OPC Assessment shares news of its latest assessment tool launch, the Leadership Potential Indicator (LPI) that can help measure managerial capability and talks about the kind of leaders we may need in the railway for the future

During the development of the OPC Assessment’s latest new assessment tool – The Leadership Potential Indicator (LPI) Test and some recent interviews with rail industry experts, the OPC listened to concerns about leadership challenges the industry and its organisations face.

Strong, capable and confident leaders are what the railway is in need of to equip it for the challenges ahead. Numerous factors have all come together to create a ‘perfect storm’ for our organisational structures and Human Resources planning; the pandemic, variations in working behaviour on the return-to-work post-Covid, and of course, the current industrial relations to name a few. These issues may have been exacerbated by early retirement agreements, internal promotions, or an exodus of skilled talent leaving many leadership gaps in our rail organisations.

Conversely, some team stagnation may have meant little or no leadership progression or opportunities. In the ramp up post-Covid there have been delays in ‘back-filling’ roles and developing existing talent as future leaders. Although some of these issues may be on the wane, the challenges faced by HR, Talent Acquisition and Operational teams are significant in the search for new leaders to fill gaps, and encourage progression.

How is leadership potential spotted currently?
In many cases, current recruitment processes don’t specifically assess for leadership capability. Identifying management potential in candidates can be very informal, maybe during a coffee and a chat, and it’s the encouragement to apply for a leadership role that’s needed. Recruitment tools can include personality questionnaires, the traditional interview and maybe some
group exercises. These might tell us about a person’s motivations, management style or emotions. However, they may not be a close match for the exact job competencies or they may not  assess leadership potential. At present, some managers report that a lot of leadership potential is done on ‘gut-feel’, team fit and track record. Whether they’ll ‘get on with people’ is subjective rather than a fact-based, measurable decision.

Having a protracted and extensive recruitment process is no longer feasible in todays’ fast moving rail industry. Long-term leadership gaps for any team can mean lost productivity; low employee morale; training slowdown, and if the team is operational, it could have safety implications too. Therefore, having spotted talent a tool such as the LPI can help identify leadership potential efficiently and much earlier in a selection process. We can screen out people who may not be a good fit for the role, as well as help us identify those with excellent leadership potential who could make a great team manager.

So, identifying competent leaders with strong management abilities that we can be surer of, and realising it quickly is important.

Competencies that make a great leader
At the OPC, we believe there are five key managerial competencies that can help to assess leadership potential in a front-line employee.

These include:

  • Leading others to deliver results.
  • People skills that build positive relationships and successful teams.
  • Thinking skills such as effective decision-making, problem-solving, and planning.
  • Customer focus with both external and internal customers.
  • Driving improvements in themselves and others.

However frontline employees may not have the opportunity to demonstrate these managerial competencies in their current role. For example, take a train driver moving to a driver managers’ role. The driver role needs significant occupational and technical competence, i.e., the ability to drive a train, being safety conscious, maintaining concentration whilst lone-working. Driving the train is their core purpose.

However, for the promotional step into a driver managers’ role the core purpose is now to manage the team, to support their crew, to be the team’s leader. Sometimes a driver may be very good at driving a train, however, what you may not know is their leadership potential. And vice versa, you may have a driver who may not be outstanding at driving, yet they may have amazing people skills, being able to communicate easily, win people over and draw out other team members strengths, helping to build teamwork naturally.

Reflecting on the five key competencies measured by the LPI and thinking about some diverse operational roles, a key competency for a good driver manager is leading others. Using great interpersonal skills like listening and communicating, persuasion and motivation they need to enable their team to deliver safe and effective driving performance, punctuality and competent route knowledge. A route controller may need really good problem-solving skills and flexibility in their decision-making if things aren’t going to plan with a line closure or there’s an incident. Remaining calm under pressure to resolve issues in this instance is key. In contrast, duty control managers may have to focus on shift performance delivery, as well as find ways to push for productivity and quality improvements without jeopardising either, whilst keeping the team motivated and engaged.

An industry operation’s manager said ‘In a supervisory role, if someone’s technical capability is good, but their leadership abilities are poor then they can be totally ineffective, having the potential to devastate and decimate a team. So, being able to identify real leadership potential during recruitment is imperative, as once they’re in role it can be too late.’

Sometimes we may not have sufficient evidence whether or not an operational team member has the capability or aptitude for leadership. We can’t always rely on a ‘judgement call’. It’s important that, once talent is spotted, we have an accurate and measured, assessment of their leadership potential.

Emily Wong, Business Psychologist at OPC Assessment said: ‘What the Leadership potential Indicator (LPI) can do is quantify skills and competencies that have clear, demonstrable links to successful job performance of the management capabilities being assessed for. OPC Assessment’s tools are developed through comprehensive job analysis and investigation. They are
rigorously researched, trialled and checked out to ensure they measure the abilities and skills that are being tested for – providing confidence in the results and removing the guess-work of leadership capability.’

‘We need leaders who are committed to continuous improvement, unafraid of change management as the industry evolves out of the current dilemmas it faces. Our leaders need to identify
and provide strong customer focus for ‘paying’ customers and servant leadership for internal customers, and the ability to reinvigorate their teams’ motivation and performance.’

Dr Steve Fletcher, Occupational Psychologist and Director at the OPC

Assessing leadership in external candidates
Increasingly the internal talent pool for leadership roles may be running dry or stagnating with little or no turnover for some key roles. Additionally, there may also be a lack of internal candidates expressing a desire to move into a leadership role. Although, the preference is often to recruit internally and ‘grow your own’, sometimes, there is a need and necessity to go external.

Therefore, with an ‘unknown quantity’ it can be even more difficult to judge leadership potential if we’ve not seen the applicant in action with our teams, in our culture. In some cases, we’ve looked to other industries e.g., aviation to specifically recruit senior leaders with new ideas and approaches.

This recruitment need may be less about technical expertise and much more about strategic and visionary leadership. For these types of roles, it’s even more important to be able to quantify just how good a candidate’s leadership skills are.

An industry rail director said ‘If we are looking external to our organisations to seek out new leaders with more strategic, leadership skills, diversifying the talent we have, then a tool that can quantify leadership capability is really important.’

‘An industry rail director said ‘If we are looking external to our organisations to seek out new leaders with more strategic, leadership skills, diversifying the talent we have, then a tool that can quantify leadership capability is really important.’

Developing existing supervisors and managers into great leaders
Our rail leadership dilemma may not just be about identifying leaders at the recruitment stage, it’s also about how we can effectively encourage and develop the existing talent we already have to be great leaders. These may be team managers already in a supervisory position, or those who we perceive may have progression capability to more senior roles. There is a need to be able to identify senior leadership talent early and to develop it effectively.

Transition planning
Historically, some frontline employees may finish their old job on a Friday. Then they could be in an office with a laptop and a phone in a supervisory role on the Monday; in at the deep end with little or no transition. They can be unsure about their new role and what’s expected of them. In some cases, they’ve moved from an operational role that’s highly structured and routine led – the arrival and finish time is clocked, the work they do is set and structured. When they arrive in their new post, the structure may have disappeared. They’re expected to organise their own diary, decide priorities, self-govern their work, and be self-motivated.

Although some training programmes for managers might have a technical focus such as compliance, undertaking assessments or adhering to safety standards, the ‘softer’ side of being a leader may require more input and focus. New managers may not know how to be an authentic leader initially. They may imitate leadership styles of those whom they’ve previously worked for or observed – the good, the bad and some of the ugly bits! So, rail organisations may need to consider introducing or rekindling comprehensive and effective people leadership programmes to help new managers identify their own effective leadership style as part of an induction programme.

The LPI as a development tool
The LPI can also be used as a development tool to help release and fully realise leadership potential. Depending on the role new leaders might have come from, they may already have really strong task delivery or customer focus, but they might struggle with leading and managing people. This could include having productive social skills, being empathic and a good listener, along with recognising team and individual needs. The LPI can help to identify a new managers’ strengths, and areas to focus on, as part of a Leadership Development Plan.

Leadership Development centres for new managers
The OPC run Leadership Development Centres (LDC) for individual managers, groups or in-house specific programmes that aren’t role specific. They are designed for managers already in situ leading a team or those who’ve been identified as having leadership potential. LDC’s help to develop new leadership abilities; upskill local talent and grow individuals’ performance and independence. They help managers to flourish and be the best that they can be.

At the LDC, managers may sit a number of assessment tools including the LPI, to identify their strengths and development areas. Completing a 360-degree feedback tool is also a helpful piece of self-reflection and a useful lens through which they can see themselves. How we see ourselves may be quite different to other’s perceptions of us.

Depending on the results and alongside psychologists’ input, a development plan can be pulled together for use by the managers in their day-to-day role. Some development activities that emerge from the LDC could include:

  • Providing a mentor or ‘buddy’ as a support for leadership learning;
  • Enabling and coaching skills workshops to help get the best from their teams;
  • Continuous line-manager feedback on their development
  • Learning to trust and let go, releasing team and individual potential; and
  • Interpersonal skills such as listening, empathy and communication.

An industry rail director said ‘The ability to manage people with emotional intelligence (EI) is imperative. It’s such an important part of leadership. It’s very visible seeing the impact on a team when a leader has good EI. By contrast the impact of poor people management skills can take years to recover.’

Leaders for the future – Rail industry morale recovery
In some rail leaders’ opinion, industry morale is at the lowest it’s been for nearly 25 years. We have a very traditional industry, that requires some significant changes in direction and approach. In order for us to re motivate teams and ignite some passion and love of the railway again, we are going to need new strong and capable leaders – starting from the ground up.

Dr Steve Fletcher, Occupational Psychologist and Director at the OPC concluded by saying ‘We need leaders who are committed to continuous improvement, unafraid of change management as the industry evolves out of the current dilemmas it faces. Our leaders need to identify and provide strong customer focus for ‘paying’ customers and servant leadership for internal customers, and the ability to reinvigorate their teams’ motivation and performance. We will need to do much more with much less, driving improvements and efficiencies. Having a leadership potential indicator tool to help us identify new leaders, as well as develop future leaders is a good step forward.