Nicola Linkleter, Previously President of Professional Staffing at Adecco UK

Most of the women we’ve interviewed as part of our Women in Professional Services programme have faced a career-defining moment at some point in their lives. Kate Duchene threw her own hat into the ring when she was supposed to be leading the search for a new CEO; Amy Brachio found opportunity in the midst of the financial crisis; Beth Ann Kaminkow found the strength to stick around when the board overlooked her for the CEO role. But all faced those situations as adults, and usually with plenty of life experience under their belts. Nicola Linkleter faced the first of hers when she was eight.

The story starts out on familiar ground: A young girl dreams of becoming a ballerina. But rather than resign herself to a few years of shuttling her daughter to and from ballet school before the dream fades, Linkleter’s mother issued her a challenge: Give it your all and become someone or quit. For most people, making a commitment like this aged just eight seems unimaginable. But as her mother presumably judged, Linkleter isn’t most people. She responded by throwing herself into ballet, enrolling in a full-time ballet school and practising some 40 hours a week whilst juggling academic work.

Nevertheless, the odds were stacked against her. Just 5% of young ballerinas end up making it to the point where they get paid to do what they love. But Linkleter quickly learned how to combine her talent with discipline and perseverance, overcame the odds, and took the opportunity to travel the world as a professional ballet dancer.

“There’s a great Chinese proverb,” Linkleter tells us: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it.”

Fifteen years later, Linkleter decided to try something else and get into business. “I remember saying to my mother, ‘You know, I’m going to stop dancing for a bit and move into business.’” Her mother was taken aback by the decision: “She didn’t understand why I would stop when I was having so much success.” Linkleter responded in the only way she knew: She went straight on to the front foot and told her mother, “If I get into business, I promise you that my focus, my aim, will be to get on the board of directors and to have a say at the top table.” And guess what . . .

Describing herself as having “fallen into the recruitment industry” through a friend of a friend, Linkleter committed to being the best she could be, every single day, and moved up through the ranks in leaps and bounds that were every bit as balletic as anything she’d done on stage: “My first promotion came nine months after being in the industry, when I was given a new office to manage. I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing, to be honest!” Still, she clearly got it right, because by the time she’d figured it out, she was on the move again: “I found that a lot actually: As soon as I knew what I was doing in my role, I was promoted to take on more responsibility. At the time I seemed to constantly live outside my comfort zone.”

Ten years later, and now with two children, she found herself accepting a role as the UK Vice President of an American recruitment company. “By this time, I was a single mum, and it was a challenging time: I probably travelled six times a year, often for four or five days at a time. But needs must. I found solace in the fact that I was doing it because I had mouths to feed. There wasn’t a question of being able to be at home with the children—I had to get on with it and make a living. And if I was going to be out of the house between 8.30 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day, then I was going to earn as much as I could. I was going to be the best I could be. I was going to deliver results.”

That clarity of purpose would inform the next few years of her career and make Linkleter uncompromising in her pursuit of what she saw to be the right thing. A good example of this came when, following some organisational changes, it became clear to her that her job title was misaligned with that of her peer group. “The people doing the same job were titled ‘Managing Director’ while I was still UK VP.” So she tackled her boss about it. “I said, ‘I think you’ve got to review my job title,’ and he agreed, saying, ‘I was thinking of Ops Director.’”

I do what’s right for people—that’s my job. And I expect my boss to do what’s right for me.

Linkleter’s response was as swift as it was excoriating: “I said, ‘I guess you have to be fat, 50, and balding to be an MD, do you?’ That was on a Friday afternoon. By Monday morning I had a letter confirming my new job title: Managing Director.” It’s a level of selfconfidence to which Linkleter implores others to rise: “There are people out there who are quick to compromise, but you have to stand your ground. I do what’s right for people— that’s my job. And I expect my boss to do what’s right for me.”

It wasn’t to be the last time Linkleter would face a challenge like this head-on. Having spent six years with the American company, during which time she’d remarried and had her third child, she became pregnant again. “It seemed sensible to take extended leave knowing that I was pregnant and likely to have a fifth child, so I took three years out. I had no reservations. I think what’s important in these situations is to take a decision and make it work. So rather than think about whether I should or shouldn’t be taking time away, I focused on what I could learn during that time.”

You just know that it’s here where the career story ends for a lot of women. But Linkleter somehow found a way to be a mother to five children and build towards the next phase in her career at the same time: “I became very good at certain things like planning, organisation, communication, delegation, and prioritisation, just to keep everybody’s head above water. But I did give a lot of thought to what I wanted to do next.”

Reduce her hours and her responsibilities? Build in more flexibility to her working life? Not quite, no: “I needed to be in the UK, obviously, and not to travel much, but I wanted to run a new company.” At first, the recruiters she approached struggled to satisfy her ambition. “A couple of people that I really rated were quick to say, ‘Oh, you’ve been out for three years, maybe you should look at regional management or something, in order to get your feet back under the table. A lot has changed in three years.’”

That didn’t quite cut it: “I’d been a Managing Director for a number of years and been very successful at it. There was no way I was going to contemplate stepping back, not for one moment.” But Linkleter saw a way through: She’d get herself in front of people and use that as a springboard for something bigger. She’d also coach the recruiter into the bargain: “There was a guy who wanted to see me: His company had fallen into difficulty and he’d had to go to a VC to pump some money into it. There was turnover, but not enough profit; the cost base was too high. I was put forward to the VC, and they believed I was the person to take the business forward. And as CEO, that’s exactly what I did.”

There’s a staggering amount of determination underpinning all of this, so where does that come from? “I think it was reinforced during my childhood,” she tells us. “If you’re not a determined person, then you should be looking to get people around you that can help you to become more determined.”

But there’s self-belief in spades too: “Yes, you need self-belief. You can’t simply give someone self-belief, but you can help them to recognise how they think and behave, and how it might sow the seeds of self-doubt. You can also create an environment where people can take risks and are allowed to fail; where they can push the boundaries and look to surpass their perceived potential. I think we all benefit from having someone to mentor us through the big decisions we have to take in life, I really do.”

Linkleter turned the company around, and then went on to sell it. Having done the hard work to get herself back on track following her three-year break, the next step was easier, as now opportunity was knocking at her door: “Somebody I knew found out that I was back on the market and said, ‘Come and work for me.’”

It was to be the first of a few more leaps that ended up landing Linkleter on the executive board of Adecco Group, further fulfilling the promise she had made to her mother all those years ago. At first, Linkleter was the only woman on the board. But that was enough to change the dynamic of the firm: “The chief executive told me that my presence positively changed the dynamic of board meetings, I think he described it as far less chestbeating!” More women were hired, and in time Linkleter and another female colleague ended up running all of Adecco Group’s professional and general staffing brands between them.

I love mentoring and coaching. I love seeing people challenged, and I’ve got a load of principles about how to get the best out of people.

That spirit of comradeship and taking pleasure in the success of others permeates so much of Linkleter’s story. She talks about the people she’s mentored over the years with a combination of warmth and excitement. “It’s the most important thing for me. As much as I have been responsible for strategy, programme, or change management, it’s only about the people. That’s how it’s been for years: I love mentoring and coaching. I love seeing people challenged, and I’ve got a load of principles about how to get the best out of people. It’s about stretching them and enabling them to reach their potential.”

Linkleter is a passionate advocate of the idea that women need to take responsibility for themselves: “It’s too easy for people to use institutional biases within an organisation as an excuse for being held back. You’ve got to take responsibility and look to influence the right things to happen.”

You’ve got to take responsibility and look to influence the right things to happen.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Linkleter looks back and sees plenty of evidence of change: “Twenty years ago—and perhaps even now in some cases—men in charge tended to hire in their own image. I can think of many men who were much better at managing men than women, for example. They enjoyed the comfort of having people around them that they enjoyed working with, liking the same things but not necessarily challenging the status quo. It’s not a good idea to generalise, but I think the situation is much better today than it was when I was starting out. More organisations are trying to be transparent and open about feedback, promotion, and hiring criteria.”

Having made it to the top, Linkleter has recently retired in order to spend more time with her now-teenage children. It’s what she’s always aimed for: “All that hard work and the earn-as-much-as-you-can approach was about retiring early in order to spend more time with my children.” And that, arguably, is the most remarkable thing about Nicola Linkleter. She’s achieved what she’s achieved not despite, but because of, what she sees as her responsibilities—to her children, to her colleagues, to the people she’s mentored along the way, and to herself.

All of which begs the question, academic though it may be, of what advice Linkleter would give the person in whom her sense of responsibility would surely find its greatest cause: her eight-year-old self, staring at her mother’s ultimatum and the misty uncertainty of her own future. What would she tell her? “I’d tell her it’s going to be great.”