Date posted: 03/03/2020 8 min read

Nicki Nicol CA: the woman changing NZ Rugby

Nicki Nicol CA is guiding NZ Rugby to a kinder, more inclusive place because it’s right – and it’s also good for business.

In Brief

  • COO Nicki Nicol CA is heading New Zealand Rugby’s five-year Respect and Inclusion project.
  • The project aims to increase diversity within the game and organisation, and safeguard individuals’ physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
  • Nicol sees a clear link between the organisation’s culture change and its continued financial wellbeing.

By Deborah Tarrant

When Nicki Nicol CA stepped into the CFO’s role at New Zealand Rugby in early 2017, her responsibilities took a tilt in an unlikely – and at first not obviously financial – direction.

The organisation, famed for its mighty All Blacks team, was in the early stages of addressing a very public crisis. A series of “troubling” off-field incidents in 2016 – involving professional players making homophobic and racist comments or engaged in drug and alcohol-fuelled louche behaviours and unacceptable sexual forays – had hit the headlines.

In response, the New Zealand Rugby (NZR) board had announced it was conducting an extensive Respect and Responsibility Review as a first step towards cleaning up the image of the body that’s famed globally for sporting prowess.

Nicol – a keen sportswoman whose experience of rugby was limited to the sidelines as a supporter – was on a gap year after 18 years working for energy giant BP in Australia, London and her home country. Undaunted, she “threw her name in the hat” for NZR’s top finance role believing it would balance her commercial expertise and community interests.

NZ Rugby’s Respect and Inclusion project

Within six months of landing the CFO role, Nicol was asked by NZR’s chief executive Steve Tew to be the executive leader for the next step, an all-encompassing Respect and Inclusion project. Her task: to action the review’s 91 recommendations which looked far beyond professional players behaving badly to tackle systemic issues, such as gender equity, inclusion, mental health and integrity, to name just a few.

Nicol was a canny choice for project leader.

Not only had she overseen culture change projects in other organisations (her last role at BP was as chief marketing officer), she brought a fresh perspective and, importantly, provided a stellar role model for women in a hugely male-dominated field. “I’m used to being in a minority in leadership teams,” she reflects.

Adding impetus from the zeitgeist was the timing, coinciding with #MeToo bursting into headlines and social media as a global movement.

Nicol picked up the right job at the right time and ran with it, quickly moving into the role of NZR’s COO in April 2018, and embracing the project as part of her broader responsibilities to implement organisational strategy.

When rugby changes, so does New Zealand

While gender equity is not its sole focus, it’s blatantly clear the face of rugby is morphing. In recent years, the growth of women players signing up in New Zealand has been in double digits, while male numbers have dropped slightly.

Women’s teams, The Black Ferns Fifteens and Sevens, now have professional contracts – the former took out the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup – and efforts are underway to boost the 15% of women in governance roles across NZR.

Recently, New Zealand beat Australia to win the bid to host the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup.

The rise of women in rugby must be viewed as an “and, not an or”, insists the COO who’s keen to quash notions that the women’s game grows at the expense of the men’s. “The All Blacks are the engine for us as an organisation; the commercial reality is that they generate a large percentage of the revenue that we invest in community programs.”

And so to cleaning up that image. Just over two years into the five-year Respect and Inclusion project, it’s still early days. Many pilots and trials have been run. Different regions are taking different approaches.

“We’re learning as we go,” says Nicol, who for simplicity focuses on three key areas: creating an “intentional culture”; diversity, including Maori, Pasifika and rainbow communities; and “looking after the holistic wellbeing and safety of our people – physical, mental and spiritual”.

“What I’ve realised is the reach and influence of an organisation like New Zealand Rugby is hugely powerful,” says Nicol, who believes its change efforts will benefit the wider community. “When you think about the potential positive impacts, this is a pretty fulfilling role,” she adds.

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Brand values and commercial realities

Nicol is heartened by people now calling out bad behaviour and banishing taboos. For example, when NZR and All Blacks’ stars, past and present, condemned homophobic tweets by now-sacked Australian player Israel Folau, members of the Wellington LGBTI community insisted a new sense of welcome was “pulling people back off the ledge”.

NZR partnered with the Ministry of Health to launch its first suicide prevention office, an event where former All Black Nehe Milner-Skudder stood beside PM Jacinda Ardern to talk about his own “dark thoughts” and rugby’s future role in making it OK to talk about mental health.

“We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do, but we’re also doing it because our commercial partners require us to have a brand that holds their values as well,” Nicol confirms, looping in the clear link between the organisation’s financial wellbeing and its culture change.

It goes back to commercial realities and her first core discipline, chartered accounting. After finishing a commerce degree at Auckland University, she started with a stint in business services at Coopers & Lybrand (being on site for audits would have cut too much into her kayaking time, she admits) and soon branched into broader business. What she learned there holds eternally useful, she says.

It’s worth emphasising (with awe!) that the Respect and Inclusion program is just part of Nicol’s role. As COO, she runs a team of 50 people working organisation-wide and, right now, she’s also conducting an All of Rugby Review to explore what’s working and what’s not across the sport.

It’s a stretch to believe this business leader when she insists she’s really an introvert, but likely Nicol’s career success draws on a smart piece of advice: “Always do what you enjoy, but take a bit of risk. Challenge yourself!” she says.

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