Nicola Verkerk understands her own leadership style and brings her strengths as a leader to the numerous roles she’s had in systems engineering, safety engineering, project management and engineering management over her 13-plus years in naval shipbuilding. Through these roles, she discovered her passion for tackling complex problems. As an introverted leader, she only speaks when she’s got something to say. She’s not the loudest person, so she’s developed non-traditional ways of leading with influence.
Nicola was drawn to engineering in her final years of secondary school due to her
love of maths and science combined with her desire to understand how the world around her
works. She studied a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Adelaide, and
upon graduating, she joined ASC Shipbuilding in 2009 to work on the Air Warfare Destroyer
(AWD) Program. She completed a Master of Systems Engineering at the University of New South Wales (Canberra) in 2019. After seeing the three Hobart Class Destroyers transition into
service with the Royal Australian Navy, she joined BAE Systems Australia on the Hunter
Class Frigate Program in 2020.
Nicola is a Chair of the Building Blocks initiative, her organisation’s gender diversity strategic
forum, and is passionate about engaging women in STEM and promoting the opportunities presented by engineering careers to girls and women. Outside of work, Nicola and her husband, Dale, are always looking for the next physical challenge, whether that be a running/obstacle event or an adventure-seeking holiday, to
keep up with their two energetic primary school-aged boys who are busy with various sports.
In this interview, Nicola shared with me her passion for
understanding the different perspectives and her own leadership style to achieve great outcomes…
How do you inspire others while keeping yourself inspired about your
NV: I talk to each individual, understand what motivates them, and bring the conversation
around to how those might support the broader needs of the organisation. Helping everyone
understand the bigger picture and the strategic direction is always helpful in bringing people
What have you found helpful from mentors and leaders?
NV: I’ve learnt things that have worked well, and I think about what will work for me based
on my strengths and leadership style. I take every interaction as a learning opportunity.
Empathy and understanding for everyone’s differing circumstances and situations is a big
part of it and encouraging everyone to bring their differing viewpoints to the table to ensure
we are considering the best outcomes. People have different perceptions of how things
work, which needs to be acknowledged to ensure that people can work together and
understand how to do that best.
How do you foster a positive work environment?
NV: Being open and honest about things, acknowledging vulnerability and recognising your
biases or mistakes that you may have made and how you were going to address them is
essential. Having the courage to call out things that are inappropriate in a safe way so people
can understand the impact of those inappropriate behaviours is what I’ve been striving for in
our organisation. There are positive ways to have those challenging conversations. It’s a skill
that can be learned through practice.
Sometimes I step outside the situation and park how I feel about it and look at what feedback
I need to give someone and coach them in a way that will help them with their professional
development. Once you’ve acknowledged that you can come around to having further
conversations about the impacts and the feelings of the individuals involved. It’s about building that trust and safe space where the person doesn’t feel like they’re being
I tend to ask a lot of questions – why? To understand why we do certain things, I also like to
ask my staff what type of things they would like to be doing to challenge themselves. I’ve also
built up the courage and confidence to call out certain things to understand why things are
being done a certain way to ensure we’ve considered different approaches.
What what’s been one of the biggest challenges or opportunities you’ve
had as a leader?
NV: Being recognised as a leader, because I’m quite an introverted person. I only speak when
I’ve got something to say. I’m not the loudest person, so I’ve had to find ways to let people
know that I’m present and listening but also acknowledge that I may not have a response
right then and there and that I would need to come back to it. One of the challenges is to be
true to myself and my style and not be forced to take on personality traits that might appear
to be required as a leader.
Sometimes I might follow a conversation up with an email to the group, saying these are my
thoughts afterwards. Sometimes during the meeting, I’ll say I might need to think about that
and return to it. I usually prepare before some meetings if I know that I will be required to
provide a response there and then. I’ll try to ensure I’ve got enough information beforehand
to give that response at the moment. These are some of the strategies that I have learned.
What are the best ways that leaders can support other leaders?
NV: One thing that I’ve said a few times is that listening is often underrated. Listening to
your teams and your peers, hearing what they have to say, and taking it on board. Sometimes
leaders forget that it’s not always about providing direction. It’s also about enabling people
to do the job that they’re trying to do. You’re the person that’s there to help facilitate that
and remove any blockers.
Is there anything you do in your personal time that helps you be a leader in
NV: I read a lot. I try and understand different perspectives. Through my experience in
engineering, articles and podcasts, I’ve come to understand how society can make a career in
engineering harder for women. I volunteer as chair of our gender diversity initiative. I
recently have been given a lot of opportunities to speak on what our organisation can do to
change some of the cultural barriers that impact our low representation of women in STEM
in the business. That’s been quite a challenge, and it’s testing my skills and building on my
knowledge – being able to influence without having any authority. Leading with influence has
been a major thing I’ve needed to develop over my career.
What resources might suggest new leaders access?
NV: Understanding your leadership style and strengths is important, so I recommend
undertaking new leadership courses or getting your organisation to undertake a 360
feedback survey. I’ve done those things, and they’ve helped me propel my thinking and
understanding of how I want to lead and better understand those I work with. Then it’s
about you jumping in there and getting the experience because there’s only so much reading
you can do. It’s really on the job where you learn to refine those skills.
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