A visit to last week’s ALBUM Conference in Blackpool left me pondering the lack of diversity among the senior ranks of the bus industry, and what should be done about it

 



More fool Blackpool Transport boss, Jane Cole for inviting me to present at the ALBUM Conference in Blackpool last week. I had a great time talking a load of old codswallop and although I was only there for a small part of the event, it looked like a corker of a shindig. The only downside though was the demographics of the audience – they were the usual lovely folk, but looking out into the auditorium as I had the audience hanging on my every word, I was struck by how white, bald, middle-age and male nearly everyone was, including me!

There’s many of my heroes in that snap but really it encapsulates a very real challenge for the sector

The ALBUM Conference is no different to most bus industry events. There’s a great photo doing the rounds of a motley collection of bus bigwigs posing in front of a bus at one of those secretive, quarterly “conferences” that no one is allowed to really talk about. They’re known affectionately by some as the “Old Fart’s Club” and they’re the place where strategy is spoken about in hushed voices. Except in a radical change of policy, on this occasion, a snap was taken (see above) and it’s noticeable that every single person is white and male, and almost all of them are over the age of 40. There’s many of my heroes in that snap but really it encapsulates a very real challenge for the sector.

As I was looking out onto the audience at the ALBUM Conference, I recalled the crazy climax to last year’s big box office hit Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in which a group of kids with paranormal abilities go in a “time loop” from 1943 to 2016 and somehow end up on the shores of Blackpool, wandering around the pier. Had they crossed the road and turned up at the Hilton Hotel where we were gathered, they’d have been bemused that the audience was probably the same as it was back there in 1943. The children, known as “The Peculiars” would have been bemused as to why it was them bestowed with this nickname, and not us delegates, given that their incredible paranormal powers had probably told them that Britain is now a multi-cultural melting pot where the suffragette quest has long been won. These peculiar bus industry folk are in this day and age totally different to huge swathes of their customers.

Take the Asian market, for instance. I’ve lost count of the head-scratching baffled looks from bus company top dogs, bemused as to why patronage stubbornly refuses to climb, despite population increases, in predominantly Asian communities. We can all guess that taxi competition is often strongest in these areas and of course there are religious and cultural reasons why Asian women, in particular, are unwilling or unable to travel alone for anything but short distances. However, for all the pontificating and even great market research, there can be no substitute, in this circumstance, when trying to fathom out the issues and engage with these communities, than actually being Asian in the first place.

How often though do bus companies actively seek to target these markets when they recruit marketers? How many even look to recruit young people, let alone women in such key roles where the remit is to attract this kind of audience to get on-board buses and to know what makes them tick?

No, we continue to employ old buffers in marketing posts, mainly because we still have this obsession that new recruits must have worked in the bus industry, we believe they must also know how to do scheduling and network planning, when an active knowledge of Instagram, YouTube and other digital content marketing approaches is probably far more relevant (us old school bus marketers still think that we’re groovy and have mastered social media just by being able to set up a Facebook account).

Trust me, this diversity gig is not easy. In my “day job” I look after some subsidiaries within a 500-year-old national institution. My team are statistically the oldest and whitest across the entire population of 170,000 employees and we certainly don’t represent the places we deliver parcels to. I’ve embarked on a diversity agenda – together with our trade union colleagues we asked for volunteers for a diversity taskforce but no one came forward. We’re trying to fine-tune our recruitment approach, even though we’re kind of stymied by the fact that our staff turnover is miniscule (unsurprising given I’m such an awesome person to work for).

I look with envy at other parts of our business who have over the six years I’ve been an employee moved their demographic profile from the position I’m in to something that reflects your typical cosmopolitan UK city. I say “envy” because I watch them in meetings and there’s a great variety of ideas and experiences, a multitude of different approaches, freshness, vitality and just a general buzz and closer empathy with specific customer segments. Because they are “in touch”, they also possess an ability to better compel prospective customers when they embark on sales pitches. How can the stereotypical grumpy old white bloke driving the bus genuinely resonate with the predominant young, cosmopolitan in outlook, experience and demographics, market that he is serving? How can he entice people on board for the first time, and keep them? It’s just not going to happen.

I’m also finding it a challenge in another role I’m undertaking in driving a transformation piece for the 107-year-old Railway Study Association, where we have been working to ensure that our membership better reflects the demographics of rail industry professionals. I spend our events not listening to speakers but staring at the audience, analysing the demographics then going home and wondering what more we can do. Last week, we had our annual dinner and we pulled a more culturally diverse crowd than ever before, but it takes time and sustaining it is even harder.

The problem we face is similar to that experienced, no doubt, by any first-timer at the ALBUM Conference, or any bus conference; people look around and decide whether they want to be associated with colleagues in the audiences. Is it cool to be seen hanging round with white, old farts, like many of us, however great the speakers? It’s who you’re with and whether it helps your image that is more important than the location, or indeed the entertainment on offer.

It’s about making it a more welcoming and a less cliquey place for newcomers

This diversity challenge is multi-faceted. It’s not as easy as those silly questionaires for applicants for jobs that ask in advance all sorts of questions around gender, sexual orientation and race, which, in my view, almost positively discriminate. It’s about less lazy recruitment – going out and spending time canvassing in clubs, pubs, associations, mosques, temples and educational establishments, and hanging out at places where there are large concentrations of under-represented groups and selling the benefits of the bus industry. It’s about making it a more welcoming and a less cliquey place for newcomers.

I’m not saying that we should go into political correctness overdrive because actually that ends up turning off everyone, irrespective of background. Instead it requires providing development opportunities for all, so that your newest recruits don’t leave because no one is investing in their future and they have to wait for the old school pasties to leave before they get their chance. I’ve learnt that the diversity shift takes time, but it can be confounded by big bold, forced agendas, mission statements, disruptive, deliberate acts and goals (that often exist and are pursued just to fulfil bonus objectives). It needs subtlety, an infusion over time of many small initiatives, copious engagement – and patience.

Unfortunately, the diversity debate has tended to focus predominantly on gender. There’s a lot of talk about the good work of, say, ‘Women in Rail’ and other ‘Women in Business’ groups and a lot of patronising questions asked of female industry professionals along the lines of “what’s it like being a woman in a male dominated industry?”. Sometimes, we over obsess about gender to the detriment of other under-represented demographics – where is transport’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender body, for instance?

I’m probably generalising and being subjective here but from my experience (particularly at British Airways where as a straight manager, I was in the minority), gay and lesbians have always been particularly attracted to the service sector and have always been the most fastidious around pampering customers and getting the detail of delivering customer service right. The bus industry is blessed to have a particularly high number of gay and lesbian managers, but we don’t actually analyse how this has occurred (is it by accident or are there aspects of the industry that make it particularly appealing for them?) so that we can build on this success and make us an even more inclusive and attractive place for other typically under-represented groups.

Furthermore, what can we do to make it an environment where folk can feel comfortable with their sexuality and not conceal it through fear of being marginalised due to workplace banter and other behaviours? You might wonder whether this is relevant to delivering excellent customer service – though I would strongly claim that outstanding and uninhibited delivery of great customer care is best achieved with a workforce that is not stymied and where everyone is comfortable and happy with themselves and their colleagues.

Where the diversity agenda goes wrong is when it is led by the HR function. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great HR professionals in my time, though equally I’ve come across a few who add no value to the business and in fact cause more damage by being time-consuming, obdurate hindrances and divisive forces, resented by those closest to managing the customer proposition.

The problem is that HR gurus can overly obsess around conceptual thinking and neatness, speaking in mumbo-jumbo about diversity and engaging in textbook thinking far removed from the realities of the frontline. They can be more interested in the holy grail box ticking of searching for a wheelchair-bound, black, pan-sexual single mother just to fulfil some crazy criteria and prove that diversity is being pursued. Line managers are those who have a rapport with these employees who serve customers, and play a key role in the recruitment process, and it is they who best understand the challenges of the environment. They are the ones to shape and lead the change process and do it in their own particular style.

Being able to talk about diversity openly without fear of reprisals is a good starting point. I’m conscious that I don’t fit the mould of someone who you’d expect to be championing a diversity agenda with particular polish. My operations director in “the day job” remarked recently that the highlight of 2016/17 was “listening to Alex spout on about his diversity mission”. Yes, I put my foot in it more often than not, and I’m a bit clunky and ham-fisted in my approach to all this. But, if I’m honest, I won’t be deterred by falling foul of the textbook.

I recall that when we launched express coach operation Greyhound UK in 2009, I was on BBC Radio chuntering on about how we were trying to attract the gay and lesbian community, which was a fact because we recognised that this community was highly transient and enjoyed regular short breaks and that no transport operator had tried to appeal to and resonate with them, previously. What’s more, Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth had a good gay nightlife and were a short distance from London’s big gay community. So, we did a lot of targeted marketing, hanging round gay clubs giving out flyers, running excursions and parties. It went down well, but a bus industry MD wrote a letter to the trade press savaging me for discriminating against gays by targeting them in the first place.

There was a period when my heart sank because of this criticism and I thought my propensity to put my foot in it was too big and the sensitivities at stake were too prickly. It just wasn’t worth the effort or risk of saying or doing the wrong thing, even with the best of intentions.

Back to the ALBUM Conference – a great event, with a barnstorming rock band, Lancashire Hotpot dinner, and some attendees spending Tuesday night at a cabaret called ‘Funny Girls’ (check out Facebook for pictures of bus big cheeses alongside drag queens and strapping young men).

In an act of deliberate sabotage by the organisers (the excellent Jane Cole, who has made the transition from caring for customers at Virgin Trains to buses), many of the delegates were out galavanting so late they overslept and conveniently missed my presentation the next morning. There was also a presentation from a 16-year-old female student campaigning for cheaper bus fares, bushy-bearded Alex Hornby rah-rahing about crowd funding, traffic commissioner Beverley Bell lifting the lid on her resignation letter to the transport secretary and joking about her role as a scary woman, and Bus Users UK’s Claire Walters and Dawn Badminton-Capps making a racket about how bad their bus journey was to this fabulous conference.

What an event and what an industry… heaven help us if we can’t get more culturally diverse bums on seats, at conferences, in our offices and on our buses in years to come.

 

VERDICT

Change of this kind won’t happen overnight and it needs conviction, unstinting focus and passion as well as a realisation that mistakes will be made along the way. However long it might take, the key is to get on with it, not just say the right thing occasionally when it suits or play the diversity game for effect. There’s a ticking time-bomb and it’s now or never for taking this meaty challenge seriously.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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