Great to hear from Dr Nick Coates, who leads C Space’s consulting thinking, globally (from East London, and sometimes Boston, New York…).
So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?
Let’s put aside my first ever job, door-to-door interviewing, and the council flat owner with the axe collection (that was a short interview!).
Basically I’m an escaped academic, and since a PhD in Francophone Caribbean Literature isn’t much use outside the “academy”, I just stumbled into the first research-related job I could find, working freelance for Forrester, then joining FreshMinds in the very early days, working on a lot of culture / arts policy, and then having the good fortune to become a co-creation pioneer with Promise (and eventually C Space).
Career paths are rarely without challenges. Can you share an honest moment from your career when things didn’t go quite according to plan, but the lessons remain with you to this day?
I remember distinctly being on holiday in Goa, trying to get away from the hurly burly of London and work life, and getting a phone call from my then bosses. They told me that they were selling the company to an American outfit who at the time we saw as the enemy, because we felt we were more modern, more hip, more creative. But the other bit of news was that they were going to put someone in charge of our London business that I’d had some uncomfortable run-ins with.
So I was now going to report to my enemy as part of a merger with a company that also felt like an enemy. Or at least, that’s what my emotional brain was telling me. I must admit that, at the time, I had to sit down for a bit, with a stiff negroni, and it certainly cast a cloud over the rest of that holiday.
But when we started meeting our new colleagues, we realised how much we had in common deep down and more importantly my new manager and I went out to lunch and were able to make space to clear the air (living one of our mantras #tellitlikeitis).
Like all bust-ups, half was imagined and misconstrued, on both sides, and the remaining real pieces were cathartic to get out and discuss, and we found new ways of dealing with them. The insight that it was partly the organisational structures that had created the tensions was a massive learning point for me. When you shift role, or shift context, your feelings and behaviours change and being aware of it is really crucial in adapting and getting out of the way of your own ego.
I’ve tried to become more empathetic about what’s behind tricky situations, that’s nothing to do with the person.
What two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
Be a sponge.
Our field’s actually really broad and broadening all the time. From anthropology to artistry, digital, depth and data, storytelling and neuroscience, agile and academic methods combined. There are a lot of different pathways to pursue and passions you can ignite. Change always comes from the in-between, so combining and experimenting, not following a rut, means amassing experience is a huge asset. And in a world where we’re all going to work longer, and hopefully stay mentally as well as economically active, learning more skills, but crucially finding the things that turn you on not off, is – in my mind – job #1. And that means trying out more stuff and giving everything a chance. But staying true to what suits you!
If you compare yourself to others you admire, you’ll always come up short. The one thing they can’t win at is being more you. So my approach is to integrate elements of personal passions and past me into professional me. You’d be surprised how interesting this blend can be for others (because they don’t know how to do it). I’ve been weaving together Alice in Wonderland, photography and visual culture, literature and semiotics, cultural theory and creativity methods for a while now, and it’s helped shape my style and made me feel more me at work (and beyond).
Oh, and always be “yes and…”
Say yes more, embrace more opportunities, receive offers as gifts (not burdens), turn off the inner critic (which wants you to give up!). I find this very very hard, but all my best achievements have come from unexpected offers and invitations.
How do we ensure that students and those leaving school aspire to join our sector?
It seems to me to be a massive privilege – if you’re interested in humanity – to spend our days learning about people, how they live their lives, to inspire and shape new things, to make business better (and more customer-focused), to travel (at home and beyond), to see the world as it is and as it could be. I wish people could see this for themselves (rather than the debased parody of the focus group or the NPS survey that dominates popular awareness of our field). This is a story we need to tell. And we need to build more bridges to our profession between studies and applying for jobs: work placements, getting into campus settings, partnerships and much more.
Do you have any advice for our sector?
Get some swagger: we do work that’s more interesting than we let on. We should talk less about the method and more about magic. Celebrate the impact. Tell better stories to ourselves and others.
Embrace diversity: the more we mix it up, bringing in people who represent the richness and diversity of the world we study. We aren’t there yet. By a long shot. And also I’d love to see us fully lean into neurodiversity: our work needs the full range of cognitive styles, but we could be more intentional about it.
Lean into change: we’re being disrupted by a huge number of adjacent fields, and on our best day, we’re figuring out both how to elevate our consulting chops AND how to incorporate more AI, agile, data science and UX approaches. But we can go harder and faster.
And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout-out to?
A few people have trusted me to be me, and to be better than I thought I was, particularly Roy Langmaid, and Simon Lidington (when we were co-chairing the MRS conference). But as a curveball choice, I’d like to give a shout-out to the late great Akos Moldovanyi, my teenage fencing coach, Hungarian refugee, polymath, and humanist. A man who translated Shakespeare into Hungarian for fun. He taught me the value of leadership, of hard work, and that distinctions between genres, science, art, movement, mindfulness, politics and life are almost always false. It’s a lesson I’ve lived my life by ever since. And has become my superpower.