those days. I will call that strategic HR. I think, to some degree, it's still called strategic HR systems thinking, I guess is one of those phrases that comes into mind. And about that time, around 2005 / 2006 somebody I can't remember who said to me, Tony, I think the way you do HR is more organisation development.

And I said, I've no idea what that is. Okay, I'll go have a look. So I started to explore and discovered this field of practice, called organisation development. And it is a field of practice with a recognised group of people and academics that write papers and contribute to the field. And it has practitioners who do OD as it were.

So I became interested in that started to read about it, got a couple of books. And then a friend and colleague of mine, Sibhoan Sheridan actually. She said, you know, there's a master's available, at Roffey Park. She also pointed me towards Mayvin's way, some years later. Then I looked at Roffey Parks masters and did a Masters in Organisation Development. Then focused my career on interim and consultancy roles in organisation development, and eventually found my way towards Mayvin.

Claire Newell 6:19
So, the way you did HR was in an OD way, but I'm putting on the spot a little bit. But I'm interested in how you sort of define HR and define OD and are they are they mutually exclusive? Obviously, you were doing HR in an OD kind of way? Yeah.

Tony Nicholls 6:35
So we could tie ourselves in knots about definitions of HR, and OD and all that stuff and I have done. There are books written on it. You know, one of the first books I read when I spotted the field was I can't remember the title of the book, but it was it was to do with, you know, is OD dying, is it dead? You know, is it is it that becomes superfluous?

So, organisation development has a field of practice is fairly unique in that it is constantly challenging itself in terms of should we exist? Why do we exist? For what purpose do we exist? What are our values? What should we be doing? And that attracts me to it, because it's continuously challenging itself, to look at the current context within which it's working, and to think about how it might best intervene to do the right thing.

And one of other the things about the field of practice - the values. The values are very much about the humanistic perspective in terms of it's about the people and doing the right thing for the people. It's not about maximising profit at the expense of the people. Both of those are there. It's got a commercial edge to it. Of course it has, I've got a commercial agent, I think it's about profit, but it's about people first as well.

So, yeah, there's this whole debate around HR. So I think there are lots and lots of HR directors who still call themselves HR people who are doing OD. And that's brilliant. They do a brilliant job. Many, many very capable people in HR. And then I think there are others that increasingly recognise this field of practice called OD that they go I want a bit of that too.

So I've got all this stuff, that's, you know, HR stuff, and I've got strategic workforce planning, I've got the L&D side of things, learning and development. I've got, you know, a role and all those complicated, sophisticated processes and areas of knowledge, I've got all that. And I've got this thing called OD that when I add that together, suddenly this much more strategic perspective on how organisations are effective opens up.

And I think critically, what the field of OD brings to anybody who starts to explore it, is a sense of what Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge would call instrumentality. So this idea that, who I am, and how I show up is critical to how effective I am, and how effective organisation can be.

So as an HR director, as an HR business partner, or as a training and development manager. Whatever role you might call yourself, there's a sense that. I talked about this in the book, the classical perspective on managers is that who you are and how you show up doesn't really matter. As long as you've got a good model and a good tool and a good technique. You could be that anonymous person in a white coat with a clipboard, and just bring a particular model and a process and things will work.

I think in the real world, a contemporary perspective that OD brings says, well, that's not the real world. You step into a room and you have an impact because you're an individual, you're unique. You have strengths, you have weaknesses, you have biases, you have opinions, you have some tools and techniques as well. But in that mix, who you are and how you show up matters.

So OD suggests that you should notice that. You should do the work you need to do to notice who you are and how you're showing up, in a way that goes much deeper than traditional self awareness type training as well. And that's it I guess that's what attracted me to it because organisation development as a field of practice invites me to continue to do my work on myself, such that I can be more effective for and with others. Is that enough.

Claire Newell 10:12
Yeah, I think so. That does it. Okay. That's great. Thank you, Tony.

Tony Nicholls 10:17
Thank you.

Claire Newell 10:18
Thank you so much for listening to us today. And we hope to see you next time. Take care. Bye bye

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