Paul Nulty: “Understand that leadership is not management”

Understand that leadership is not management. It’s your job to inspire those around you to achieve greater things and maximize their potential. Mistakes are not a bad thing — learn from them and embrace them. We learn more from making mistakes than we do from achieving success, so failure is fine as long as you learn from it. […]

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Understand that leadership is not management. It’s your job to inspire those around you to achieve greater things and maximize their potential.

Mistakes are not a bad thing — learn from them and embrace them. We learn more from making mistakes than we do from achieving success, so failure is fine as long as you learn from it.

Celebrate the success and tell the world that you’ve been successful. If you don’t shout about the success stories then no-one is going to know about them.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Nulty, founder of Nulty

Nulty is an architectural lighting design consultancy with a healthy selection of awards and diverse roster of clients. Nulty teams up with partners in a variety of industries — from hotels and residences to retail, hospitality and light art — to create designs that delight, excite and inspire those who use them.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My name is Paul Nulty and I’m the Founder of Nulty. We are a global team of lighting designers and creatives who all work closely together to deliver beautiful lighting schemes. At Nulty, we consider it our duty to work just as hard on collaboration and understanding as we do on our own architectural lighting design schemes: the final creation will be infinitely better as a result. We’re not shy about delving into new lighting design approaches that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Energy efficiency, light pollution and environmental impact come high up on our list of concerns, and we continually test our designs for innovation, buildability, maintainability, longevity and affordability. Our work ethic and enthusiasm — combined with our creativity and technical knowledge — have given us a prominent position in the industry. We’re known for being easy to work with, and as people who consider our work a vocation rather than a job.

I think lighting is an unsung hero because it’s under-estimated yet it’s all around us. It has the power to emotionally connect, which is why I’m so passionate about it. I knew that there was an opportunity to create a business that could stand apart from all of its competitors and, ultimately, I felt that we could offer people an emotional connection to light and space. I founded Nulty in 2011, which means we are celebrating our ten-year anniversary this year — something that I can’t quite believe and am so grateful for.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I first started the business, one of the hardest things we faced was making ourselves seem credible. We were a brand-new start-up, very small, with a limited portfolio and trading history, so trying to convince people to take a chance on us was really difficult. I think the solution to it was making sure that our story and narrative as a practice was clear so that people could understand our authenticity as a brand. Once we did start building our roster of clients and projects, the next hurdle was ensuring that we were paid on time. It was easy to see us a small practice back then, one that didn’t need to be paid, so I invented a lady called Catherine and set her up with her own email address so that she could be the bullish figure chasing the payments! It’s very tough to maintain a healthy client relationship whilst you’re having to chase people as well, so I would send the difficult emails from her address, allowing any emails coming directly from me to remain friendly and kind. Having that split personality really enabled a healthy cash flow in the end.

In response to your question about giving up, the answer is absolutely not. It’s the best job in the world and I just didn’t have the option to quit. When I started, I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have any savings and in terms of a portfolio, I only had a few projects from my previous job that I could use. So I sort of started with nothing and because of that there was no choice but to succeed. There is a wonderful strategy in business called ‘Death Ground Strategy’ which is all about burning the boats and having to fight and that’s what it was like. When I started, it really was make it or break it for me. I worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, because I had to make it work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I think one of the lessons I learnt quickly was how to understand brand value. Every touch point has brand value within it, whether it’s an email, a letter or a document. It all says a lot about your brand. For example, sending an email to the wrong person or getting someone’s name wrong, could seem like a small error but actually these are things you have to be aware of when maintaining a pure and ethical business.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our energy, passion and narrative are what set us apart and also the fact that everything we do is about storytelling. I think that when you can tell a story, whether it’s about yourself or a project that you’re working on, you have a level of authenticity that comes across in your work. This level of drive, passion and authenticity comes across in all that we do and it’s infectious. People that we work with and engage with really love to work with us and that’s what it’s all about. The stories that we tell through light at Nulty, are what make us stand out as a practice. We believe in emotionally connecting people with light and creating spaces that inspire and bring people together. Lighting design has almost nothing to do with fixtures and fittings, and pretty much everything to do with creating the right sort of atmosphere. We want to take our clients on this journey and our willingness to sell the story and create a narrative is what makes us unique. There’s a finite number of hours in the day, and at Nulty we probably work too many of those hours, so we need to make sure that we are all enjoying what we do. At the end of the day, it isn’t a job, it’s a calling.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Hire a PA or Office Manager. A good PA will save time, effort and, ultimately, money. I think the single most important hire that I ever made was my very first Office Manager. I had never had that support before at work, and I was running around trying to do it all, but when I was able to pass responsibility over and work with someone who I could trust and who understood me and my needs, it allowed me the space to focus on what I was good at. It’s a synergy with someone, and when it clicks and you’re working in tandem, it really is a god send. To be honest, it was probably the most important thing that happened to the business because it gave me the time to focus on building client relationships.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I believe that everybody is the sum of their experiences, so whoever crosses your path in life is part of your story. I really believe that. Of course, I have people who have stood out along the way though. Our Managing Director, Ellie, was one of my first ever hires and I had to say to her at the start that I really wanted her on board but couldn’t guarantee if I would be able to pay her, but she was crazy enough to come on board anyway! I also have my university and school tutors, or my first boss and of course my wonderful team. I think that everyone, no matter how big or small their role has been, has played a part in our success as a business. I have an enormous amount of gratitude for everybody that has come and gone through the life of our practice. There’s that cliché that you’re standing on the shoulder of giants and I genuinely believe that when applied to Nulty. Success is about teamwork and I’m incredibly grateful to my team.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

It’s simple. A good company accepts that good is good enough, whereas a great company accepts that good enough is not enough. We always have to strive to be better and we have to evolve. Leaders have to accept that they don’t need to be the best in the company, they just have to inspire those around them to be even better. It’s about respecting your team and treating them all fairly. If you can do this, then they will aspire to achieve everything that they possibly can. It’s about inspiring people to be working towards the same goal and at Nulty that means accepting that good isn’t good enough — we have to be exceptional. We strive for that and it’s in absolutely everything that we do every single day.

I’m also not scared of employing people that are more talented that I am. It’s absolutely my intention to employ people who I think are better than me. If I surround myself with incredible people then I can feed off that and be more inspired.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Know your industry and be passionate about it. You’ve got to be great at what you do and know the industry that you’re a part of.
  2. Understand that leadership is not management. It’s your job to inspire those around you to achieve greater things and maximize their potential.
  3. Understand the narrative and brand story and the relationship with your clients.
  4. Mistakes are not a bad thing — learn from them and embrace them. We learn more from making mistakes than we do from achieving success, so failure is fine as long as you learn from it.
  5. Celebrate the success and tell the world that you’ve been successful. If you don’t shout about the success stories then no-one is going to know about them.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

As far as I’m concerned, a purpose is a common goal. It’s about understanding what I want to achieve in whatever my chosen industry is. As lighting designers, it’s ultimately our goal to deliver amazing creative lighting solutions and our purpose in life is to go about doing that to create an amazing legacy. We want to excite and inspire through the use of light and create wonderful spaces for humans to dwell in. I think that when you have that clear goal, you can write it down in a vision statement and then figure out how you’re going to achieve it. I would say that a business plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on because you either under achieve and use it as a stick to beat yourself with, or you over achieve and it was completely pointless. I think that using a vision statement instead and figuring out how to achieve your goals is what will help you find your purpose.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

If you’ve reached a standstill then maybe you need to change it up. Do something bold, scare yourself, take risks and pivot. Maybe that means leaving your job or bringing someone else in to run the business. You’ve got to find ways to stay inspired and often that means embracing change. It’s really hard as a business leader, because it’s your job to inspire everybody else, but sometimes the leader needs leading as well. Never be scared to seek advice or share ideas. Generally, as a design community, we don’t share enough information because we are scared of losing out to the competition, but I think that sharing knowledge is powerful. You should be bouncing ideas with each other, even if it’s with your competition, and testing out new ideas. I like trying new things and sometimes they work and other times they don’t. We’ve experimented with offshoot businesses like Nulty Bespoke and Studio N because I wanted to try something new and thankfully, they are working. We were the first lighting design practice to bring PR and business development in house and we were one of the few studios to focus on brand positioning. That was all because I find that stuff inspiring and I wanted to explore areas outside of my day-to-day job. I think that if I had just stuck to my daily job role then I probably would have run out of steam by now.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost growth traction! It’s been an incredibly difficult time recently, but our strategy has been to position ourselves as thought leaders. You can’t force somebody to want to work with you. All you can do is be at the forefront of their mind when they do need someone so as lighting designers that means we need to be relevant. I think that we have tried to be as relevant as we possibly can, whether that’s been through marketing strategies or being noisy through business development initiatives. We also want to be a company that helps small businesses so we’ve run coaching sessions and health and wellness sessions to create a community where we can all help each other. I think that the way through a crisis, such as the current pandemic, is to not go at it alone. Sharing and supporting each other is the right way to overcome the challenges.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

I would say HR. No-one teaches you how to manage, lead and inspire people. When you go out on your own, everybody looks to you as the leader and as someone who will inspire them and that’s really difficult. You have to figure out how to motivate people and get the best out of them and sometimes your priorities aren’t the same priorities as others, and you have to learn to accept that. Leadership isn’t something that you’re taught at design school, instead it’s something you learn on the job and it’s actually one of the trickiest parts. You can’t always be the nice guy, but you also can’t always be the bad guy, and maintaining that balance is a very difficult thing.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Be nice, be authentic and be genuine. People buy from people so just try to get on with each other. I think that the days of hard selling have gone to be honest. If people trust you and believe in you and what you have to offer, then they will naturally want to work with you and gravitate towards you.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

You need to know your subject really well and be passionate about it. Engage the community and write about it. If you have an opinion, tell people. Don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers. If you position yourselves as thought leaders then people will gravitate towards that knowledge. Years ago, knowledge used to be power, but not anymore. The power is in sharing that knowledge, not retaining it. People want to listen to and work with a company that will share and engage.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

There’s no such thing as business to business. There’s either person to person or business to person. Understanding how people perceive your business and engaging with them is key.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Yeh of course. I think that if you have an online personality then you have to be aware because people will perceive that personality in whatever way that they wish. You have to hire people to manage your platforms and make sure that they understand how you want to position yourself and reach out on social media. Having a really strong social media strategy will help with this.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the most commons mistakes in our industry is running out of work. Time and time again you see a business win a project, focus too heavily on that project and then realise when it’s finished that they don’t have any other work. It happens a lot in the built environment. You have to understand the importance of business development and you always have to be thinking about where that next project is coming from.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would have to be about educating and raising awareness of the importance of light and lighting. I would create an educational movement towards the better use of lighting, including the health and wellness benefits of light, because after all, if all the world’s a stage, let’s have better lighting.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Instagram / Twitter — @nultylighting

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!Paul Nulty: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

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