Enter the Discomfort Zone

Nicole Daniel was forced out of her comfort zone by a mentor and discovered a new level of confidence that has guided her to success

Nicole Daniel, Ciner Resources

In-house attorney Nicole Daniel felt the sweat forming on her brow as Albemarle Corporation CEO Mark Rohr asked her to move from her securities and corporate governance role to investor relations. “I’m thinking, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t have a finance background,’” Daniel recalls. “I’m scared to death. What if I mess up? He said, ‘You’re going to be just fine.’ For the first couple of weeks, when my phone would ring, I was afraid to answer it. What if I said or did something wrong?”

That was the scene in 2004, and Daniel ended up not doing anything wrong. In fact, the change gave her the confidence to take on greater responsibilities in the future. “That was one of the most defining moments in my career,” Daniel says. “I accomplished something bigger than I thought I could, which gave me a higher level of confidence.”

Daniel has since become vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of natural soda ash producer Ciner Resources LP in Atlanta, and Rohr is now CEO of Celanese Corporation, where he remains one of her mentors.

At Ciner, Daniel partners with president and CEO Kirk Milling and his leadership team as she performs the wide array of tasks her position requires, such as representing a publicly traded company, reviewing agreements and contracts, providing guidance on human resources issues, traveling to Washington, DC, to advance legislation, and leading enterprise risk management.

She attributes the experience of stepping out of her comfort zone to making her realize her potential as a general counsel. “Before that, I had not pictured myself taking on that role within a company,” she says. “I’ll always be grateful to my mentor.”

The confidence she gained from that experience enabled her to excel as she took her first general counsel position at what was then OCI Resources in July 2013. At the time, it was a private South Korean company. She worked on OCI’s IPO, which was offered in September 2013. She also worked with the leadership team and the board to put in place a governance framework for the newly public company.

“Public company requirements and processes are very different, and nobody at the company had that experience,” Daniel says. Two years later, OCI decided to sell the soda ash business, and she assisted them with its sale process. Ultimately, OCI’s soda ash business was acquired by Turkish natural soda ash producer Ciner and became Ciner Resources in 2015.

Ciner’s purchase of OCI’s business has created synergies and learning opportunities for both companies. It has also necessitated a reorganization and downsizing because OCI was only selling the soda ash portion of its chemical business, and some of the staff at the Atlanta headquarters was working on other products besides soda ash.

The transition to new ownership began the day the intention to sell was announced. “We were a great team, and we loved working together,” Daniel says. “We felt like we were really firing on all cylinders, and then you find out you are being sold. You go through that natural cycle of fear of the unknown and uncertainty about what will happen to your job and all of you.” She believes one of the smartest moves the leadership team did was to go on an office retreat together and openly talk about those fears and how to present the transition to employees.

Members of the leadership team remained united and calm and worked with their respective teams to present the transition in the best light. Because OCI had additional chemical and energy businesses being run out of the Atlanta headquarters that were not part of the sale, many employees, including Daniel, saw their job responsibilities change after the purchase of its natural soda ash business.

Now, Daniel is involved in another new endeavor: keeping the soda ash company growing. Ciner has already worked to fix bottlenecking at its manufacturing facility in order to increase production and help the company grow organically. But Daniel and the leadership team are also evaluating other ways to grow the business, including potential acquisitions of businesses that could be added to Ciner’s master limited partnership.

Getting out of her comfort zone has helped Daniel open up in her leadership style. She emphasizes the importance of employees communicating honestly with managers so decision-makers can come to real, effective solutions for the organization.

“Listen to the people in your organization,” she says. “They know so much more than any of the rest of us. You can learn a lot from just sitting down and having lunch with somebody. Ask them what they are hearing and what people are concerned about.”

As a part of this effort, Ciner executives get weekly feedback from the leadership team and monthly with other employees in the office. “Having that open culture where people aren’t afraid to speak and share what is on their mind is one of the most important things,” Daniel says. “Communication and integrity—do what’s right and not just easy. You sleep better at night when you know you did the right thing; that’s for sure.”

Photo: Michael Feher Photography

Off the Clock

Just as Nicole Daniel takes the time to hear her employees’ concerns at Ciner Resources, she also believes in the importance of hearing the concerns of others in her community. So, she takes time to participate in her two teenage sons’ activities and is on the board of directors of a group based in Atlanta called Children Helping Children.

Not only does it help children, but it also teaches children the importance of service to the community and sharing their gifts with others. In addition to its board of adult directors, it has a junior board with teens who plan activities to help other children in need. The organization’s signature event each year is a free family fest called Love Fest. “It’s a little different in terms of having kids really be part of a solution and not just benefiting from the organization itself,” Daniel says.