Episode: 489 |
Nicolai Chen Nielsen:
Advisor, Author, & Entrepreneur:


Nicolai Chen Nielsen

Advisor, Author, & Entrepreneur

Show Notes

Nicolai is a global leadership and transformation expert and a leading authority on developing human-centered organizations that shape the future. He has worked with more than 30 Fortune 500 companies and government ministries across 5 continents globally, and he has written best selling books on leadership, personal development and navigating the future. You can learn more about Nicolai and access his books at nicolaicn.com and Linkedin.

Key points include:

  • 07:46: Defining achievement, well being, and growth
  • 14:36: The challenges of being a DJ
  • 25:07: Issues clients are struggling with

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Nicolai Chen Nielsen


Nicolai Chen Nielsen, Will Bachman


Will Bachman  00:03

Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’m your host will Bachman. And I’m here today with McKinsey alum, Nicolai Chen Nielsen. Nicolai, welcome to the show.


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  00:17

Thanks. Will, great to be honored.


Will Bachman  00:20

So Nicola, I was so excited to speak with you, because you have this range of things, I want to explore and hear about the various different facets that you have going on. So you’re the author of three books, and we could talk about those, and you recently left your role at work day and set up your own practice. You’re the author of leadership at scale, which a better leadership and better results that you wrote while at McKinsey along with Michael Raney, and kloudio PhaZZer. And then you’re also written return on ambition, which a radical approach to your achievement, growth and well being so and you’ve got another one coming out as well, another book. So let’s start with return on ambition. I’d love to hear a bit about your thoughts around that. Sometimes ambition is almost considered a negative. People don’t want to admit they’re ambitious, but But tell me what’s your thoughts and ambition?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  01:16

Yeah, absolutely. I think you hit it on the head, it’s sometimes that they misunderstood them, there’s a lot of different perceptions of ambition, and return on ambition, took probably five, almost six years to write and was very much a person with a personal journey, but also something that I noticed that I was not just the only one struggling with my ambition, but actually also a lot of my peers, you know, both in McKinsey and outside, we’re struggling with ambition. And specifically, we will all working hard, we will all doing what we thought was the best thing to, to not just get ahead, but also live a good life. But many of us were struggling and I was personally struggling, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. And I kept asking myself, is my ambition actually serving me? Or is it is it getting in the way? So that was a bit the context for writing it. And then long story short, I wrote it wouldn’t equate to which I co author, and we had an idea about bringing some of these coaching tools that we were fortunate to have access to bring those to a wider audience, and then it resulted in this book.


Will Bachman  02:17

Okay, so talk to me about some of those coaching tools.


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  02:23

Yeah, I mean, we focus on ambition, because we actually found that it is not very well understood. And there weren’t there aren’t really any books out there that focus specifically on you as an ambition as an ambitious person, and how can you manage your ambition better? So one of the tools so one of the key concepts we focus on is this notion of a return on ambition, which is meant to be a bit provocative, like return on assets. But what we’re saying is your ambition is often your biggest investment in life, if you’re ambitious, in terms of the time you spend pursuing it, your resources, your energy, maybe your money, how actively do you actually measure the return? And how actively do you actually manage that return? So one tool, specifically, which is part one of the book is, is a self assessment, which helps the reader map out their returns across three areas of the life in terms of their achievement in terms of their growth in terms of their well being? And we’re not saying higher or lower on one or the other is better? Or worse? What we’re helping you do is just figure out, am I happy with this return? And if not, how might I adjust what I’m doing?


Will Bachman  03:32

Okay, let’s define terms. What do we mean by ambition? How is it different from a goal or, you know, a career? So let’s give me as fine a definition as you know, as to distinguish it from some of these other kind of concepts of just, you know, something that you would you know, aspire to, or just any kind of goal in life? How do you define ambition?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  03:58

Yeah, we, we define it in the book, let’s see if I can remember it. You know, word by word, we spent a lot of time crafting this definition. It’s something along the lines of your ambition is a strong yearning and drive to reach a future state that’s different from today, challenging to reach and personally meaningful. And this is purposefully done quite broadly. So we talked about, it’s first of all this yearning and drive right, you have an innate desire to get somewhere. And it’s a future state that’s different. So it has to be different and it has to be challenging to reach. So you might argue that for some people graduating from university is not very ambitious. Well, for others that might be very ambitious, it depends on your context, but this future state has to be different from today has to be has to be challenging to reach and then we add it in and it has to be personally meaningful because you might have a lot of goals set by others which you are either compelled to do or it’s part of your you know, professional job requirements. But if it’s not personally meaningful then it is. We will look at it in a different way. So that’s how we define ambition. And just to comment on what you mentioned the beginning, it’s, it’s not, it could be about your career, but not necessarily, it could be about professional goals, not necessarily, the future state that you aspire towards can be literally anything that is meaningful for you. Yeah,


Will Bachman  05:19

I noticed that when you gave me your definition. So this could include, you know, wanting to be a good father or wanting to get in some sort of physical condition, or, you know, become a chess master or some other thing that’s not necessarily directly related to your career. Absolutely. And having thought about this for five years, what are some of your insights on what counts as a good ambition and ones that might have a high return? And what potential ambitions might people have that on deeper reflection are not serving them? Well?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  06:04

Yeah, we studied a lot of ambitious people, we interviewed hundreds of ambitious people, there definitely were some common patterns that emerged. So I wouldn’t say we tried to kind of characterize you know, good or bad ambition in the, let’s say, strict sense of the term, as long as you’re not hurting others you could argue, then there isn’t really for us to say what you’re doing is good or bad. But a couple of nuances there. So one is it needs to be a true ambition true to you, we find that people often can be a bit blindsided by societal expectations or their own desire to prove other people wrong. And they end up pursuing a direction, which actually isn’t true for us. That’s one, one leg of the argument that your ambition, the direction that might not be serving you is one that ultimately isn’t the right direction. And then secondly, and to get a bit more specific, I talked about that self assessment that we have in the book, and those three pillars the tripod of achievement, growth and well being across the board. When we looked at people who were what they would say having a high return on ambition feeling fulfilled, and successful in life, they had a balance between their achievement that growth and well being short term imbalances might arise once in a while, but a medium term long term, you absolutely have a balance and you actually are managing these three elements achievement, growth and wellbeing on a consistent basis.


Will Bachman  07:33

Let’s talk about each of those elements. In turn just a little bit. Dive dive in and tell me what you mean by each one and how would you assess it? So achievement talked about that one a bit.


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  07:46

Yeah, achievement is probably the one people gravitate to gravitate towards. First, when we think about ambition. Often we equate it to professional growth or professional professional goals. achievement for me and for us is a bit broader. So it’s about anything where you feel a sense of accomplishment, anything where you’re pushed, to do something, you know, achieve something meaningful. Typically, they are self set the goals that you set yourself. Typically they combined both short term and long term aspirations in the future. So if you if you have that you are having this notion you have having a sense that you are achieving you’re fulfilling things that are typically a bit challenging for you. Conversely, you have some people who actually feel a high degree of well being actually maybe a high degree of development and growth maybe that’s someone at university but they feel like look I’m actually lacking on this achievement like I want to get out there I want to do something I have aspiration and goals that I’m not yet able to really get get in on


Will Bachman  08:48

how should people think about assessing their own well being so what are we talking about here? Sort of sleep diet fitness, the you know, personal relationships friends family like what what are the elements that go into well being?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  09:06

Yeah, at a meta level, I would use the some of the things that you had mentioned so there’s four buckets you can talk about physical well being mental well being emotional well being and spiritual well being or well being linked to to purpose and values. Those were the four I would say that cover cover the vast majority. So physical well being is sleep, it is nutrition, it is being physically healthy, that’s super important. mental well being is not being overworked, not being stressed. Being able to focus on one thing at a time. emotional well being then gets into for example, relationships with others having a social circle feeling feeling valued feeling cared for. And then the the spiritual well being with a purpose driven well being is linked to you, feeling like you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing and living the life that you’re meant to be living.


Will Bachman  09:59

And what about growth. So why is that so important? What what are some examples of how you could assess your own growth?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  10:10

Yeah, growth is the part of the tripod, which isn’t in what people talk about work life balance. And we can talk about that I think work life balance is a very, very bad dichotomy, because there’s much more to life and work in life. You know, that’s why we have achievement and not work, because you could be having a job that maybe isn’t fulfilling, and that’s the situation for many people, but you could still have a high degree of achievement because you’re doing things outside of work, or you can somehow shape your work and context to, to still have a notion of achievement. So, you know, small, smallest sidebar, I’m not a fan of work life balance, because of the way it’s structured. And another reason is it doesn’t have growth. And growth is when you look at the literature, when you look at the neuroscience, people who don’t have growth, it that’s why it’s one of the three legs of the tripod, if you don’t have growth, it doesn’t matter how much you’re achieving, or how good your well being is, at some point in time, you will feel comfortable and routine was set in and you’ll feel a yearning for more. Conversely, if we take consulting, it is it is a challenging environment. But people feel like they’re growing extremely quickly. Which is why at a holistically, it, it’s enjoyable to be there. So growth is really interesting, because when it’s not there, you get bored. And when it is there, you can actually put up with, you know, very tough environments, for example.


Will Bachman  11:37

Yeah, I’m also not a big fan of kind of the term work life balance. There’s this quote, the master in the art of living makes little distinction between their work and their play. And so, you know, in terms of growth, Tyler Cowen as this question that he asked, it’s in his book talent, about, what do you do? That’s equivalent to a pianist practicing scales, right, in terms of practicing to intentionally get better at whatever it is you do? And so, I’m curious if you had sort of insights or thoughts around that about people who are very intentional about trying to improve on some certain area, and not just kind of going through the motions of of their work, but But trying to think about what are the areas I want to improve on? How could I do that? How do I need to? What do I practice to get better at those things?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  12:41

Yeah, that is, it’s a good question. Because growth is often not done very deliberately, there is a term called deliberate development. And that’s one of the things we talk about, because you will grow if you stretch outside your comfort zone, yes. But then you’ll pretty quickly hit a wall. And what high achievers what the pianist does, what the Olympic champion does is that they are constantly recreating new boundaries or stretching the boundaries of their comfort zone, they’re constantly being pushed just outside. And they’re being very deliberate about the development. So we take the pianist and they’re planning, they’re playing a scale, they will be very critical about what they do well, and what’s the one thing that they need to improve on in that specific session, and next 20 minutes, I’m going to practice X, as opposed to just playing, you need both sometimes you just want to play and enjoy it. But you also need to have that very specific thing that you want to improve on. I’m not a pianist, but I can give you other examples. And in sports or I hobby DJ, for example. And DJing is actually very technical. And sometimes I just play and put put different tracks together and a lot of fun. But I actually find that that doesn’t improve me very well, that improves me up until the point that I hit a plateau. And to actually break through the plateau, I need to say, a specific thing, a specific transition, a specific time that I want to focus on and literally do it 10 times in a row. It’s pretty boring, actually. But that’s how you break through it.


Will Bachman  14:16

So being a DJ, it’s not so much just straightforward. Pick with a song list. Don’t tell me a bit more about that than you do on the side. What what is challenging about being a DJ, is it kind of sensing the crowd and figuring out what’s going to, you know, be the right transition the next song or it’s a little bit more about that?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  14:36

Yeah, DJing was something I picked up during COVID Beginning of course, probably two and a half years ago. It was always a lifelong dream aspiration. I wanted to get into it never quite got into it. And then I just took the plunge and started about two and half years ago. And I learned that it’s an art and a science. So there is a science behind music structure. and timing and understanding when and where to mix in various songs, what works well, what doesn’t, the keys of the song and so forth. And you have to get to a foundational level of mixing technique. But then beyond that, it’s actually less important. That’s, you know, all DJs, who can DJ party they have the foundations in place, what then makes you a good versus great DJ is, is more than just the art, you need to know your songs and your library, you need to understand the people on the dance floor in front of you. And then in the moment, you need to be very adaptive and have a sense of what’s going to work well what does it because sometimes, you’re just going, you know, killer song after killer song and the dance was reacting. And then sometimes you, you put a song and then the energy is drops. And you need to very quickly get out of that and go into a next new song. So it’s definitely a bit of an art and science.


Will Bachman  15:52

Let’s expand out a bit here, we’ve been talking about one of the books you’ve written but give us now an overview of what you have going on. You recently set up your independent consulting practice, you give keynote talks, you writing books, give us an overview of your practice, and how you envision it developing.


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  16:16

Yeah, I would definitely say I’m ambitious, doing you know many different things at the same time, and always focusing on always trying to focus on what’s gonna be most most important for me. So right now, I’m focusing on a number of different things. One is building my practice, I do a lot of work within leadership development, for organizations, anything around behavior change at scale, culture change. And I’m also super passionate about anything around the future of work and organizations of the future. And that’s a bit of a whitespace. There’s a lot of stuff written about it. But it’s also a bit of a moving target where we haven’t quite defined, you know, what’s going to be the winning, or the most effective organizational model in the future. So setting my practice right now is both doing doing client work, but also just engaging with a lot of clients and trying to understand what are their organization related challenges, especially in today’s environment, you know, all companies are struggling with with attrition or retaining their best people. All companies are struggling with we go virtual, we go hybrid, how do we actually make it work? Some of these very real, quite future oriented questions, companies are dabbling in Metaverse, or some kind of virtual office space. And I find that really interesting because that is the direction companies need to go. So it’s not a question of should we get on that train? It’s more a question of how do we, how do we do it? So that’s building my practice, working with serving clients, and then speaking with just a ton of different companies about their organization, organizational related challenges. Secondly, I love thought leadership. The two books were written not because I like writing, but it wasn’t for the sake of writing, I wrote the books because I had these big questions in mind. And writing as a way to organize my thoughts and learn I learned a ton of thing and providing the books. My third book, from Aldous to Mars is coming out in Danish shortly, and then in English and about early next year. And that’s about future trends and future organization. So I do like to spend time on on researching and publishing things and writing books. And then you say as a spin off to that keynotes, and doing workshops is something else I really enjoy because it is really about pushing the thinking of the audience and how can I serve them and help them see the world to themselves in new ways. So those will be the main things professionally.


Will Bachman  18:43

Tell me your thoughts around the metaverse and, you know, setting up offices in the metaverse what have you seen so far? And what are you anticipating might happen there?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  18:56

Well as at an overarching level, I do really believe in the metaverse. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out and how exactly the technology is going to look. And we will wear wearables, and they’re going to be they’re going to be on our phone that projects something or they’re going to be a contact lens. That’s smart. But for me, the parallel is you know, we’re spending hours a day on our phones as a medium to interact with people. Many people spend time on Facebook, on Instagram and so forth, other social networks. So that’s just us having a Identity in Cyberspace that we can shape and manage. And we can have interactions with people that are both our friends, but also people that we’ve never met before. All that for me is going to condition at some point to the metaverse because it’s simply more engaging. Right now that technology is not where it needs to be. But that’s at least the direction so I don’t I don’t see us spending three hours on our phone a day on social media in the future. I see us spending three hours on in the metaverse and still doing the same thing like I will have an avatar I will be going to the leadership leadership interest group or I’ll just be interacting My friends, but it’d be way more realistic way more fun way more engaging than just looking at a, you know, seven inch screen. So that’s that’s on the metaverse in terms of direction. What I’ve seen today is is some stuff is pretty cool about how companies are using. Not yet the metaverse, but they’re using virtual office spaces. And it’s surprisingly fun to use. So instead of being, let’s say, Justin zoom, and everyone is working in virtual teams, there are platforms out there, you can gather gather as one platform where you set up a virtual office space, it’s like that, you know, like a 2d computer game that kind of looks like Pac Man, Pac Man, a little bit, a little bit nicer graphics, but you set up an office in on the screen. So they have the marketing department with people having a physical desk, you have some snack rooms, you have a kitchen, you have the finance department, you have meeting rooms, and so forth. And I was surprised how important and how big of a difference it made. For me, for example, when I was able to move my avatar on the screen, I could walk from my desk to the marketing manager’s desk and actually start a conversation. And it’s just like you would do in a real office. And you’re still only doing it on what the equivalent of zoom or Microsoft Teams, but the the fact that I could see my avatar and I could walk around and I could have these, let’s say casual conversations made a tremendous difference to this notion of working in a virtual environment.


Will Bachman  21:27

Oh, that sounds very interesting. And so how does that work? So paint a picture for us, you’re moving this avatar on the screen? And then there’s basically a zoom pop up where you talk to the marketing director? Or do we have sort of goggles on so that we’re seeing a virtual office? And like an avatar of the other person? What, what’s the experience like currently?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  21:50

Yeah, right now it’s its interface for interacting is still a zoom, like experience with a video popup, what is what’s nice is that you are, you’re getting a sense of togetherness that I can see myself and the opposite, I can see everyone else on that virtual office, it looks just like a computer game, I can of course, choose to go to the go to the, let’s say, relaxation, or the lounge or the kitchen. So which means I’m more liable to bump into people and just literally trigger a conversation. The technology was actually extremely smooth, the moment that you go to someone, they can then choose to either accept the invitation very quickly, and then the screen immediately popped up. So there’s zero waiting time, it can literally be Hey, I have a question about that marketing report. So it, it actually mimics real life much better than I would have thought. And I can see when everyone’s online where they are, you know, I can also choose to leave the office if I have to have a commitment. So you get a sense that you know where your coworkers are, and you can be in this together.


Will Bachman  22:54

So that kind of gives that more sense of togetherness, while people are still, you know, divert working remotely, I think real zoom can be a bit tiring being on No, just I don’t know what it is exactly like looking at the screen having to kind of smile or appear alert for long periods of time. But and also not knowing if people are looking at you and not knowing to look at the camera or the person, I think and that for larger meetings, it’s okay for one too many presenting. But it’s not the greatest for more of an interactive cocktail hour kind of mingling sort of event. So I’m looking forward to when there’s something where you could, you know, put some goggles on and then actually move through a crowd and move into small group conversations and then break away and move navigate over to, you know, other people having conversation, I think that’ll be a real breakthrough. And I don’t know if Zoom is working on that, but or if you know, in your case, the office situation, if you could kind of move through the Office knock on someone’s door, they say yeah, open it up. And then even if it’s avatars and not like a sort of a realistic representation, being able to move around physically, would would make it feel met very much like you’re there, right?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  24:20

Yeah, it does exactly. And those informal and unplanned encounters, which happen in a real office, they can still happen in those situations. So we’re definitely we’ll definitely get there. Just a question of when and which technology ultimately,


Will Bachman  24:36

beyond the sort of interactive aspects, like we’re talking about now, in terms of online. What are some of the other questions that you’ve been hearing from your clients about? Just how companies are organized in terms of either hierarchy or roles or whether people are full time employees or independent contractors? What sorts of issues do you hear clients struggling with?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  25:07

Yeah, they’re struggling. The question that clients struggle with are relatively timeless, you know, what’s our purpose? What’s our strategy? How do we win in the marketplace? How do we How should we be organized? How do we manage talent. But of course, the context around those companies has continues to shift. So I would say that many organizations are still trying to figure out the model their work, and many are still not very what I would call future future ready. So just to get a bit more specific, you asked about how they should be organized, you know, the trend, in terms of the work that gets done is very clear, the work we get done is becoming much less routine. It requires much more creativity, us doing things for the first time figuring out new technology for the first time, demand goes up and down. And we’re constantly launching new products and services, Innovation is key. So as that context has shifted, that also means that the organizational organizational operating model needs to shift and become equally flexible, adaptive, quick to change. And in practice, the trends are the shifts that we see are, the companies are need to become flexible, to some extent become on demand, instead of having very rigid boundaries, so I see one big shift that the usage of gig workers or freelance workers will will continue to rise, you know, companies are already doing this, this is not new, but the proportion of the workforce that becomes freelance will definitely increase its company will never go away. But there will be a larger proportion that is on demand project based, maybe not full time, and very project specific. So that’s one big, big shift I see. And then the other one is definitely a shift just towards more intelligence and a little bit linked to what what I just talked about with the on demand organization. But we’re moving towards an economy and an organizational, let’s say ways of working where the skills you have become your currency, not your education, per se, not your your experience and all that stuff might help. But it ultimately comes down to what are the skills you have? And what are the skills, the specific project needs. And then we have a skill based matching platform. Many companies do this internally right now in internal market job market. But that will be I think, opened up externally as well. So that it will be much more quicker and intuitive and flexible.


Will Bachman  27:33

I think you’re right, certainly about, you know, companies using more independent professionals, at least I hope so. And expect that to be the case. You know, I’m not a professional economist, but my understanding of the Coase theorem is, you know, the sort of the theory of why companies exist, it’s largely related to transaction costs, because it’s very expensive to have arm’s length transactions with every single person you when you interact with. So it’s easier and cheaper for companies to make a long term deal with with with individuals and say, you become my employee, and then we’re not gonna have to worry about negotiating every single transaction. But if those transaction costs go down, which they have, it’s much easier to onboard someone, get them engaged, and plug them into your communications and your email than you would expect, you know, since the cost has gone down, the equilibrium will shift.


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  28:29

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that’s spot on. It’s, that’s the foundational theory of transaction costs. And they are definitely coming down. And I like to take that longer term view that, you know, by 2030, we know that this is the direction that that the world is moving into, we know that technology becoming better. We know that, you know, things like Google Docs, and all the things in the cloud make it way easier for us to collaborate asynchronously across the world. So as a company, you have to ask these questions today. You You have to figure out where I want to go and how quickly? Yeah, I think there’s not an option just to say, well, I’m going to do what I’ve always done, somewhat self


Will Bachman  29:07

interested. But I think that every big company, really at the sea level needs to be developing, what is their strategy for using independent professionals, you know, in what scenarios and so forth, and how to reduce some of the barriers to engaging people right now, sometimes the amount of paperwork and hassle is, is quite extreme, and they put a lot of barriers in place to to enabling that. Yeah. So Nicolai, you’re doing incredible stuff. I mean, I’m so impressed the books and the talks, the folks that wanted to follow up and kind of follow up with you find out what you’re doing. Would you like to give a link or point to your website? What’s the best way for people to find out what you have going on?


Nicolai Chen Nielsen  29:59

The III, I try to keep all my URLs consistent. So Nicolai C n is my website, Nicholas en.com, or LinkedIn slash Nick Lyceum Instagram slash Nick lyceum. So that would be the best places to connect. And yeah, follow what follow what I’m up to. And so my thoughts


Will Bachman  30:17

Fantastic. Well, we will include those links in the show notes. Nicolai, thank you so much for joining today. Thank you for having me.

Related Episodes


AI Project Case Study

Paul Gaspar


AI Project Case Study

Astrid Malval-Beharry


AI Project Case Study

Julie Noonan


AI Project Case Study

Markus Starke