On the right track

The business

Southern Railway, part of the Go-Ahead group, was initially formed as South Central in 2001, when it took over the existing Connex rail franchise. It was rebranded and relaunched as Southern in May 2004.

The service carries more than 100,000 passengers a day on 1,750 trains in and out of London from Surrey, East and West Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. The company also manages 163 stations, employing some 3,500 workers and 250 managers.

The challenge

Under Connex, and indeed ever since the ‘bad old days’ of British Rail, leadership had never been given much of a priority or even encouraged – something that Southern wanted to address.

Leadership and behavioural development manager Zoey Court explains: “We wanted our managers to think and behave differently in the way they worked with their teams to realise that leading people was not about command and control but about consensus and getting buy-in.”

A small team, including Court, customer services training manager Tim Biggs and the then learning and development manager Lawrence Cramer, began looking at how this might best be achieved. With the backing of the internal HR team, a tendering process led to the appointment of management training school Roffey Park to develop and deliver a training programme for the organisation’s 250-strong management team.

The solution

The programme, called ‘Leading Southern’, ran from May 2004 to February 2005. Managers in groups of about 60 at a time first attended a two-day residential ‘engagement workshop’ at Roffey. This included a presentation by then managing director Charles Horton to emphasise the top team’s commitment to the project.

At the workshop, managers first took part in a 360-degree appraisal process, formed cross-functional groups and signed up to go on a further modular programme.

Each group had a sponsor – either a senior manager or director – who attended an evening question-and-answer session during the modular programme.

The three modules lasted two, three and two days respectively and looked at areas including personal effectiveness, communication, negotiation, influencing, performance management, leading and developing others, giving feedback, motivating others, teamwork, conflict and delegation.

The groups also formed smaller ‘support and challenge’ teams, which met at two-month intervals between modules to reflect on and discuss their learning and how they were applying it back in the workplace.

“Leading Southern was not just a training programme, but the first significant step towards creating a new culture where managers have a common language and approach to people development,” says Court.

The outcome

Since the end of the Roffey programme, passenger complaints have been cut by 14% and letters of praise have increased by 27%. Staff turnover has also fallen sharply, from 19.6% in 2001 to 10.3% now.

While these achievements cannot solely be attributed to the programme, it is clear it has helped to create a new culture within the business. The programme has also led to further benefits down the line. Many managers are continuing their personal development by further study at university level. The programme has now been brought back in-house and is being extended to junior management level.

With a new managing director, Chris Burchell, at the helm, a coaching programme, called Coaching Southern, has been developed, with the aim of selecting and training coaches from all functions across the business. The target is for Southern to have 36 qualified internal coaches in place by July 2007.

“This programme supports our vision of creating managers who can enhance the performance and development of their people,” explains Court.

If I could do it again…

Looking back, one change would have been to do more to encourage networking and communication between managers going through the programme, suggests Court.

“We could probably have done more to encourage people to support each other after the course had finished to develop more of an ongoing initiative where people share ideas and challenges,” she says.

“One issue we quickly addressed was the need for all senior managers to go through the programme as, initially, some did not.”

The key to being successful in a programme such as this is to know where you are heading to, and what the end will look like, suggests Court.

“You need to know what it will be like when you get there. You also need to know the culture inside out and get your communications right,” she adds.

Employee perspective

Driver manager Ray Parkin has worked on the railways for 27 years, and has spent the past four as manager of a team of 30 drivers. Initially, he admits, he and other staff members were a bit sceptical about the Leading Southern programme.

“We’d seen programmes like this a number of times before, so the initial thought was that it was just going to be the same old thing and fizzle out after the first few sessions,” he recalls.

“But from the first two-day session it was clear that this was different. It was very hands-on and gave you lots of tools for dealing with different situations.

“It was not looking at how you hoped you would be perceived, but at how you were actually perceived by others things like your body language and facial expression.”

Parkin discovered, for instance, that there were times when his positive feedback was coming across in a negative way.

“The other big thing was time management skills and looking at how you prioritise work,” he says. “That made an immediate difference to how I work.”

How to deliver an internal management training programme in 10 steps

  1. Involve your people in looking at what your needs are going to be, and where you want to get to.

  2. Engage senior managers, but also engage with the critical mass of employees within the business.

  3. Plan meticulously.

  4. Ensure the programme fits what the business wants.

  5. Allow for dissent and resistance, and work with it.

  6. Make it real. Talk to managers in their own language and relate it back to their experience.

  7. Challenge behaviours, but in a non-threatening, supportive environment.

  8. Plan how you are going to ensure delegates apply learning and keep applying it back into the workplace.

  9. Review and evaluate as you go.

  10. Don’t assume your target is an end in itself it should just be one end in an overall process of transformation.

Source: Andy Smith and Gary Miles, principal consultants, Roffey Park


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