Lead Interview: Mark Nicholas MBE DL

MD, Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association
Our lead interview in the LEGACY issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Mark Nicholas MBE DL, MD of Royal Norfolk Agricultural Assocaition

Published in Norfolk Director magazine Summer|Autumn 2022

Lasting, Enduring and Trusted

“Two years into the job, I am doing my first Royal Norfolk Show as MD. It’s an important event for the county for many reasons, not only for the positive impact it makes bringing in £20 million annually to the local economy, but because of its legacy. This year we are celebrating 175 years of history and there is a duty of responsibility for me and my team, to make sure the show endures and adapts to be able to continue well into the future.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Mark Nicholas talks to Norfolk Director

When I sat down to have a chat with Mark Nicholas MBE DL, Managing Director of The Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA), I didn’t quite know what to expect as I had never spent time with someone who has not just an MBE, but also a DL after their name.

Yet, I needn’t have worried. The time flew by and for me his story was captivating.  

Born in 1976, Mark lived in Cathedral Close in Norwich with his father, Michael, mother, Heather and twin brother, Ben.

“Father was Master of Music at Norwich Cathedral, and I had a wonderful childhood growing up in the grounds. Both my parents are still extremely active, but those early years and the family environment left a particularly powerful impression on me.

“As a professional church musician, Father was very distinguished in his field. He was very charismatic and full of energy and wit, and he did so many things that were over and above his day job. He co-founded the Norwich Festival of Contemporary Church Music, and he was a part-time lecturer in music at the UEA. He was also conductor of the Norfolk Philharmonic Chorus and served as a councillor for Norwich City Council. Looking back, he has been a hugely influential role model throughout my life.

“Our home was always full of fun. It was filled with music and laughter, and there were lots of parties and people coming to lunch.”

School life

But heading into his teens Mark wasn’t so happy.

“Ben and I attended Norwich School and when I was 11, I was thrown out for not keeping up. I wasn’t settled, I was in the wrong environment, and very much the black sheep. I was completely different to Ben who was really interested in music; it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t cut out to be a musician.

“The decision my parents then took however, to send me to Langley in south Norfolk, proved to be the making of me. The environment suited me much better, as it was all about the development of you as an individual.

“I got involved in the Combined Cadet Force at the school, which proved to be a seminal point for me, as I realised I wanted to have a career in the British Army. The CCF enabled me to look through the window and see what this life would be like, and the adventure and opportunity it provided appealed to me.”

In 1994, at 17, Mark passed the Army Officer Selection Board gaining a place at The Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He was also awarded a university army scholarship to read History at the University of East Anglia.

“I lived on campus at UEA, and loved it, but it was all about getting to Sandhurst, so I joined the University Officers Training Corps, which gave me a better understanding of the armed forces.”

“I realised I’m wired and motivated by people, and the army attracted me as it was about the camaraderie, discipline and leadership.”

“I began to understand the principles of ‘Mission Command’, which is based on the leadership doctrine of understanding what your higher commander wants to achieve. The order is given, and you have the freedom to take the best actions to achieve that aim. It’s all about trust, integrity, and acceptance, that those at the top know the bigger picture and what needs to be done.

“This approach isn’t so different to leading and managing any organisation or business. Here at the RNAA for instance, the team understands what needs to be achieved and is empowered to get on with it. My role is to lead, communicate and enable collaboration to get the job done. But, how they achieve the task is very much down to them.”

Starting an army career

Lead Interview: Mark Nicholas MBE DL 1After gaining his degree, Mark arrived at Sandhurst in September 1998 to undertake his training.

“Even though I’d looked forward to this moment, I was apprehensive. The Royal Military Academy was a grand, imposing place. Its harsh disciplined regime worked on the premise of stripping away your routine behaviours and reprogramming you as an officer in the British Army. For the first month, our mobile phones were confiscated, and for five weeks we weren’t allowed outside the academy.

“It was about wanting your attention and resetting you, so your loyalty was to Queen and country. When I left Sandhurst, I received a ‘Commissioning Scroll’; a document signed by The Queen, authorising me to hold a commission in the British Army. I had finally achieved what I had set out to do and there was so much to look forward to.”

Mark’s first commission was as a Second Lieutenant and Platoon Commander in the Royal Anglian Regiment based in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

“It was December 1999, just after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. I was in charge of 30 soldiers. Again I was apprehensive; it was the first time I truly appreciated how essential it was to build trust and respect. Ultimately it’s about orders, but a lot of military planning and strategy is collaborative, and I needed them to have faith in me.

“Our operation in Northern Ireland was a peacekeeping role. As foot patrols or in armoured vehicles, we supported the Ulster Constabulary. It was dangerous though, as there was still a real threat from IRA groups using bombs and guns.

“As a young guy, I accepted that my life wasn’t my own. I was a commissioned officer, and I served my country; I was excited by it all.”

After 18 months in Northern Ireland, Mark’s unit relocated to barracks just outside Guildford. In August 2001, he married Penny, whose family business was Wilkinsons, the Tea and Coffee merchants based at Pottergate in Norwich. Soon after, he was promoted to Captain and appointed Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to General Sir John McColl, the first commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

“I flew into Kabul in bitterly cold weather to start my posting as ADC in 2002 and what I saw when I arrived, wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Mad Max film!

“At that time there was a power vacuum and there were various tribes dotted around the country jostling for influence. It was after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and I was joining the person in charge of setting up and co-ordinating ISAF. Sir John was highly regarded, and my role as ADC was similar to a personal assistant; wherever Sir John went, I went too. As a captain, I was still relatively junior in the British Army, but as ADC, I had an important role to play.

“My time there gave me privileged access to nation building. I was part of the meetings that Sir John had with warlords, the then President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, and international political figures. I was there as the note taker and bag carrier, and it was an amazing experience. I was seeing a perspective that no one else saw and was exposed to diplomacy and statesmanship at the highest level.”

Mark was there for four months before returning to England, and over the next few years, he completed tours in the UK, Cyprus, Germany and Iraq. Mark and Penny’s first son, William was born in 2006.

Experiencing war first-hand

“Then in 2007, the Taliban gained a foothold back in Afghanistan, so I was sent back for what, for me, turned out to be a pivotal tour of duty.

“There were around 700 personnel in various posts in northern Helmand Province. I was a senior captain called ‘the Adjutant’, an important role working closely with the commanding officer, who was responsible for organisation and manpower of the unit. It was proper war fighting and it changed me as a person.

“The environment was very hostile due to the terrain, climate and the threat. 12 soldiers were killed and 58 were seriously wounded, and one of my jobs was to make sure every death and injury was properly communicated, recorded and dealt with. For all of us out there in 2007 it was a seminal tour, and we came back as changed people because of our experiences.

“At the time, you are trained to deal with it, but you can’t escape the human element and the effect that death has on those around you. The experiences of conflict can be a struggle for a lot of people. You never forget it and the role you played in it. That is why the British Army plays an important role in honouring the memories of those who have fallen. It certainly changes your perspective on life, how you react to situations, and what’s important.”

“My overseas army experiences have enabled me to understand perspective, to identify what’s important and what’s not. That helps with the prioritisation of effort in the business.”

“Coming back to England from a very demanding six month tour, where you’re under stress day and night, it’s like coming back to another world. It takes time mentally to readjust to normal ‘routine’ life with the family; not just me, but for Penny as well.”

On his return to England, Mark was promoted to Major and attended The Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham for eight months, undertaking advanced command and leadership training.

“I was then posted to the Ministry of Defence at Whitehall where I was working on strategic policies. It was really interesting and gave me exposure to how government departments operate, and I worked closely with the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Foreign Office. Then, in 2012, I was posted to Cyprus as Company Commander. It was an operationally focused role and Penny, William and Ralph, who was born in 2009, moved out there with me.”

However, it wasn’t long before Mark was crushed by devastating news.

“I was in Jordan when I became unwell, and I was flown back to a military hospital in Birmingham where I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. I was 34 and told that my career as a frontline soldier was over. I could stay in the army but would be deskbound and could not be deployed overseas.

“It was a total shock, as up until then I had been perfectly fit and healthy. Penny and the children were still in Cyprus, and I was having to come to terms with my dreams being shattered.

“I had to quickly reconcile myself to the news and work out what I wanted to do and what my future held. I decided to retire from the army and move back to Norfolk. Yet I didn’t want to do it straight away, as I had to build up my skills and experience, so I was prepared for civilian life.”

Preparing for civilian life

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Between 2012 and 2014, Mark took a role based at army headquarters in Hampshire, where he led the team that planned the operational commitments for the whole British Army.

“There were 12 of us in the team and we were responsible for the training and deployment of army personnel to wherever they were needed in the world. At that time, there were significant operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Kurdistan, as well as smaller deployments in 92 other countries.

“We had 82,000 personnel with different skills and disciplines. Some in training, some on leave, others on rotation for their tours of duty, and we had to make sure they were all in the right place at the right time, with the right kit and training. It was a very complex  Rubik’s Cube to manage.

“The job called for mediation, foresight and problem solving; all skills you need when running a business. It translates into my role at the RNAA now, and the different things we have to do.”

In 2014, Mark moved into his last army job when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was appointed Commanding Officer at Cambridge University Officers Training Corp, a role that included setting up the Cambridge Leadership Prize, with Sir Ranulph Fiennes as patron.

“In my 20 year army career, I had come full circle.”

“I wasn’t in the job long when my old boss rang me up to tell me I was being awarded an MBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours. It was strange, as working in the army you don’t seek reward; you aim to work hard and do your best. The MBE gave me a chance to sit back and reflect.

“With my family back in Norfolk, since 2012 I had been doing a weekly commute from Hampshire and Cambridge. So, when I finally left the army in 2016, I just wanted to be back home. I had skills in leadership and management, but I genuinely had no idea about a job.

“Then Penny saw an advert for Director of the Royal Norfolk Show in the EDP and I knew I could do that. So I applied and confirming my belief that you make your own luck, when I went for my interview, I discovered that three of the panel I had already engaged in some way as I developed my network from Cambridge.”

Mark started at the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association in early 2016 and started setting about understanding how things worked in the new job.

“On the first day I was struck that at 5pm everyone left the building. I thought something was going on that I didn’t know about. It then dawned on me that people were finishing work and going home. This was totally alien to me as I was used to working as long as was needed to get the job done.

“Also no one cared about my rank or position. In a business setting, it’s not as pronounced as in the army. Yet I love that and also the collegiate flat structure under which the RNAA now operates.

“My remit was to plan and deliver the Royal Norfolk Show (RNS). Not knowing a lot about it, I was able to challenge the traditional ways things had always been done.”

A couple of years on and Mark was asked to work as CEO for the Priscilla Bacon Hospice Appeal.

“They wanted to build a new hospice in Norfolk, and I saw this as an opportunity to do something I have never done before, which was heading up a £12.5 million charity appeal to build a complex medical facility. I knew it would only be a short-term project, so when I was asked to come back to the RNAA as Managing Director in January 2021, I took it.

“The role of MD was a new position, and I was appointed to build on the legacy of the RNS, whilst developing the resilience of the RNAA, both as a charity and a commercial entity.”

Leading the RNAA

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The only problem was that Mark returned in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and national lockdowns.

“Immediately I had to deal with the impact of the pandemic. The team were furloughed, and the show was cancelled, although I still came into the office as I felt my leadership role would be more effective on site. My reasoning for this came from my military background, where the location of the leader and what effect they can have is a very important factor to consider. The time alone also gave me the space to learn how to run this 360-acre showground.”

Just before taking up the role, Mark was also appointed one of the 49 Deputy Lieutenants (DL) supporting the Lord-Lieutenant for Norfolk, Lady Dannatt, MBE.

“The Lord-Lieutenant’s role is to represent The Queen in civil and civic matters. My role as a deputy  is to support the work of the Lieutenancy at voluntary, commercial, social and spiritual occasions throughout the county. During the pandemic, most occasions were virtual, however, in March this year, we hosted an event at the showground to raise the profile of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

“For the RNAA, Covid was all about survival. We were running out of cash as no events meant no income. I assembled a small team and collectively we put a plan together. Immediately, we decided to diversify the use of the showground to bring in extra income. We also applied to the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund and were awarded a £575,000 grant.

“A key challenge I faced as MD was leading a large constituency of stakeholders. We are a tribe of tribes gaining consensus for transformational change, in an organisation with a long and meaningful heritage. What was interesting is that it was similar in some ways to my military role in Afghanistan, mediating with warlords. This time the tribes were in Norfolk, and not hostile(!) although it was very important to understand the differing needs and dynamics.

“Above all else, one thing that has become clear to me is that you can’t plan a large-scale county show via Zoom, it’s just not possible. So, now that we are out of the constraints imposed by the pandemic, it’s great for everyone to finally be back in the office and to be keen to do so.”

For Mark, an important trait of good leadership is being able to make the right decisions.

“For me, leadership is based on three critical factors: Vision – to know the bigger picture and to think ahead to the longer term; Character – to be pragmatic, steadfast, focused, and to bring a personal touch to persuade people to come along with you; Judgement – to make sound decisions based on balance and experience.”

“However, when making business decisions, there is always a balance of risk and reward. I’m willing to take a calculated risk, but not to take a gamble.”

“Another important element in leadership is inclusivity. A fundamental point about me is that I am motivated and driven by service. This came from being institutionalised having gone through boarding school, then university and onto Sandhurst, and then the army. I’m not criticising it, I loved it. Sandhurst’s motto is ‘Serve to Lead’ and this resonates with me and has shaped who I am and my attitude to working as part of a team.

“When you talk about legacy, I owe Langley a lot. It gave me the grounding, shaped my youth and it provided me with an environment where I could flourish. I wanted to give back in some way, and as my sons attended the school, I have a vested interest. So, I am now chairman of the Board of Governors. As well as enabling me to continue my professional development, the role has given me further insight to chairing an important medium sized business in the county.

“I was unsure when asked to be a Governor, and my initial instinct was “can I do this?” The answer was “yes I can”; the one thing I have learnt over the years is to trust my judgment and if I don’t know the answer, I know there are people I can turn to who will. It’s not about being a 100 per cent confident that you can do it all, but it’s having an instinct to know when to reach out and ask.

“What drives me to get out of bed in the morning and keep going? Trying to make a difference every day, getting things done, consulting and collaborating with people. Also, Penny. She was instrumental in my positive mental attitude when diagnosed with kidney disease. I am hopeless at separating work life and family life, and without her I could not have accomplished half the things I have done.”

Lead Interview: Mark Nicholas MBE DL 13

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