The Leadership and Talent Challenge in Transport – Insights from C Suite Leaders

I recently facilitated an event with 15 Transport Sector CEO’s and Directors to discuss current leadership and talent challenges in the sector. So what important themes came up in our discussion? From Aviation to Rail to Marine, today’s leaders of Transport Operators face immense challenges. Increasing customer demands, safety and security issues, infrastructure pressures, competition, regulation, and skill shortages, all mean that leadership and talent are central to driving success.

I recently facilitated an event with 15 Transport Sector CEO’s and Directors to discuss current leadership and talent challenges in the sector. So what important themes came up in our discussion?  From Aviation to Rail to Marine, today’s leaders of Transport Operators face immense challenges. Increasing customer demands, safety and security issues, infrastructure pressures, competition, regulation, and skill shortages, all mean that leadership and talent are central to driving success.

Vision

A clear vision across the sector is required with at least a ten year view on what the infrastructure, products, and talent requirements should look like. Boards need to consider the future and not just the short term. This is particularly challenging in an operations focussed sector, and one that relies on political decision-making (There have been 7 UK Transport Secretaries in the last 10 years).    Forward thinking leaders will need to create a compelling vision of how things can be differently and better, and convince stakeholders accordingly. There is still a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ culture in some organisations. How do we change attitudes?

Infrastructure

There is without doubt a need for sustainable long term infrastructure planning with a cross sector approach to the UK’s transport network. This includes decisions on runway capacity, less congested roads, better road / rail links to airports etc. Last October the Chancellor set up the new National Infrastructure Commission to enable long term strategic decision making to build effective and efficient infrastructure for the UK.

Leadership and Transformation

What kind of talent do CEO’s need in their leadership team? Diverse and complimentary skills are clearly important. It was generally agreed that leaders of technical functions do not need to be technically skilled themselves. Without such knowledge, the individual could be more inclined to lead and empower the team, rather than manage or even micro-manage them.

There is a real desire to seek talent from outside the regular spheres of influence, be they functional or sector. Common themes included recruiting individuals with considerable exposure to retail, digital and technology backgrounds. There was considerable debate though about when the benefits of external perspective outweighed the slightly longer induction and ramp up time involved. Executives from functional and technical backgrounds commonly need support transitioning to an often different mind-set required in leadership roles e.g. through coaching and mentoring.

As regards organisational design, having a reasonable number of direct reports (6-8) and reducing organisational layers of bureaucracy is often appropriate. Engaging and motivating the ‘squeezed’ middle management population requires attention as they are pivotal in turning vision and change into reality. With the silo functional approach in many organisations, one airline CEO remarked that there is an emerging need for generalists with broad skills and understanding of the business.

Skills Shortage

There is concern in the industry about current and future technical and engineering skills shortages. Inspiring school children and students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and careers is key, as well as creating more apprenticeships.  Several Operators and Trade Organisations are committed to addressing the skills shortage and are actively pursuing a number of initiatives in this area. Gender diversity is another opportunity with rail, for example, remaining particularly male dominated. Sally Ride the astronaut set up a successful foundation that tours the US using real live engineers to encourage girls into STEM subjects. In aviation, there is genuine concern about future shortages of pilots and engineers to meet the global demand from rapidly growing airline fleets, and emerging markets.

Culture, Products and Brands

The issues perhaps lay as much in the culture and brand of the organisation, as in the work itself. Whilst not such an issue in Aviation and parts of Maritime, Rail is generally not considered a ‘trendy’ industry within which to work. This doesn’t need to be so. There are several UK train stations that have become iconic and places that people want to visit. Customer experience can be enhanced, whatever the mode of transport and ports involved for a given journey.

The sector needs to be more appealing to Generation Y. University leavers are looking for very different things in their careers than previous generations. One leader commented ‘Our employees are the real customer?’ The Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is essential and this is very much about motivators other than pay. There is much opportunity to create compelling brands and challenge attitudes and culture to reflect the needs and values of both employees and customers.

Safety and Security – VUCA

What keeps many Transport Leaders awake at night? Safety and security is of course paramount   across the entire sector. Instilling a culture of awareness along with robust processes is vital. To use military parlance we live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous world. This is particularly true of the Transport sector. At our event, it was interesting to see how many issues are common across the sector. There is further opportunity to share experiences and learning amongst practitioners in air, road, rail or marine.

Peter Dunkin. Founder and Leadership Coach.