Tens of thousands of passenger transport workers are wondering who they will be working for – and the Williams Review is adding to this instability, writes Alex Warner.

 

 

Business psychologists would have a field day with the current state of Britain’s rail industry right now. They’d be alarmed not only about the lack of a guiding voice and strong leadership, but more importantly the relationship between employees and employers.

I’m not talking about stuff like trade union relationships or pay and rations, but more the gradual erosion of folk having a sense of affinity with the corporate mindset of the company that employs them, or being wedded to their company’s future direction. This isn’t necessarily because their employers lack the ability to engage their people but rather because they themselves are frozen by circumstances and are incapable of knowing what’s happening next week, let alone a year away or beyond.

Back in my impressionable youth, I swallowed the corporate pill. I would go to forums and be one of those who would be star-struck and bedazzled by the bigwigs getting on stage and brainwashing me with the brand. I’d always be the person nearly moved to tears as the CEO pointed at a vision for world domination. A bigger company “yes man” and brown-noser than I, you’d struggle to find. How I fawned at Richard Bowker when he was running National Express and he illustrated his masterplan for the company brand to be omnipresent in the UK. I used to be the only person to ask questions on a weekly leadership conference call he convened.

How I giggled during a Q and A session at the 2007 annual management conference when someone wrote their question on a sheet of paper: “What if we don’t win all the franchises we’re bidding for?” and Richard scrunched it up and threw it back into the audience, bellowing with contemptuous laughter. Only a week later, National Express was notified that it was to be given the boot from Midland Mainline and the rest is history, even if, to this day, I think that Bowker’s vision was pretty good.

With age, I have become more cynical – you swallow the corporate nonsense and then there’s some kind of uncaring reorganisation, ham-fistedly managed by some ice-cool, clinical HR director. The reality dawns that despite all the “follow me into the sunset” tripe and fast-track development schemes, companies don’t really give two hoots about you.

Despite my cynicism, I do understand that it is actually important that employees have a sense of willpower around pursuing the corporate roadmap, or whatever the jargon is. Even if from an employee’s perspective their loyalty is unreciprocated by their paymaster and a bogus sham, people want to feel there is some kind of guiding arm, guiding them on a certain trajectory. Therein lies the current problem for GB public transport.

Imagine you are working for FirstGroup right now. On the one hand, there’s Coast Capital cruelly undermining and ridiculing the leaders you follow and ought to trust, but on the other, you are all in a position of vulnerability, knowing that in the not-too-distant future you may be run by a different company. It could be a current competitor or maybe a newcomer if you are in bus, or in rail possibly by the Operator of Last Resort (the government).

If you are “at the centre”, there is a possibility there won’t be a job for you, because there won’t be a “centre” anymore. How on earth can you be wedded to a particular voice or strategy with such uncertainty?

If you are “at the centre”, there is a possibility there won’t be a job for you, because there won’t be a “centre” anymore. How on earth can you be wedded to a particular voice or strategy with such uncertainty?

Among folks at Arriva there may be a sense of feeling unloved given their German owners are putting them up for sale. On top of that constantly looking over their shoulders in terms of the future for its UK rail franchises. Any future direction is inevitably undermined by lots of caveats, ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, depending on what might be sold, how, when and to who. I’ve always been struck by how “corporate” Arriva is. Walk through its HQ at Holborn, look at posters, magazines left in reception and the design of the whole place, and you’re in no doubt that you’re in a place where there is a certain scripted way of acting and speaking. Admittedly this is not necessarily in a suppressive manner – but more so out of professionalism. It’s the same when you talk to Arriva’s managers, even corridor conversations about footy sound like pre-rehearsed press releases and everyone is wedded to the corporate processes, values and behaviours. There’s no backchat, no chinks in the armoury or talking disloyally or out of turn – even during the current uncertainty. Despite this, it’s inevitable that the power of the talented leadership voices will sound less strong and resonate less as a future with different owners comes closer.

There’s a not dissimilar situation of uncertainty and vacuum across the industry, though ironically given their recent travails in UK rail franchising, Stagecoach’s management teams seem more wedded than ever to their employers – maybe in adversity and like cornered tigers, they’ve closed ranks and come out fighting. Interestingly, this is a company that doesn’t ram “the Stagecoach way” down the throats of its people and in doing so has naturally fostered affinity to the corporate mission that appears to be shining strong during these dark days. How long this is sustainable as the reality of exiting UK rail sinks in later this year, remains to be seen.

Despite the recent decent half-yearly results, working in Go-Ahead’s rail division is only marginally easier than it was a year ago when GTR was on its knees. We’re still in a “will they, won’t they?” scenario at South Eastern, awaiting finalisation of a franchise extension.

For all the other UK operators not in the grip of a parent company sale, financial meltdown, potential imminent takeover by the government or franchise loss through a competitive process, they are in a state of flux due to the Williams Rail Review.

Change and uncertainty can, of course, be exciting, though when it is on the scale it is in the UK rail industry, and partly in bus, it can be debilitating. During such change, the will and power of the corporate ethos and brand is most needed, otherwise there’s a real danger that people don’t feel part of anything. Proper leaders are required to inject calm, fortitude and a sense of momentum and a common goal, even if their leadership will, in all likelihood, be transient.

Real leadership and a strongly articulated corporate message is important and it should be strong – not the token, bland nonsense churned out by “internal comms”

Real leadership and a strongly articulated corporate message is important and it should be strong – not the token, bland nonsense churned out by “internal comms” or some HR people (the poorer ones only, I might add) trying to justify their existence. A strong corporate brand with commensurate values and behaviours will come to the fore, imbuing resilience to see the business through troubled, uncertain waters.

Too often, however, it insipidly shrinks and hides. In good times its biggest advocates use it to bully and brainwash the rest of us, as well as stultify our creative faculties with mind-numbing, controlling processes that they dress up as “corporate governance”. But, when the going gets tough, those corporate greasy pole climbers run for the hills.

I am ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the complexities of mental health issues is extremely limited, though I do know it is an increasingly big issue these days. I would hazard a guess that up and down the country, the uncertainly in the rail industry and in particular the fragile state of the owning groups must be taking its toll at management level, even if many individuals don’t realise it is affecting them or members of their team.

Take a beleaguered TOC managing director, getting it in the neck from customers, made to feel useless by PTEs and other stakeholders, probably bollocked by the DfT regularly, held to ransom by key suppliers, belittled by remnants of the old aloof Network Rail regime in their patch and with the Operator of Last Resort in the background preparing for a possible mobilisation at some point. Throw in uncertainty gripping your owning group and it’s a stressful and unappealing job.

Further down the organisation, those behind the desks in the open plan offices will be feeling the same thing – unable to make decisions until there is clarity about the future, in the grips of some cost-cutting re-organisation and re-applying for their own jobs, or promised a promotion that is now on-hold pending someone at the parent company being able to unlock a “recruitment freeze”. And all this is before the franchise may be handed over to some hostile, know-it-all new owner and you may lose your job, just like everyone in the bid teams who are no longer in employment since refranchising came to a standstill.

Folk are quite often uncomfortable with talking about the mental health issues they are experiencing. I’d be amazed if there are not swathes of managers in UK transport owning groups whose heads are not in a great place right now because of the debilitating, grinding down nature of the context within which they have been working over the past couple of years and are likely to do for the foreseeable future.

When there is a sense that the parent company is in the departure lounge, in decay, dying or beset with in-fighting, employees suffer, people need to feel part of something and it’s not enough for today’s leaders to shrug their shoulders

When there is a sense that the parent company is in the departure lounge, in decay, dying or beset with in-fighting, employees suffer, people need to feel part of something and it’s not enough for today’s leaders to shrug their shoulders and just think that in the absence of a corporate mindset or leadership that everyone is motivated by the sheer force of “doing the right thing for the railway”. There will be many who couldn’t give a toss who they work for, their view is their employer is the rail industry and that’s good enough for them. Newcomers or those just with less emotional affinity to the railway may not feel the same way.

This lack of knowing where we all belong in the near or longer term future, and this sense that when we look around everyone, including our immediate and senior leaders are all in the same boat, is holding us back in pretty well each and every public transport organisation right now. It’s preventing folk from going through brick walls for the cause. This, I believe, is one of the biggest threats to our industry – as well as our own wellbeing.

 

VERDICT

They’ll be few more cynical folk than me when it comes to the value of internal corporate messaging. But, nevertheless it still has its place for many and is a motivational and reassuring force. People want to feel loved by their employer and to know who they are breaking their backs for and what the future holds. All I see, right now, is a growing and dangerous void.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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