In the Spotlight: Alex Nicholson, Mediaworks

In the Spotlight: Alex Nicholson, Mediaworks

Alex Nicholson, MediaWorks General Counsel and Chief People Officer, shares her story of leading the legal and HR teams at Mediaworks.

What does your day job as both General Counsel and Chief People Officer of MediaWorks involve and how do you manage both roles?

Our legal team covers a fairly diverse range of areas. These range from those that are specific to a media company (content acquisition, talent contracts, media law / defamation, regulatory issues) to those that relate to any commercial organisation (procurement, technology agreements, licensing arrangements, construction projects and leases).

My role as General Counsel is to manage the legal team as they advise the business across these areas, and to have oversight of any significant pieces of legal work. I am still actively involved in legal work with corporate projects like the refinancing of our senior debt, and the corporate merger with QMS, and I also occasionally help our news team on stories which have any defamation or similar risk.

My other role as Chief People Officer is focused on driving a high performance culture, by working with the HR team and the Group Executive to deliver effective people programmes of work. Some of the more significant pieces of work are across defined projects (for example the merger with QMS, and the re-location of our nine Auckland radio brands from three offices into one new location, both of which involve complex and challenging people change and communication work streams). We also focus on driving change across the entire organisation, for example in our diversity and inclusion initiatives, establishment of reward and recognition programmes and reviews of the remuneration framework.

How do I manage both roles? The main reason is that I am fortunate enough to have two amazing teams. I have exceptional lawyers in my legal team, they just smash through the work and regularly go above and beyond what is required to deliver the necessary outcomes to the business. My HR team is just as awesome, mainly due to them having great experience and a strong depth of understanding of the area (which is just as well, as it is not yet my area of expertise!). I rely on both teams to keep these areas driving forward, and to give me time to be across it all at a strategic level and not get too bogged down in the day to day detail.

What are your dual roles teaching you about leadership and about yourself?

I think the key to leadership is surrounding yourself with exceptionally talented people, who you can rely on and whose judgement you trust. The HR and Legal teams are very different, but across both areas my goal is to support them, enable them, raise their profile, challenge them to think about things differently and help them deliver their goals while still having fun.

Stepping into the Chief People Officer role has taught me quite a bit about myself. The General Counsel role is pretty intense, and it requires consistent discipline, focus and resilience - particularly when you are in a fast-paced, dynamic and challenged industry like media. What the CPO role is allowing me to do is bring more of myself to work, to be more open and to take on a listening rather than an advising role. It is also allowing me to work collaboratively with people on a broader range of projects and help them find the solution, rather than being the person who is looked to for the solution. I love both areas of work, but am finding it really interesting to explore a different way of working.

You also have a key interest in the procurement function at Mediaworks. Can you tell us about helping to establish this function?

I’m not sure I can take credit in establishing the procurement function at MediaWorks, but it was a surprise to me when I first joined MW that they didn’t have this team set up within the business. I have always worked with procurement teams in my previous in-house jobs, and they have served an essential function in terms of framing up requirements, providing market bench-marking and helping with negotiation strategy as well as general supplier management.

It always seemed a no-brainer to me, that this kind of function and expertise would more than pay for itself. Our CFO at the time agreed with me and she was instrumental in bringing them into the business.

What differences between the in-house legal professions in the UK and NZ have you noted from your time at Sky Media UK and now at Mediaworks?

The most obvious difference is scale. In the UK at BSkyB, we had over 100 lawyers plus support staff. When I first arrived at MediaWorks we had 2 lawyers (including me).

In practical terms, I think this often means that in-house lawyers in the UK will work within more narrow parameters and become specialised, whereas an in-house lawyer in New Zealand will often need to be more of a generalist, and turn their hand and mind to a broad range of legal areas.

I also think that the scale of business in the UK means that there is much more access to resources - bigger legal teams, and access to sophisticated support tools like practicallaw.com (which has an incredible range of contract templates, legal guides, etc). When I first arrived back in NZ and started at MediaWorks, I realised how much I had relied on my access to templates and guidance notes from other lawyers whilst I was in the UK. I didn’t have any of that kind of resource at MediaWorks, and needed to build up my resource library from scratch.

In both countries, I think there are some companies which treat their legal teams as legal advisors only - and put them in a box labelled “legal advice only please”. There are other companies which see us as business advisors as well, and respect the problem-solving, strategic advice and commercial acumen which we can bring to the business.

With the new CPD year about to start, what are your learning and development priorities for the year ahead?

Corporate governance remains a high priority, particularly for my company secretary role – this was a completely new area for me when I started at MediaWorks, and I have learned a lot over the last 4.5 years, but am still keen to learn from others and get access to more experienced minds.

Health and safety is also an on-going area of development for our teams. We are currently reviewing our crisis response planning and how we look after our people during any such events, and I will be keen to attend any seminars which offer practical advice in this area.

I am also interested in programmes which review our ways of working - how can we prioritise our resources and work smarter (not harder).