Together with Passenger Transport and a panel of judges, I have compiled a list of 40 dynamic passenger transport professionals under the age of 40



In the next issue of this quite remarkable magazine, Flash Forward Consulting (of which I am the founder and owner, I’ll have you know) is co-producing an exciting ‘40 under 40’ feature on the most talented young professionals in public transport. I won’t ruin the fun by revealing the list now, but for a bit of titillation and to make sure you get your paws on a copy, I thought I’d give a few reflections on issues that have emerged whilst the judging panel have been scouring the industry for talent.

Compiling the list, along with fellow members has been a pleasure but also a nightmare as we tried to shortlist down from a longlist literally in the hundreds down to 40. Bear in mind, we also wanted a fairly even split across sectors, so that’s broadly a maximum of 20 each in bus and rail and you’ll realise why I had sleepless nights over Christmas, tossing and turning trying to evaluate the merits of one depot manager against a CRM expert.

Much to my wife’s shock, I’ve even been burbling out loud the names of young transport professionals in my sleep. We chose 40 because ‘40 under 40’ sounded catchy, but there were many more that merited inclusion. I hope people don’t take it personally if they aren’t on the list because it’s quite likely they were there or thereabouts and are on the journey to big things whatever the case!

The angst hasn’t been restricted to the shortlisting exercise. Many folk have told me that the ‘40 under 40’ should promote diversity. That’s not an unreasonable request, after all, it would be a damning indictment of the industry if the feature was exclusively made up of white males. However, “if you’re good enough, you’re on the list” is my view, irrespective of gender and ethnicity. We hoped our selection criteria would naturally unearth a diverse spectrum of folk, which it has, though still worryingly not as much as it should.

There’s still work to be done to attract more women to public transport

When the list hits the streets on February 8, 37.5% are female. It would be great if it were more, but this figure is probably slightly higher than the percentage split of male to female in the industry. There’s still work to be done to attract more women to public transport and there are a whole host of factors as to why it is only in recent times that it feels as though the supply has been more plentiful.

Improvements in equality of pay, coupled with recruitment placing a higher emphasis on customer service skills more evident in retail, leisure and hospitality sectors (where there is greater female representation) have had a positive impact.

Changes in shift patterns to make them more family friendly have helped and also an intolerance of the kind of macho, male-orientated environment where women may have felt isolated and uncomfortable which was part and parcel of the railway I started in many years ago. The work of groups such as ‘Women in Rail’ have all played a part too.

In terms of ethnicity, the shortlist is still too caucasean. Some might say that the panel obviously hasn’t done its job well enough if this is the case, but, as I previously indicated, we wanted the list to emerge naturally rather than contrive it. What this has, though, made me reflect on is that in managerial positions, ethnic groups are chronically under-represented, certainly by comparison to frontline roles. At the UK Bus Awards, it’s striking how mixed the audience is in terms of race, but only because frontline teams are encouraged to attend.

The diversity conundrum has kept me awake as much as the challenge of shortlisting only 40 folk. I genuinely, hand-on-heart don’t believe that the transport industry is guilty of institutional racism, although there may be “unconscious bias”. I’m not saying there aren’t pockets of racist behaviour – I suspect that at every big train or bus company, at some location there is a grievance being investigated into some form of racial prejudice, but I don’t believe that progression is discriminated due to ethnic origin. The prevalence of very structured, evidence based recruitment criteria being pretty well omnipresent across organisations makes it harder for selection decisions to be subjective, but, of course, I can’t cast iron say with total certainty that my assertion is right – after all, I don’t know what’s really swirling round the heads of those that decide on who gets the plum jobs at the precise point at which they are making their judgment.

What I do believe is the problem, though, is more so the failure of the transport industry to properly identify talent from its frontline ranks and invest in developing it as part of proper succession planning. It is in these ranks that second and third generation ethnic employees are prevalent and it is here that they have failed to make the career breakthrough, due to the inadequacies of a system that fails everyone at that level, irrespective of background. This is an industry where rosters, shift patterns and the ratio of managers to frontline staff are all used as excuses for management not to have proper structured one-to-ones or basic performance management of their people, so it’s little wonder no one rises from the bottom more than a rank or two up the ladder. Unless a customer has complained about you, chances are you could go your whole working career completely unnoticed by management.

What has my cynicism towards talent management schemes got to do with our shortlist? Well, in compiling the list, I noticed a number of candidates who didn’t make the cut because their careers had regressed at such a young age because they’d possibly taken the wrong advice – swallowed the dangling “development” carrots of their employers or left too soon because they thought the grass was greener on the other side.

Some I suspect moved jobs too quickly because they hadn’t the emotional maturity to deal with conflict or stress in their jobs, when taking the first alternative job that came along seemed a good way of making a statement, in the absence of an experienced old head providing them with guidance, support and perspective. I left London Underground for this reason in 1997 and regretted it the very next day.

In compiling the list, what was striking was the extent to which most young people set themselves on a specific sector or discipline and approach their 40s without any real inclination to broaden their skill-sets

In compiling the list, what was striking was the extent to which most young people set themselves on a specific sector or discipline and approach their 40s without any real inclination to broaden their skill-sets. As a recruiter, the golden CVs on our database are those that transcend a specific sector and the best are quite often those that have mixed operations with commercial.

We all know that many railway folk are repelled at the thought of working in the bus sector, but for me, choosing to make the jump was the best thing I have ever done in my career as it provided me with genuine cut-throat commercial experience as well as opportunities to work with folk with different backgrounds. It also gave me the confidence to move into the logistics sector as well and try my hand there. I know many others’ that have enjoyed similar benefits and our shortlist in the next issue showcases a few whose CVs stand out from the crowd because they have that differentiator of pan-sector experience.

The value of commercial experience, particularly of presiding over a P and L, however small should never be under-estimated – the ability to grow a business is in many respects the defining factor. However, of course, running an operation is also crucial. My concern is that young folk are being put in roles that are neither of the two, but are programme management posts or cerebral and technical type specialisms. I have seen this previously in my early years in logistics and increasingly so in transport.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that if someone has a genuine desire to get to the top, their career at the earliest opportunity needs to have the foundations of a leadership role in a tough, highly unionised, intensive, fast-paced operational environment. It’s here that so many basic skills are learnt – engaging with people, cultural and self-awareness, dealing with adversity, serving customers and just learning and developing your own approach to management, amongst many other benefits.

Our online announcement of the judging panel for our feature attracted a staggering 50,000 views on Linkedin and a few comments. There were a few complaints about ageism – some with a hint of resentment, it seemed. Our feature isn’t ageist, this is just an opportunity to showcase young talent in a working environment that is, in many respects, harder than previously, where graduate training schemes are either non-existent or have been cut-back due to financial constraints.

The transport sector is also a place where careers can be cut short due to franchise handovers, rampant depot closures or company takeovers or where there is less freedom to gain and show off experience due to, for instance, a fragmented rail industry or one where the ability to actually make decisions and a difference is impeded by the need to gain sign off by the micro-managing parent company and then by the Department for Transport and then maybe the regional or local transport authority, not forgetting the trade union who have always been an active part of the landscape but has a more debilitating stronghold than ever.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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