Nicki Nicol has been busy since joining New Zealand Rugby (NZR). Initially brought on board as Chief Financial Officer (CFO), the former BP executive was tasked with leading the union’s Respect and Inclusion project in September 2017, just six months after arriving.
She has since seen her role expand to that of Chief Operating Officer (COO) and although her previous rugby experience was limited to that of a supporter, Nicol has attacked her work with gusto.
“It’s been great fun, I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said of her first 20 months at New Zealand Rugby.
“It’s different, coming into a national sporting organisation out of a corporate multi-national but I’m adjusting, or they’re adjusting to me a little too.
Nicol’s time at New Zealand Rugby has been dominated by the Respect and Inclusion project, a long-term programme she was asked to lead after the release of the Respect and Responsibility Review.
An independent Panel was commissioned by NZR CEO Steve Tew at the end of a difficult 2016 in which a few headlines were generated for off-the-field misdemeanours, detracting from on the field excellence.
Six areas in which the union needed to act were identified by the panel’s report, with opportunity surrounding changing attitudes towards women.
Nicol had previous experience steering cultural change programmes and, following discussions with Tew, was tasked with leading the union’s efforts in this area.
The project’s aim is to promote diversity and ‘The Rugby Way’ – a set of ideals it is hoped those involved with the sport in New Zealand can unite behind. The sheer scale of the assignment would overwhelm many, but Nicol has approached it with enthusiasm.
“That (the Respect and Inclusion project) is probably the highlight of my 18 months or so,” she admitted. “One, being asked to lead it but also what I’ve personally learned in being involved in a project like that.
“If I think about the biggest challenge, that really is at a delivery level. How you take such a transformational change programme, particularly around culture and start to bring about change – we’ve got 125 years of history and that’s quite daunting.
“So, I’m really proud of what the organisation’s done, I’m really proud of how Steve has really embraced it and owned it, and by making it a strategic priority, we have real commitment for change.”
Excited by the challenge
Nicol estimates that the project, in its current guise, will last for about five years, although she expects it to continue to “morph” as time goes on and new opportunities are identified.
At the time of the release of the report, Tew suggested that the programme could help promote cultural change in New Zealand as a whole, rather than just within rugby circles. Nicol agrees with Tew that the union can play a wider role.
“It is a multi-year programme,” she said. “But it’s very rewarding and some of the work that people are doing across rugby – mental fitness programmes, trying to tackle domestic violence in our communities – some of these things are big societal issues that rugby has a real opportunity to play a lead role in.
“What I’m loving is the leadership from a sporting organisation like New Zealand Rugby, having that ability to influence some of that change, I think that’s quite exciting.”
Nicol has sought advice from other sporting and external organisations in New Zealand as she has adapted to life in rugby, and is also connected with other rugby counterparts globally.
Diversity of thought
"We have the All Blacks as a global benchmark and our aspiration is for the Black Ferns to be an equal, but in their own way."
Although she admits “there’s only so much you can share due to commercial sensitivity” with someone from a rival governing body, Nicol has benefitted from the counsel through other CFOs across her networks in world rugby.
“We can talk generally about some of the things that we are experiencing, with many similar themes across the portfolio,” she said.
“I’m certainly a strong advocate about diversity, and diversity of thought is probably one of the key things to try and achieve. Seeing women in leadership roles is really important, either in governance or administration, and NZ Rugby are actively seeking ways to support greater diversity.
“When people stop noticing it’s because it’s actually normalised and that I guess shows the transition we are on. These projects will eventually become redundant because women’s rugby will be completely integrated with men’s rugby, but until we get there, we need to hold things separately, have separate strategies and build the story together.”
Nicol is bold in her hopes for the future of women’s rugby. She has witnessed the positive impact of the Women’s Rugby World Cup success in 2017, the growth in the profile of the Black Ferns and Black Ferns Sevens, the support for the Black Ferns professional contracts, with more investment in academies for young women across provincial unions, still to come.
In fact, Nicol envisages a time when there is little distinction between the women’s and men’s game, and mixed competitions exist – like they do in sports such as swimming and tennis.
“I’m very proud of the trajectory that we’re on and we’ve got a lot of momentum,” she said.
“We had two Black Ferns at a charity partnership at a primary school recently and they were mobbed by the children. This is the impact they are having across New Zealand.
“So, we have the All Blacks as a global benchmark and our aspiration is for the Black Ferns to be an equal, but in their own way.”