Early experiences taught Nicola an important lesson; it only takes one person to give you the confidence to break boundaries and fulfil your potential.

Nicola Coughlin-Web-Image_Story | ISG 25 March 2021

Nicola Coughlin, Technical Services Director, London, UK

Early experiences taught Nicola an important lesson; it only takes one person to give you the confidence to break boundaries and fulfil your potential.

Looking back on her time at school, Nicola distinctly remembers her teacher, Mr Pack, who spotted her affinity for science, nurturing her talent and providing clarity on what a potential career might look like.

She initially set her sights on architecture, but as she started exploring routes to her dream career, the opportunity to become an engineer presented itself. With hard work, determination and a little serendipity, she left school to embark on a career in engineering – and hasn’t looked back since.

Years later, as Nicola steps into a new role as ISG technical services director after 20 years working for its UK Fit Out business, she pauses to reflect on her professional journey – a path lightly trodden by women when she first ventured into engineering.

One of the lessons she holds most dear is the impact that just one person can have on shaping your future; academically, professionally and personally. Nicola found a home in engineering, but also at ISG, the family that it is – where it continues to be people that define her story.

With a natural flair for science and maths, Nicola enjoyed her years at school. She set her sights on pursuing the traditionally male-dominated science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) post-school career options, honing her ambitions on becoming an architect. 

After achieving her entry level architecture qualifications, Nicola was accepted by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to embark on a seven-year training programme to qualify with a degree as a professional architect. However, after weighing up her options, her next steps ended up changing her path irrevocably.

Keen to explore ways to quickly gain some practical experience, Nicola accepted a position at a small mechanical and engineering (M&E) consultancy ahead of taking on a role as project engineer at Matthew Hall (AMEC). Fortuitously, the role provided Nicola first-hand experience in meeting and working alongside many architects and, along the way, her perception of the profession shifted, and caused her to rethink whether the sector was the best fit for her after all.

Nicola came to realise that interiors-based architecture wasn’t the direction she wanted to take, and she wanted to focus on developing her skills working on base building MEP – out of the ground projects. She enjoyed the analytical, problem solving challenges it posed and decided to stick with it, leading her to being sponsored to complete further qualifications – which for Nicola felt like the best of both worlds.

Nicola-Coughlin-thrive story | ISG

Having not really understood what a career as an engineer would entail as a 16-year-old, Nicola quickly felt at home and knew it was the path for her. Reflecting on the start of her professional journey, she adds: “At school, I followed the STEM subjects and really committed myself because of my science teacher, Mr Pack. It was the same professionally, with two very strong site-based characters – who I shall fondly refer to as the ’two Jims’ – who made a real effort to push me. Both helped grow my confidence and firmly believed in me.”

There is no doubt in Nicola’s mind that educators and early managers alike have a critical role to play in those formative years, promoting inclusivity by supporting individuals to take on challenges based on their unique strengths and merits – but these were not the only people that Nicola credits for inspiring her bold ambitions. Her mum, Lynn, was also firmly behind her every step of the way, refusing to believe there was any reason she should set any limits on her potential, regardless of any stereotypes that may have existed within certain industries at the time.

“It just takes one opportunity or person to change your path forever,” notes Nicola. Having always enjoyed cars, Formula One and going to the Grand Prix, in her early career Nicola was offered a different apprenticeship at Ford, where she had the opportunity to experience car design. However, at the time she wanted to remain in London and was drawn by the buzz and vibrancy of life in the big city – and while she ponders with interest where she would be now if she’d chosen another option, standing here in her new position at ISG she reflects fondly on her journey with no regrets. Given the chance, she’d do the same all over again.

Having entered the industry in the early 1990’s, in Nicola’s experience, it was always the people and the comradery that set ISG apart. Upon joining ISG in 2000, Nicola noticed the team had a different approach from what she’d experienced elsewhere, and it’s been a smooth ride ever since. Nicola refers to the team as a family, so even at times when the pressure peaks, the people make it worthwhile. Despite it being commonplace for talent to move about a lot in the construction industry, Nicola counts herself lucky that so many individuals that made such an impression on her twenty years ago are still here alongside her today. 

“Matt Blowers, Mark Holdsworth, Andy Hargrave, Andy Shepherd to name a few, are all characters I admire and have shaped my journey in different ways. We’ve grown up together and we’ve all become close friends as well as colleagues. There’s a reason we’ve all stayed, which is such a rarity – we all support each other, and people can see it.”

- Nicola Coughlin, Technical Services Director

Looking to the future and embarking on her new role as technical services director, as well as helping lead best practice on projects and sharing knowledge across the team, Nicola is also determined to focus on leading people and positive behaviours.

“While naturally my job is about engineering and risk management, it’s all about people. If the right behaviours are in place then so many potential problems will be avoided, so if you change behaviours it all comes full circle.”

- Nicola Coughlin, Technical Services Director

Nicola is known to expect the best behaviour to stand up to the best delivery standards set by ISG – a reputation she wears proudly. However, to do so she understands that it’s important to understand what motivates people. Nicola also believes problems are something to learn from, not shy away from, if you want to embrace a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

“We’re all busy, but it’s important never to forget if someone comes to you wanting to discuss an issue they’re facing – being a willing ear and offering support and advice could make the world of difference to them.”

- Nicola Coughlin, Technical Services Director

Never losing sight of the positive influences along her own journey, Nicola actively takes a role in mentoring schemes with ISG’s ‘Futures Group’, a scheme that assembles some of the most innovative minds in the business to help drive revolutionary change and solve some of the challenges our industry faces, as well as with her own team of technical services managers. Here’s to hoping Nicola can continue to lead some of our most inspiring projects, while helping help shape future generations to embrace the same values and behaviours that make ISG the place it is today.


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