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Adriènne Kelbie, a wild card well played

Adriènne Kelbie was a wildcard from start to finish as chief executive of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). Leaning into this status helped her to drive harder for the “constructive tension” she uses to help others be their best. She is now starting a new chapter as she heads up Adriènne Kelbie Consulting Ltd, offering executive coaching and senior team facilitation to help them improve their thinking, dialogue and leadership.

There is a longstanding trend in the nuclear industry to expect its best engineers to naturally become its leaders as well, but, “That’s crazy,” says Adriènne. “Can you imagine an athlete working without a coach, even if they were already Olympic champions?” As Adriènne puts it, “Leadership is increasingly complex and demanding, yet most leaders have no support from anyone independent who understands leadership first-hand and so can support them to grow and achieve great impacts. I’d like to help change that.”

As a leader, she explains, “You really have a couple of jobs. You have to create a stable base for everybody else – a consistent base, with consistent leadership and behaviours that show staff you will always be there for them. And you have to hold people accountable for their delivery as well as their own behaviours and impacts on others. This is far from easy.”

Interpersonal communication can be a big barrier to the candid conversations necessary to succeed. “All humans fear rejection and our brains are hard-wired to avoid difficult conversations,” she says, “But leaders especially must be prepared to take those risks, and to help others do so too.” Handling these situations badly, or with no preparation, “can leave a trail of damage, should they backfire.”

“What concerns me is that many leaders seem unaware of the depth of the unwillingness that people actually have to speak up about work issues.” For that reason, “Nuclear industry leaders have a special responsibility to show how they are creating cultures that make psychological safety as overt a priority as physical safety – equally valuing inclusive behaviours and technical competence.”

This brings Adriènne to her work at the ONR, which she left in June. Working there, she wanted to “create an environment where people felt able to speak up about problems, to suggest new solutions, and to develop an inclusive culture where everyone could thrive.” This was especially important at ONR to combat what Adriènne calls “gene pool depletion” – which can happen when a team is full of great people, but as a group they lack diversity, so that no matter how intelligent and experienced they are, they simply don’t have what it takes to be creative, inventive and outward looking. This can be a problem in any area of complex work, but especially where safety is a priority.

ONR had been experiencing this, as well as other strategic risks which it had to acknowledge: many highly experienced staff were retiring, while at the same time that others were leaving to join parts of the nuclear sector gearing up for new build. Stakeholders observing this had become concerned that ONR might not have sufficient capability or capacity, and this could have derailed the UK’s new build ambitions. “ONR will not be a critical path problem,” was Adriènne’s vow from day one.

She saw addressing these staffing issues as an opportunity to bring in talent from other sectors, of all ages, from apprentices though to world-leading experts. And by doing so, to add different thinking to the highly experienced staff ONR wanted to retain. “I felt that the ONR team needed me as CEO to be a beacon of safety – to be honest about the challenges of the UK’s new build ambitions and to help ONR become a place where people really wanted to work, to build their careers, and to feel they belonged no matter what their role, grade or background.”

Adriènne is clear that every worker deserves an organisation that is competent in creating an environment where others are happy to speak up even (or especially when) when they are in a minority. “There is common sense in bringing together diverse people who see things differently,” says Adriènne, “but inclusion often fails because there’s been little thought about how to make best use of it.”

One particular problem that persists even in diverse groups is that poor listening and dialogue skills can make people feel their view isn’t wanted, needed or welcome. If that happens, “they will opt out pretty quickly” says Adriènne. Even worse can be leaders who pretend ­or genuinely think they have all the answers. “When people can trust that you’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I need help, I’m stuck,’ they know that you’re open to their ideas, and they also know that when you say, ‘things are good, we’re ok, you’re doing great,’ it’s actually true.”

“Inclusion creates the space for people to be their best selves. It requires empathy, humility and big ears to listen.” And it works. ONR’s staff and stakeholder perspective survey results leapt to being exemplars in many areas, and the team is now more diverse and capable while retaining the experience it needs. “And despite remote working, it became a closer and happier place – and that really counts when you want to recruit and retain such wonderful people,” she says with pride.

Adriènne is well known for bringing her whole self to work. As chief executive of a safety regulator the role was of course very serious, but she became known for her approachability and sense of humour and easy-going style as much as her professionalism. She’s also widely known to see everything as a learning and teaching opportunity. “In my 25 years of leading teams across sectors,” she says, “the commonality is that inspiring, supporting and challenging in the right measure leads to growth of the people and so the organisation.” The resulting ‘constructive tension’ creates trust and openness and works in tandem with the active approach to inclusion to be their best. This is something tried and tested and evolved over Adriènne’s last four jobs – which were all in different sectors.

Having led the nuclear regulator for over five years, does Adriènne have any parting advice for the sector? “The nuclear industry has a lot to deliver for a net zero agenda and it creates amazing careers for hundreds of thousands of people. I think it can create even more value by investing in the skills to work better together, and in particular to help people become more comfortable with constructive tension that thwarts groupthink and brings real innovation and belonging. In turn this will support the admirable diversity and inclusion efforts being made by so many to stitch together diverse voices into a vibrant, colourful patchwork quilt of effective leadership and value. Why would you not want that?”

Her last three job interview psychometrics all identified Adriènne as “a wildcard,” she laughs, “I know what it’s like to be the outlier, and I know the value of that to the team gene pool. And I’m so grateful to all those who gave me chances that others might not have.” Few leadership coaches have practical experience as a successful CEO, let alone one in diverse sectors. She believes her experience of seeing issues from different angles is a unique influence on her ability to help clients think differently to achieve their potential and create a positive leadership legacy for their organisations. When put like that, it’s easy to see why everybody needs a wildcard at their side.

Adriènne would be delighted to hear from you at

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