Viewpoint: Driving evolution in leadership across the nuclear sector

17 March 2023

Attracting, developing, supporting and retaining the right leaders will help determine the destiny of the nuclear sector in the coming years, writes Callum Thomas, CEO of Thomas Thor.

Callum Thomas (Image: Thomas Thor Associates)

In recent times, we could perhaps characterise the nuclear sector as “a quiet achiever”, but the shifting macro context means it is back in the spotlight, coupled with greater acceptance and expectations from a cross-section of stakeholders. There is a new urgency around Net-Zero, the energy transition and energy security, and with an openness to innovation, heads are turning towards what nuclear (energy in particular) has to offer.  We need to rise to this opportunity and to proactively find and encourage leaders, who previously hadn’t considered nuclear, to think again.

Nuclear sector leaders assemble thousands of teams across the globe, who: deliver projects; operate facilities; make breakthroughs in technologies; influence public and political opinion; and drive inclusion and diversity. In other words, our leaders influence every key success factor on the journey to deliver on the ambitions of the nuclear sector and Net-Zero. Many will be motivated by ‘’making an impact’’. We know this to be true of the new generation joining the sector but experienced leaders are just as likely to want to use what they know to bring about change.

My colleagues and I at Thomas Thor, and Thor Executive, have spent the last 14 years bringing leaders from other sectors to nuclear and supporting those already in the sector to develop their careers. This viewpoint is a summary of what we have seen, heard and felt after interacting deeply with thousands of leaders and aspiring leaders worldwide. I also offer our thoughts on how we can differentiate our sector through leadership.

Many definitions of leadership exist, but this one from the Harvard Business Review always resonates with me: ‘’Leadership refers to an individual's ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organisational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control.’’

Attracting leaders

Every organisation we work with is committed to casting the net wide when hiring for senior roles, looking into adjacent sectors whilst ensuring that the shortlist of interviewees is sufficiently diverse. However, it is very common for chosen candidates to come from the same community and to bear a striking likeness to the interviewers. There has never been more urgency than there is now to reach far and wide outside of our existing circles, and this is where hiring leaders based on core competencies that are not specific to the nuclear sector is so critical.

Organisations that want to interview the best talent from both their own network, and all other relevant communities take a proactive role in defining the key competencies required for a role. It is rare that more than 5-6 core competencies are essential and creating a job description that effectively articulates these is the first step in reaching a wider audience. Describing what success looks like through competencies such as ‘’managing vision and purpose’’, ‘’innovation and creativity’’, ‘’relationship and network building’’ or ‘’influencing and negotiation’’ that are well articulated in a job description make the role attractive to a wider audience. Defining questions around each competency that are used in all interviews allows objective comparisons and prevents familiarity from becoming a bias. Of course, experience in the sector, stakeholders or technologies may be very important factors, but separating this information from core competencies allows for objective comparison. We simply will not attract the quantity and quality of leaders we need without this approach.

Additionally, great leaders think about what their hiring process looks and feels like to those going through it, asking questions such as: What does a candidate look for in a quality hiring process?; What does our current process say about us as an organisation, us as an interview panel?; and, Does our process and panel reflect who we are as a company and who we want to be? It is easy to tell when senior leaders are personally invested in the hiring process, and it often makes the difference when candidates have multiple attractive offers to choose from.

Preparing leaders for the growth ahead

When interviewing leaders and aspiring leaders, it is striking how often their examples of leadership come from roles outside of their core employer. It could be that they have volunteered for organisations such as Women in Nuclear, a Young Generation Network or an industry association, or that they have led initiatives for joint ventures or industry bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Association of Nuclear Operators or the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. It is equally striking how often the people with this experience have fulfilled these commitments on top of their core role with their employer. These kinds of opportunities are a major attraction to join and stay in the nuclear sector, and they should be encouraged by employers. We can’t rely on people doing two jobs at once to gain this valuable experience as the sector expands.

In their Future Workforce report (2022), the next generation Nuclear Industry Council in the UK asked people in the sector what they would value most in the future working environment. The top response was ‘’inclusivity’’. Inclusive leadership focuses on building relationships and creating an environment of collaboration, inclusion, and respect. Inclusive leaders strive to ensure every individual feels valued, respected, and supported regardless of their background or identity. Inclusive leaders also strive to create an environment that is psychologically safe and supportive, and are continuously developing themselves to be able to achieve this. This is particularly important as many organisations across the industry are on a path to increase diversity, and leaders are at the forefront of this effort.


We often celebrate the collaborative working environment of the nuclear sector, and it was one of the aspects most valued by those that took part in the next generation Nuclear Industry Council’s consultations. A valuable gift from current leaders to future generations would be to initiate an international sector-wide mentoring and reverse mentoring platform to foster new relationships. A population of willing mentors and mentees certainly exists, and a platform like this would allow both mentors and mentees to form mutually beneficial relationships with people outside of their immediate networks. As well as the obvious benefit of widening networks it would also support the diversity and inclusion objectives of the sector.

Career pathways and visible role models

Leadership can take many forms. Often it’s seen as leading teams of people but it can also be focused on leading change, leading innovation, leading stakeholder engagement, leading in a technical field, leading in organisational culture and more. At present, career pathways to leadership are not very visible to people within the nuclear sector, let alone to those outside that we hope to attract. Some employers have recognised this and invested in visualising career pathways so clearly that they are part of every interview process. Interviewees that leave with a clear vision of the pathways available are much more likely to accept your offer above others.

The best career pages on company websites show profiles of the various leaders within the organisation. The most attractive employers encourage employees to volunteer for sector collaboration opportunities and nominate leaders of different levels of development to attend events and speak on their behalf. The nuclear sector is in many ways a shining example of collective development, but we need to accelerate this; providing more resources to volunteer organisations and becoming better at communicating outside of the sector.

The future is bright

Let’s ask: How can we move from being a sector that operates as “a quiet achiever” to being a “compelling innovator” attracting the best of leadership? A lot of what we need to do to attract, develop, support and retain our leaders must build on existing examples of good practice but perhaps we should also be a little less quiet in the future.