In the media

A shift in leadership style is needed to drive a rail revolution

Dimitri Konstantinidis

By Dimitri Konstantinidis, Jonny Buckley

Rail Professional

03 March 2021

This article was first published in Rail Professional

Huge changes are on the horizon for the rail sector. Even before the pandemic, thinking was moving towards a more integrated, seamless and passenger-centric operation. Now, with passenger numbers falling – UK demand, for example, is running at just 16 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and normal franchise agreements have been suspended– the need and opportunity for change has intensified.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a blank sheet of paper on which to reimagine the future of the sector. This future will need to look significantly different. Concerns about safety and the need for social distancing have become high priority. Passengers will need significant reassurances to travel on public transport again. Commuter demand seems unlikely to return in the same way and more flexible options will be needed. The interest in services to leisure destinations – out of cities, not into them – is growing, and this will require a change in business models.

Current culture is a barrier to change

There’s much to do to meet this new agenda, from uniting behind a clear vision, to centring on customers, through to fostering an innovative culture and driving more value through data. We explore these opportunities in our Future of Rail report which highlights the importance of culture to addressing the legacy of mistrust across rail stakeholders, igniting the case for change and sustaining the momentum needed to deliver successfully.

Sector leaders need to rebuild trust

Cultural change starts with winning trust with passengers. Passengers lack confidence in the ability of rail companies and industry leaders to run a quality and functioning rail service. So, a shift in culture to one that enables change is needed to win trust back.

Currently, leadership across the industry often appears uncompromising and even aggressive. There’s often tension between differing priorities, for instance between infrastructure providers and operators, as we’ve seen in the aftermath of timetable disruption.

Such issues cast a long shadow and contribute to a culture where people are reluctant to question, challenge and innovate. Individual leaders can address this by recognising the impact of their style across the workforce and acknowledging that a new way of leading is needed to prepare the ground for change. It’s an approach we took for High Speed 2, developing and setting expectations for more than 300 senior leaders and line managers to align priorities. Our work ensured their workforce was armed with the skills needed to drive an ambitious infrastructure programme.

Different styles work for different situations

In an industry faced with the challenge of delivering major transformation at a time of significant disruption, different leadership styles are needed for different contexts. For instance, leading the delivery of a major engineering project requires a different approach to leading a review of safety issues at board level.

By replacing an outdated and often autocratic leadership style with situational leadership, which adapts to meet the needs of the environment and the team, the sector can become better equipped to meet the challenges ahead.

Leaders need to enable, not instruct

One of the key recommendations in our Future of Rail report is that industry must adopt a mindset to adapt and thrive. The current upheaval needs to be viewed as an opportunity, not a disaster.

Leaders have a vital role to play here. Successful change is not delivered through micro-management, but by setting the vision and then empowering teams to respond. It’s an approach used successfully in the military. Leaders make sure that the mission is clear and that the organisation is prepared. They trust their teams to make decisions and act accordingly. When Leonardo Helicopters was preparing for a two year transformation programme, we built a culture where everyone takes responsibility for achieving commitments, and where teams are empowered to help the organisation deliver.

Another part of effective leadership lies in being visible and in role-modelling the behaviours the organisation wants to see in its workforce. It’s impossible to do this from behind a desk, be it physical or virtual. More regular engagement with front-line staff would provide rail leaders with an important opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to customer-centricity. It would also provide up-to-the-minute insights into the challenges on the ground and the success (or otherwise) of change initiatives.

A new approach for a new world

The new opportunities for rail will require innovation and an experimental approach. This requires that space is given to different ways of thinking. An overhaul of culture, led by rail leaders, is needed to create space for fresh ideas and to enable a mix of talents to come forward and be part of the rail revolution.

The pandemic has transformed the way we travel and brought extraordinary commercial, operational and passenger implications. This comes on top of the structural changes that the government was already exploring. While the challenges are huge, so too are the opportunities. To realise them, leaders at every level will need to find ways to build trust across the industry. Embracing a new, more modern style of leadership is key.

Here is a chance to reimagine rail for the future and build a truly customer-centric service to re-win the trust and confidence of passengers.

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