Lucy Prior shares some thoughts on leadership and how it relates to the formation of Great British Railways


No one can have missed the fact that Great British Railways: the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail has finally been published. Within the Plan the phrase leader(s) and leadership are mentioned 44 times. Before the Plan was publicly released, the notion of the creation of a new ‘guiding mind’, i.e. someone or something that would pull together a fragmented industry and provide a figurehead that would drive change, had become commonplace.

The Plan is clear: Williams and Shapps state that ‘change, leadership, better passenger service and greater efficiency have now become not merely desirable, but essential’ and that ‘the railways lack a guiding focus on customers, coherent leadership and strategic direction…In short, we need somebody in charge’. The Plan recommends ten key outputs, one of which is enhancing skills, leadership and diversity across the industry. But what is leadership, and how can it be enhanced?

I have been fortunate to work for some great leaders (and some not so great leaders, and not only in rail – please do not make any assumptions here), so I have learned and continue to learn  from some great exemplars. I have also formally studied leadership and management, and have undergone extensive leadership training and coaching. One fact that has been reiterated time and time again to me: to lead, you must be willing to learn. How to learn: listen. Listen and really hear people.

In preparation for this article, I canvassed several work-from-home friends, who all work in leadership positions in rail, on what good leadership means to them. The people I contacted are diverse, in terms of background, career and experience, but the synergies between their answers was clear. In one way or another everyone I asked shared the view that great leaders have a propensity to listen and learn, to inspire others and to communicate their vision, to challenge and to be prepared to be challenged, and to welcome debate.

Above all, my respondents agreed that it is one’s values, not job title, that makes you an effective leader. This resonates so well with one of my favourite quotes on leadership: ‘Leadership is putting the needs of others ahead of our own. It’s not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge.’ This is from author and speaker Simon Sinek, who also states in the preface to his book Start with Why that ‘those who lead inspire us’.

There are so many people I would love to namecheck right now, people whom I truly admire, who possess these innate leadership qualities (Broadley, Roberts and Waugh being high up on that list), but this would be a tangent. Instead, I would like to explore how we as a supply chain will be empowered to communicate with the leaders within Great British Railways, because ultimately, they need to espouse all the qualities described above.

They will also need to be able to effectively share the Great British Railways vision and welcome our challenging of them: to listen to us where we as a community can identify barriers to efficiency and innovation that we need to solve as a whole to ensure that we collectively meet the needs of those we serve.

Throughout numerous Rail Project SPEED events we have been told by Network Rail that they want those in the supply chain to highlight barriers to productivity, safety, efficiency and innovation. SPEED is presented as the industry’s approach to finding innovative ways of working and simplifying processes, and is a means of completing public investment projects more rapidly and at lower cost. Network Rail has put considerable effort into communicating what Project SPEED is, and within its ten-point plan there is a huge emphasis on the importance of capability and culture, and a ‘one-team’ culture. Such a culture is essential to create the psychological safety that will enable us to highlight these barriers and enhance the industry’s capability. Such a culture demands exceptional leadership.

Network Rail will become subsumed into Great British Railways, and I assume many of Network Rail’s current leaders will migrate into this new entity. This will become a very large, and hopefully very diverse team. Culture, vision and leadership will be critical to its success, in terms of delivering the best service to the customer, and in terms of taking care of those in its charge, directly and indirectly. The Williams-Shapps Plan states that ‘the government will work with leaders from across the sector to develop an ongoing independent advisory body to consider issues such as skills, training, leadership and technology’ and it recognises that ‘it will definitely need a change of mindset from everybody at all levels’.

This ‘somebody in charge’ has a big job ahead of them. It is our duty, as leaders within our respective fields to listen to their vision, and to care enough to talk to them, to help them take care of those in our collective charge. It will be the leaders’ duty to listen to and learn from us, to create a one-team culture that is inspirational in style and willing to learn to ensure that our railway really can be as great as possible.


Lucy Prior MBE is Business Engagement Director at 3Squared, a specialist SaaS provider to the rail and rail construction markets. In addition to her full-time role at 3Squared Lucy is vice-chair of the Railway Industry Association’s SME group, supports the Rail Sector Group’s Export Workstream, and sits on the exec of the Northern Rail Industry Leaders group. Most importantly is a full-time working parent to two young children who hear an awful lot about just how cool and important the rail sector is. And who also ask her why, a lot.