Marc Nichols, Legal Counsel & Director of Compliance at Rolls-Royce North America, explains how networking and taking risks have helped him grow personally and professionally
Nietzsche said, “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” Figuratively speaking, Marc Nichols has grown professionally from standing, walking… and dancing. It is also true that he has, on a number of occasions, gone airborne with very few flying lessons.
From humble beginnings to Director of Compliance and a Senior Executive Attorney at Rolls-Royce North America Inc., he has taken every opportunity to capitalize on the knowledge afforded with each experience. And he gladly shares that wisdom with up-and-coming professionals and young boys and girls alike.
Get Connected, Stay Connected
Nichols’ first morsel: “Make sure you use all of your networks—your alumni network, your friend network, whatever it is.” After law school, Nichols was drawn to telecommunications law and the emerging market in eastern Europe. “I wanted to get in on the ground floor and learn a lot.”
Nichols was at a loss as to how to begin his search when he discovered that a fellow graduate of Wabash College, Bob Knowling, had become the Executive Vice President of Operations and Technology at US West. Based on the advice of a friend, Nichols wrote Knowling a letter to get some leads. Rather than sending Nichols to eastern Europe, without having met him in person, Knowling offered him a job at US West.
Learn the Business
Another bit of wisdom from Nichols’ arsenal: “Have a passion for learning the business. Parlay it into a great opportunity and growth experience.” At US West and at Chemical Bank (now JP Morgan), he seized every opportunity to learn the business side of each industry.
His work at US West included a deep understanding of the parts and shipping aspects of the business. With that knowledge, he was able to design a computer program that tracked inventory. While at JP Morgan, he oversaw aspects of asset- and mortgage-backed securities operations for several departments across the globe.
“Those experiences I have used almost every day since,” Nichols said. “It gave me an understanding of the business clients that I deal with on a day-to-day basis and what they need to know—whether it is a pitch to a customer or a report for the head of the business. I now know and have a general sense of what they need in order to make their argument or what questions are going to come up from the CEO [Chief Executive Officer].”
The Potter’s Wheel
At US West, Nichols also learned the importance of being trainable. Although Nichols is inquisitive by nature, he takes it a step further with his willingness to be shaped and molded.
When Bob Connelly, then Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, brought him on, he told Nichols, “’The telecommunications industry isn’t a very intuitive business. I am going to bring you on so I can teach someone from the ground up; you seem trainable.’”
Going Out on a Limb
Big payouts are often the result of taking big risks. “You see all these people who are jumping out of airplanes and skydiving. You think, ‘What the hell are those people thinking?’ There are those people that thrive on going out into the world without a safety net. From a professional standpoint, the people who will do that will learn a lot more and, potentially, put themselves on a broader career trajectory.” Nichols definitely isn’t afraid to jump out of the proverbial plane. “Sometimes you have to take the plunge and stick to it.”
After a layoff when US West merged and became QWEST, Nichols leaped into litigation at Culpepper & Martin P.C. in Denver. Shortly after he started, Martin could not practice for personal reasons, and Nichols was asked to take over litigation—a daunting task for someone new to that field of law.
“I received a crash course in major litigation,” Nichols said. To keep clients from moving on to firms with more experienced litigators, Nichols had to prove he was up to the task. He burned the midnight oil. “When we met them, I knew their case inside and out. I knew the legal strategy we were going to employ,” he said. “I could talk to them about court decisions that would work in their favor.”
The plunge and the hard work paid off; the firm only lost one client.
Networking, business acumen, trainability and a willingness to take risks earned Nichols the prestigious title, Inspector General of the U.S. Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. The father of a friend from law school had just become the Senate-confirmed CEO of the Government Printing Office. Nichols was recommended and clearly made a good impression because he was hired as one of the youngest Inspectors General at the age of 32.
Included in his many responsibilities was the management of a 40-plus-person staff of attorneys, investigators and auditors. In addition to honing his abilities to manage his staff, he was learning the importance of managing up.
“How to manage your manager is a crucial skill set to learn. By that, I mean, how does your manager like you to communicate? How often does he or she need to have information? How do you make their lives and jobs easier? Do you know when you don’t know something and when you need to go to them? How do you express your opinions when you don’t agree?”
While this bit of wisdom wasn’t acquired until after he resigned from the position, it has been no less meaningful and worthwhile.
Follow the Leader
At Rolls Royce North America Inc., Nichols has been able to culminate all his experiences and wisdom while continuing to grow. He credits the Rolls-Royce culture, the professionalism of his colleagues and the encouragement of, Tom Dale, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at Rolls Royce North America Inc. for cultivating his desire to grow and to be an effective leader. Dale has a “zest for knowledge, zest for learning. He doesn’t micromanage. He brings in good people and trusts them to use good judgment. His support and trust really brings out the best in people and fosters and engenders loyalty and respect among everyone on the team.” And one of the most appealing aspects of Dale‘s leadership style is that he has set up a work environment that helps his staff grow and be challenged. “He allows you to make mistakes and challenge yourself… (and to) practice the art of law. Tom is probably the perfect epitome, of what I consider, a good and effective leader.”
Keeping It in Perspective
As useful as the professional wisdom is, Nichols also has learned that to be great at the job, it is essential to feed one’s soul. The sustenance for his is giving back to the communities where he has lived. As a resident of Indianapolis, he is giving back in numerous ways, with one organization being especially near and dear.
“Growing up in Indianapolis, I used to go to the Boys and Girls Club. My aunt and uncle, who were caring for my brother and me at the time, had retired from the military. My uncle wanted to make sure my brother and I spent time around other kids, developing strong social skills. It fueled a desire to help other kids in the way I knew I was being helped by the counselors and the folks running the Boys and Girls Club. It heartens me to say, here we are some 30-odd years later, and I’m on the board of directors of the same Boys and Girls Club that started honing me as a person.”
Confucius said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” Nicholas has garnered wisdom by each of these methods. What is most important, though, is what he has done with this wisdom. He has become a prolific attorney and successful manager, and he is someone the children at The Boys and Girls Club of Indianapolis can look up to. ♦
Broaden Your Horizons, ‘Feed Your Soul’
Nichols also believes in the importance of acquiring a skill set that is outside the scope of your “normal work set.”
When he worked at JP Morgan, he didn’t know how to cook, so he would eat out and go to his friend Jay’s house two or three nights a week. Several years later, after Nichols and Jay had grown apart and lived in different parts of the world, Jay went to D.C, where Nichols and his partner, Jamie, had settled at one point and invited Nichols to go out for dinner. Nichols shocked him by inviting Jay over for a home-cooked meal.
“The moral of that story is that you have to have something outside your normal work set—a hobby, a skill set, that you could do as a job and cultivate it. While Nichols may not be able to “go get a job as a line cook,” he is honing the skill every week, cooking two or three times a week.
“Have a skill set outside of the law, outside of your normal fashion. It feeds your soul,” Nichols advised. If you don’t, “it puts too much pressure on you and your profession for it to be the soul of who you are. Go out and do something else and learn about yourself. Do something to the height or close to the height of where you are professionally. You will derive a great deal of balance.”