Morale may never have been this low, but has the industry got the leadership skills and conviction to do anything about it?

‘Morale has never been so low’ remarked an on-train employee as I travelled on his service last week. It’s an old cliché and one which folk used to levy at me as a boss, but it’s something I’m hearing more and more these days and I feel it has some credence. The irony, though, is that, in the case of my journey last week, this was on a train company that, as an outsider looking in, is one of the very best.

Back in February and March 2022, I grumbled about morale on these pages, so will avoid going over old ground with the same hypothesis, particularly in rail where the current ‘workplace reform’ project to fundamentally change staffing arrangements and the ticket office closure tomfoolery saps spirits like never before. Add this with the fact that even those in charge of TOCs are powerless to make meaningful decisions these days. Their clout has been eroded by the stultifying regime within the industry which they now function.

I have reflected more on morale in these last couple of days, mainly because I have spent some time with a small bus company which operates in a niche, tourism-specific market, within a larger organisation. ‘Small is beautiful’ is another classic cliché and this has been really apparent to me on what I’ve witnessed at this business during the week, where I have facilitated workshops with drivers, management and HQ teams and been utterly overwhelmed by the drive, positive energy, conviction, and collective desire to create a business plan to transform customer service and get bums on seats. It’s taken my breath away, in truth and it’s not just the chosen few – they’ve had me in the canteen during the morning run out and there’s positivity and a culture that everyone puts down to the fact that the local manager is able to wrap his hands around the team, know them inside out and is surrounded by an ethos that encourages quick, customer-centric decision making and an entrepreneurial approach to put bums on seats.

By comparison, I genuinely wonder whether these big unwieldy organisations are always doomed to fail. Whilst I do regularly come across innovative, dynamic, self-starting individuals in large companies, there’s a cycle they go through where inevitably their enthusiasm is crushed by draining procedures, an over-bearing governance model and corporate clone managers who, if they weren’t protected by the structure within which they reside, would be floundering in a world where time genuinely is money.

There is always an unhealthy tension between depot management and HQ and HQ with their owning group. I have too many failings to mention, but one thing I know I can do is let someone unleash their thoughts and views and I can get the gossip. I kid you not, depots are fertile territory for me – within literally 20 seconds of talking to a driver, cleaner, engineer or looking around at staff notices or the state of the loos and I can sniff out a rotten organisational culture from the very top of the owning group down. It’s almost omnipresent.

Textbook talk about morale tends to focus on the usual issues, such as pay and conditions, mess facilities, cost-cutting exercises, managers who have never set foot on a bus or train before and so on, but it fails to examine the capability of senior leadership. I’m not talking departmental heads here, I’m referring to board members, CEOs, chairs as well, many of whom may have got to the highest echelons by making money quickly, writing a winning franchise bid or leading an acquisition. But they trampled on everyone in the process and having the communication skills of either Neanderthal man or the most introverted bean-counter. They are individuals whose behaviours have never been challenged because they’ve delivered results – but left a trail of destruction behind, intensely disliked by their people and stakeholders. Their approach has, I kid you not, been condoned at the most senior level because ‘they achieve results and that’s what matters’.

TOCs are powerless to make meaningful decisions these days

A few years back, MBAs and training at places such as the Institute of Directors (IOD) were all the rage, including the three-week course that Royal Mail sent me on at Oxford Business School, which was so ill-suited to developing business leaders that it was beyond farcical. Fellow colleagues showcased their attendance at it under the qualifications section on their LinkedIn profiles. For me it was a career lowlight, a true nadir, and when I arrived home, we had a ceremony on the front drive as I tore up the certificate and put it in the recycling bin. Many similar programmes, including those by the IOD, did, at least, focus on people skills, as did the plethora of graduate and middle management training schemes that have been in systemic decline. All we have now are the chosen few in organisations bequeathed with supercilious mentors, spouting mumbo jumbo and conning a £1,000-plus day rate in return. It does make me giggle, how many mid-to-late career failures approach me asking if I could win them gigs as a mentor, as though they can just turn up and be some avuncular figure capable of giving wise words.

But, let’s return to the top brass and ask ourselves what sort of development have they had? Most are so busy that they can ill-afford a day or more to receive tutelage, whilst some will think they are so good they don’t need it. And where are the HR departments in all this? And who is holding them to account for the lack of development given to senior leaders, and the organisation per se, or the decline in employee engagement and morale? They are quick, as smiling assassins, to retreat to their beloved policies and procedures, to throw the book at anyone when they step out of line and draw up the ‘compromise agreement’, but what are they doing behind the scenes to transform organisational capability and employee morale?
Of course, they are partly to blame. Before HR functions, leaders had to lead, they were required to deal with people management issues themselves, but now at the slightest sign of trouble, they defer to HR. I kid you not but in some transport organisations, the HR director now wields more influence than the MD or CEO – let that sink in.

A good HR director – and there are some in the industry – will be able to challenge and exert their influence positively because they have a deep knowledge of the sector. Many, though, are fixated with their ‘pet projects or box ticking or overly engineering processes and governance to justify their existence and mask their own lack of sector knowledge or capability. Sadly, many have almost zero knowledge of, or interest in, buses and trains and the markets they serve. Why do HR directors seldom rise to become CEOs? Is it a capability issue, or because there is a prejudice against them by those at the top and a belief, misplaced or otherwise, that their ceiling is at executive level? I genuinely don’t know the answer.

Development needs for senior leaders extend beyond role modelling and their ability to lead and inspire. There is a requirement for them to be helped in being able to manage workloads and priorities as well as understand their actual role. I know some excellent MDs, but others are literally ‘post-boxes’ – receiving emails, diligently responding to them, and firing them to the appropriate department as well as reporting upwards, though seldom down. These leaders can’t move out of their comfort zone to galvanise and transform organisations – strategy and culture is beyond their capabilities. Many cannot manage their time or prioritise activities where they could make a real impression on their people and customers.

Development requirements also extend to being more customer and commercially-led and challenging poor internal behaviours, as well as – without fear of recourse – their parent companies having an ability to see and shape the transformation of the business, set context and momentum and a compelling strategic narrative.

Further down the chain and there are a host of other reasons why morale is supposedly at rock bottom. In recent years, I’ve noticed a downturn in the number of developmental secondments. When I was a lad, well-meaning managers would go out of their way to identify opportunities for progressive stars to be seconded internally or even externally to build their development, keep them motivated and ultimately retain their services. Such managers would invest care and time in looking at how their team’s careers were emerging and take steps to intervene and help nurture and grow them. Today’s leaders are too self-obsessed or ensconced in firefighting such that any ‘secondments’ that occur are ‘needs must’ to plug gaps when someone has resigned in a fit of pique. A lot of companies used to invest in meaningful qualifications for staff – they’d be keen to get brownie points in tenders by saying that they would provide NVQs or equivalent for frontline folk and give day release for training. Sadly this sort of well-intentioned pledge has been seen for what it is – spin.

In some transport organisations, the HR director now wields more influence than the MD or CEO

The current resource shortage across the industry has also led to many companies throwing out the window any due diligence on who they are recruiting, through desperation to get bodies over the line. Basic scrutiny and sifting out those with a pattern of leaping from one job to another in quick succession isn’t done, there is no realisation that their morale saps overly easily under pressure or that they have a pernicious influence on team spirit. Even reference checking has diminished.

Respect is also a key driver of morale, and the industry doesn’t help itself when it deliberately tries to antagonise its own employees or does so inadvertently. It was instructive to learn at the Transport Select Committee from Directly Operated Railways chair, Robin Gisby, that the ticket office closure plans were designed by the rail industry and not government. I don’t doubt that, in some cases, this was true, though most senior leaders I speak to think that the proposals were a load of balderdash and frontline employees – closest to the needs of customers and their markets – thought they were the most stupid idea of all time and that’s not necessarily because of ‘job preservation’ on their part (because, after all, we were told by their leaders that they would have been
re-deployed elsewhere!).

Gisby is to be commended for his honesty and standing up for being counted and not, like others, passing the buck on to the Treasury and DfT, who are trying to squeeze more out of the industry. However, in doing so, there’s no hiding place for TOC MDs when they are out on the patch and in the firing line from their morale-sapped people. It was, as Robin intimated, their idea. Fortunately the preposterous ticket office proposals concept have been sent packing – we saw off the crass idea of killing the One Day Travelcard and this is another victory that should give all lovers of customer service and common-sense renewed hope.

Something’s got to give. If the industry is ever going to thrive it simply must break the cycle of poor morale and its continued failed approaches to managing and inspiring employees. Let’s be brutally honest, in many cases, if you ask a bigwig what they are doing for their people, the summation of their response, will be ‘Tea and Toast Tuesdays where once a quarter, we go into the canteen in the morning and hand out tea and toast’. It’s not too dissimilar to asking them what customer service initiatives they are doing and listening to them talk, guffaw-inducingly, about a few staff wearing santa hats in the run up to Christmas as though that is going to create a customer satisfaction legacy. Morale may well never have been this low, but has the industry got the leadership skills and conviction to do anything about it? You tell me.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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