A curious leader striving to never stop learning

9 July 2024

What is it really like to steer a renowned company with a rich heritage into the future? And how do you retain personal resilience amidst leadership challenges? On a sunny day in May, the SCC team travelled to Maidenhead to meet with Nicole Melillo Shaw, Managing Director at Volvo Car UK, to find out. After spending a full morning with Nicole, we learnt not only about this - but also gained a deeper understanding of her vision for the company and the innovative strategies driving Volvo Car UK forward.

Just over four years ago, Nicole Melillo Shaw stepped into the car industry and Volvo Cars with the aim to shake up the industry – and she’s proven successful.

Nicole’s background is rooted in fast-moving consumer goods – focusing on everything you’d find in the healthcare section of a store. In that world, consumers make decisions in seconds, leading her to constantly have a keen understanding of their needs and preferences.

“When I looked at my next career move, I wanted to take some of those learnings, and see how it could apply within a completely different industry,” says Nicole.

With this mindset, she cast her net wide, and Volvo Car UK appeared on the road ahead. A consistent theme throughout Nicole’s career has been working for family-centric brands. This was what drew Nicole to Volvo Cars - not just the cars themselves, nor their speed or trim levels, but the brand’s dedication to families and new consumer groups.

“A lot of people who work in the industry, live and breathe cars – it’s their hobby. For me, it was much more around having a car that drove nicely, that I could rely on, that drove well, and that could take me from A to B,” she says. With this mindset, Nicole believed she would be a good representative of the average consumer and set an ambition to change the industry by making sure to appeal to like-minded people.

“And that’s exactly what I did when I joined, I came in as Consumer Director with that very much consumercentric approach.”

A leadership with more questions than answers

Since November 2023 Nicole has been Managing Director.

Last year in her new role, she faced the greatest challenge in her career so far - leading Volvo Car UK through their change of business model. The industry had been operating under the same model for over 100 years, and Volvo Car UK was the first market to break the mould. As we know, transformation can be tough, and leading people on that journey - bringing the internal team and retailers along - is challenging, especially when you don’t have all the answers. Keeping everyone motivated while navigating through uncertainty was incredibly difficult but also immensely rewarding, according to Nicole.

“Now, nearly a year in, we’ve learned a lot. We understand our roles, the roles of our retailers, and how consumers want to interact with us better than ever,” she reflects.

Guiding her through the challenge were two strong beliefs. “One is that you need to be authentic. Because if you’re not being authentic, it stops a strong speak-up culture. And secondly, ask questions - especially when communicating upwards.”

Nicole explains that there’s a perception that the more senior you are, the more answers you have - a concept she strongly opposes.

“After years of experience, I recognise that I don’t have all the answers. I just know more questions to ask to challenge my co-workers to find the best way forward. So, this idea of a director knowing everything, I don’t see how that could possibly be true.”

Reflecting on her experiences, Nicole acknowledges the importance of vulnerability in leadership. “I have learnt from my mistakes, and if you don’t have that ability, you’re at risk of having a huge blind spot. For me, vulnerability leads to credibility,” she explains. “There’s a misconception that vulnerability means weakness or an inability to deal with problems. For example, during our transformation, it has been crucial to adapt, and course correct quickly as we gained insights, it was more important to me that teams felt able to speak up. Enabling this allows us to learn and improve.”

“Importantly, vulnerability doesn’t mean compromising strong, decisive leadership - conversely it allows us to understand each other better and enables faster, more accurate decisions to be made,” she says. “Recognising and understanding our mistakes ensures that we don’t repeat them and more importantly when we lead from the front, it is incredibly powerful.”

“Resilience doesn’t just happen”

This year, a continuous theme at the Chamber has been resilience. For Nicole, there are some parts that makes her maintain a personal resilience. “I make sure I have people I can trust and talk to openly with,” she says. “Resilience doesn’t just happen - you need to have an outlet to air your concerns and reset, as I talk things out, I find my own answers. I am an optimist and coming from humble beginnings, I understand the importance of pushing hard for what you believe in, even when it seems impossible.”

Outside of work, she always makes time for exercise, everything from running to dancing. It fuels her energy. But what truly maintains her resilience is her family. “My husband is incredible, my biggest cheerleader, constantly reminding me of my progress,” she shares.

“As a mother of two young daughters, I see the importance of the role I play in our family, also the role they play for me. I always talk to my daughters about the day, both good and bad things. Their responses often give me perspectives that help me laugh and shake it off. They see both Mummy and Daddy in leadership roles, and I’m proud of how my husband and I demonstrate equality.”

Anchor in your heritage, to accelerate towards the future

On the morning of 14 April, 1927, the first Volvo car rolled out through the factory gates in Gothenburg, Sweden. With soon 100 years in the trunk, and an ever-evolving world, Nicole highlights the importance of staying true to a brand’s core values while progressing.

“I’ve always worked for brands that keep the core of where they started and evolve from there,” she says. “Brands often go wrong when they lack a strong anchor point, leaving people unsure of what they stand for. Having a clear stance - whether people love or hate your brand - is better than being neutral.”

For Volvo Cars, safety is the solid anchor point.

“It’s crucial that we continue to proudly signal our heritage of safety,” she explains. “I receive hundreds of messages from consumers who will only buy a Volvo because it has saved lives in serious accidents. Safety is where we started and what we build everything from. Our upcoming EX90 is our biggest innovation ever, centred around safety with LIDAR technology to recognise problems in the distance. It combines high-tech luxury with our core value of safety, ensuring we stay true to what makes Volvo unique.”

To admit that you’re a part of the problem

The transport sector is a significant contributor to global emissions – a fact that Nicole and Volvo Cars are aware of.

“I think one of the things that we’re really proud of doing is acknowledging that we are part of a huge problem in the industry, which again, shows vulnerability and honesty. It’s important for us to acknowledge the need to constantly do better.” Volvo Cars has some ambitious sustainability targets - 50% of all sales by 2025 are to be Battery Electric Vehicles, fully electric by 2030, and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

For Volvo Cars, the green future is electric. However, Nicole believes the UK government’s decision to extend the sale of pure combustion engine cars has slowed down consumer adoption to fully electric cars, especially for those on the fence when it comes to electric cars. She emphasises that the transition to electric cars requires breaking myths and educating consumers about the convenience and availability of charging infrastructure.

“I think there are some myths that need busting around, there are more chargers than you think, and you don’t have to keep your car fully charged at all times. That is the point - if you get super-fast chargers, you can fuel up to 80% charge in under half an hour.”

An infatuated question we all want to ask

We approach the final question, one that might seem a bit whimsical but have infatuated people’s minds for decades: “What’s Volvo’s take on flying cars? Will there ever be a flying Volvo?” Nicole laughs warmly and responds:

“I love this question! The only thing I can say is; if consumers want them, they’re sustainable, and we can ensure they have a strong safety profile, then yes.”

With echoing laughter, we end the interview - filled with new insights and thoughts. After a morning spent in Nicole’s presence, it is clear that her journey truly embodies something valuable in the workforce - not necessarily being born and raised in the industry, but taking your experience and adapting them to your next career move. Furthermore, successful leadership roots in authenticity. Being real in every decision, the way you interact with your co-workers, and recognising your flaws and mistakes is the key in the ignition of moving forward as a leader.

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