View from the River: Team insight

Vidhu Sood-Nicholls, Head of Social Housing and the Built Environment practice

Vidhu Sood-Nicholls has recently been appointed Head of Social Housing and the Built Environment practice. Her focus is on building on our great work to date in the Social Housing sector and cohering our approach to construction, infrastructure and development so we are better able to serve our clients and ultimately have brilliant communities where all those who live, work and play in them can thrive. We are very proud of our team and enjoy this opportunity to share a closer glimpse into our Partner community at Saxton Bampfylde.


With a broad portfolio of sectors in your career, you are now leading the Social Housing & Built Environment practice. How do you see that working?

My role involves bringing coherence to the existing excellent work that we do with clients across the built environment spectrum which includes social housing, infrastructure, development, and design and engineering excellence. Common amongst these clients is a commitment to purposeful placemaking and the ambition to deliver an excellent living, working and social experience. We want to enhance the opportunity for our clients and our business to bring those ambitions to the fore with the best leadership and people talent now and in the longer term. That plays well to my cross-sector experience and understanding I have built over the years of what exceptional leadership looks like, what makes good teams, how to manage multiple competing priorities and how as a leader you make decisions that are in the best interest of the communities that we are all part of.

 

Does purpose have a strong enough presence across the leadership talent you meet?

This is something that is hugely important to our clients and resonates very closely with the ethos of Saxton Bampfylde. As a purpose-led and values-driven organisation which believes in being commercial, we work with similar organisations. Those who also want to be commercial but want to do it in a responsible and meaningful way. Our mission as a firm is that ‘we exist to change the world by changing leaders in interesting and important organisations. At the same time we aim to create an environment wherein all members of our community can grow to their fullest extent emotionally, intellectually and spiritually’. That is a mission that my colleagues and I stand behind and is one that our clients buy into.

In the built environment space purpose is at the heart of our work – as Anna and Neil’s interview show they and the organisations are motivated by more than financial returns, their work is bigger than money it is about value to society, now and crucially for future generations. That is the sort of leader Saxton Bampfylde works with – those who appreciate that decisions made today can have an impact for generations to come.

 

Is sustainability experience, ambition or commitment a priority when identifying senior talent in this area?

I don’t think you can choose between the three; sustainability is an area of real interest for all clients in all contexts, and particularly in the built environment space. The issues that leaders deal with are very real and often immediate. Ambition is critical because without it leaders in these sectors will reinvent the wheel, and as we grapple with the impact of climate change, growing populations and shrinking resources we know that what we were doing 5, 10, 15 years ago won’t work for us 5,10, 15 years from now so ambition in today’s leaders is critical. And without commitment we wouldn’t have so many brilliant leaders still here – a global pandemic, a global cost of living crisis and no stability at the very top – if leaders weren’t committed, they wouldn’t still be here, keeping some of our country’s most critical projects going.

Our approach to finding leaders is to listen, listen long and listen hard to the things that clients are saying, and also just as important what they aren’t saying. Based on what we hear we challenge, and we kick the tyres together, so we are clear what success looks like for the organisations we work with. Yes there are multiple challenges that leaders in Social Housing and the Built Environment are grappling with – but other leaders are facing the same elsewhere. What can we learn from them, how can they contribute to this sector? As someone who has been in industry and had to make tough decisions on what to prioritise, and who has learned from one industry and applied that in others, I am really interested in where and how we find the best people to make decisions about where we live, work and play – these are decisions that impact us all.

 

Past, Present and Future – can you give us a brief history of you and how you came to be at Saxton Bampfylde?

The reason I joined Saxton Bampfylde is based on a firm belief that all people should be able to lead full and happy lives and a restless curiosity about why this isn’t the case. Growing up in Zambia, very early on in my childhood I had this sense that the world wasn’t fair. I wanted to understand why and have a distinct memory of asking my mother that question when I was about eight or nine and getting an answer that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with.  She did say that it is within all of us to do something about it, and I think for me that was quite a defining moment.

I have a degree in law, spent time at the UN, taught in an inner-city school, worked in banking and then in a charity including in a senior fundraising role. And, now I am here at Saxton Bampfylde. As my career has progressed, I have become more acutely aware of the impact that the right leaders and leadership can make in an organisation and on the people that organisation seeks to serve. The reason I am here is because I am excited about the prospect of finding people who will accelerate the pace and impact of some of the most significant organisations in society. Since joining Saxton Bampfylde in 2021 I have met with and spoken to some of the best leaders in this country and if I can put them in organisations where their thinking and their actions will have a positive impact on our lives that is pretty exciting.

 

Your leadership experience is wide-ranging, if not always in Executive search. How does your experience bring a different perspective to candidates and clients?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a fundraiser, but I lead a successful fundraising team; I wouldn’t call myself a teacher, but I would like to think I changed a few lives along the way; I wouldn’t call myself a banker, but I enjoyed working in financial services. I have had all those jobs, thoroughly enjoyed them and learned how to and equally how not to lead along the way. I think that does give me a different view of leadership, finding the things that have emboldened me and the things that have surprised me. I have led sizeable teams, been responsible for securing income, had to make difficult decisions that impact people – this is all experience that serves me well in my current role. I don’t have to imagine what it is like to be a leader juggling multiple priorities, I have been that leader, so when clients ask us to help them find exceptional people I am able to step into their shoes, think about what they need and use my experience to help support them.

I like to think about what I can add. What do I offer that brings a new way of looking at something or someone’s experience. I have a natural sense of curiosity, and it is one of things I have thoroughly enjoyed in this job. I have met so many fascinating people. I get to ask them interesting questions about themselves and what makes them tick and I have a say in whether they are right for an organisation at a given point in time. It is a huge privilege.  I don’t believe in always appointing the obvious candidates. As someone who has successfully navigated multiple sectors I like to think about candidates in a different way, and ask what they can bring to an organisation that isn’t obvious. I have been able to challenge my clients thinking this past year. I have enjoyed doing so and look forward to doing this more in the future.

 

What in your view makes the best leader?

While I know and don’t underestimate the importance of technical knowledge and skills, my belief is that these can be deepened and honed in a job. The values, behaviours and characteristics of leaders are much harder to learn. I was once given advice to hire for values and behaviors over technical skills; it is advice that has served me well.

Leadership at its very heart is about people. It is also about progress, and in leadership there is something about collectively lifting the world. That is where the concepts of sustainability, ambition and commitment come to play. I think it is about people who lead for the world rather than achieving the status of a leader.  Fundamentally a good leader will help people thrive. Being kind is such an understated value. Kindness is being able to say well done, and giving feedback when things aren’t going right. It is vital that leaders are able to articulate the direction of an organisation and keep people on that path. They also need to be able to be honest when people veer off the path and work to bring them back.

There is certainly an importance of timing and finding the right leader at the right moment in an organisation’s lifecycle, which will not always remain constant nor the same person. That is the joy of my work now – working with clients to understand who is right for their organisation at this point in time and then being mildly obsessed with finding the person who is going accelerate the pace and impact of that organisation.

 

With the choice – pop on a podcast or bury your nose in a book? And please share any good recommendations…

I love podcasts, and I listen to meditation ones regularly too, but for me it is always going to be a book. I am a fan of a challenging subject matter – my favourites are those that have me in tears until two in the morning!


Vidhu Sood-Nicholls

Vidhu Sood-Nicholls
Partner and Head of Social Housing and Built Environment Practice

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