Leaders and Legacies: Mike Nichols

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Jessica Brown

Water/Wastewater Planner

As part of our 130th Anniversary celebration, we’re recognizing past leaders whose vision continues to drive us forward.

When I first interviewed at Freese and Nichols, I was introduced to two groups: water resource design led by John Rutledge, and water resources planning led by Tom Gooch. However, it was the infrastructure group, managed by Mike Nichols, that offered me a position. I took a chance and accepted the offer without even meeting Mike. Little did I know this decision would shape my career in ways I could never have imagined.

Mike was my group manager and direct supervisor. From the start, he was instrumental in my professional growth. He believed in me and helped me see a path forward, bringing out my strengths and showing me how to leverage them in our organization. Mike was known for navigating difficult client situations. Even after he moved to Austin and later into his Chief Marketing Officer role, I would reach out to him for advice on how to handle challenging client situations diplomatically.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from Mike was the importance of understanding the root cause of client issues. Sometimes, it was a mistake on our part, but other times, there were external factors at play. Digging deeper to understand the “why” behind issues was crucial in our practice.

Mike also taught me the importance of tailoring communication to our audience. As engineers, it’s easy to slip into “engineering speak,” but Mike showed me the importance of conveying our points clearly and respectfully, without talking over or down to people. Observing Mike in action was instrumental in learning this skill.

Mike’s last name, being the same as the company’s, could have opened doors for us. But it was his actions, his approachability, and his commitment to people development that truly made a difference. His focus wasn’t solely on the technical aspects, but also on the long-term benefits of people development. This approach has had a significant impact on Freese and Nichols and its staff.

In 2013, when I became a shareholder, there were only four female shareholders in the company. Finding role models, especially those in my exact position, was challenging. Becoming a shareholder was a career goal I had, and identifying a path to get there was tough. One of the conversations I had with Mike was about what that path might look like. I wasn’t into shameless self-promotion. I preferred to let my work speak for itself. Mike agreed with this approach. He said, “You’re doing a great job. Some of us need to do a better job of promoting you for the work that you’re doing, not artificially, but because you’re doing great work.” This advice was fantastic and helped me stay true to who I was. It also conveyed the worth that he saw in me.

Another moment that stood out for me about Mike was when he started a book club in the Austin office after the book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” came out. This initiative was another testament to his commitment to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment.

During my first year at Freese and Nichols, I had a funny realization. I discovered that Mike was born the same year as my mom. When I mentioned this to Mike, he humorously responded, “Maybe you shouldn’t have told me that.” Today, I’m probably the age Mike was back then. It’s a full circle moment and now I get it.

Mike was also involved with some of our larger clients, like DFW International Airport, and helped establish relationships in new areas during his time as Chief Operating Officer for National Offices. His significant role with our clients further demonstrated his commitment to client service.

Looking back, I can say without a doubt that Mike Nichols left an indelible mark on my career. His mentorship, leadership, and legacy continue to inspire me and many others at Freese and Nichols. His belief in people, his commitment to doing the right thing, and his dedication to our clients are values that define who we are as a company. And for that, we are forever grateful.

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Jessica Brown is Freese and Nichols’ Water/Wastewater Planning Practice Leader, based in Fort Worth.