From economic growth to recession, from wrestling with regulation to the pressures of competition, from meeting the demands of local markets to threats in the global environment, organisations face an ever-moving array of challenges. The one constant that all leaders and managers have to deal with is change. It is by equipping our managers to lead our people and change our companies as they make changes to meet new challenges that we can succeed.
Less than 20 years ago, our company ran about 200 buses serving the city of Aberdeen, in north-east Scotland. We employed 600 staff from our granite headquarters, and from my office window I could keep an eye on all our buses as they left and returned to our depot.
Today, FirstGroup employs 137,000 people and runs bus and train services across the UK, continental Europe and North America - including the US's famous yellow school buses and the iconic Greyhound coach service - two of the best-loved vehicles in transportation around the world. We now move more people in 10 minutes than we used to in an entire day in Aberdeen in the 1980s. Our business has been built by managers who have embraced change and encouraged their staff to do so.
Most successful organisations develop a culture that welcomes change and the opportunities it brings. In our case, we've grown our operations through a mix of acquisition and winning local and national government contracts. In both cases, we don't have the luxury of time in which to change a company's culture. We are a people-intensive business, so our priority has always been to quickly engage with new staff.
Britain's rail franchising system is a case in point. Our franchise agreements generally run for seven years. In an industry that is more than 150 years old, this is a short time in which to change attitudes. The public transport industry has tended to be inward-facing and engineering-led, rather than outward-facing and customer- focused - and I say this as an engineer myself - so our managers have to change attitudes over a relatively short period of time, often in the face of real resistance.
Our leadership programme is designed to challenge those who take part, with a large amount of coaching provided at an individual level. A great concept we've learned about in recent years is the shadow that a leader casts - the influence they have over their team.
The programme focuses on delivering our two core values of safety and customer service. Safety for us is encapsulated in the principle 'If you cannot do it safely, don't do it'. The bedrock of customer service, meanwhile, is delivering our timetable promises to our passengers. These sound like essential prerequisites for any transport operator, but unless we get these right, no other value or objective can be delivered.
It's not just about our managers. We aim to empower all our staff to improve themselves. In a groundbreaking partnership with Unite, the union, we've opened 44 workplace learning centres throughout the UK, covering more than 60% of our Bus-division staff. The centres help staff to access vocational and non-vocational courses, at times that suit them, enabling them to develop skills - particularly literacy, numeracy and English as a second language - that equip them to deal with the tasks they encounter. Since the scheme began, more than 8,000 vocational qualifications have been awarded, and a further 8,000 non-vocational courses delivered. All our staff will have access to such a centre by 2009.
I'm confident that the graduate training schemes in our Bus, Rail and North American divisions will provide people to pilot our growth over the next 20 years. Graduates in our Bus division spend time in engineering, control rooms and operations, and even learn to drive a bus. From this year they'll spend time in our North American operations while their opposite numbers will visit the UK to see how we do things here. This gives them an appreciation of how the business operates and helps them decide which area they'd like to pursue a career in. Uniquely, First can offer graduates an MBA qualification on successful completion of the course.
This scheme builds on our success down the years in developing our people. I'm particularly proud of one young man who, like me, started as an apprentice. We sponsored him to get his degree and supported him as he developed as a manager. Today, he's the engineering director of our Bus division, responsible for more than 9,000 vehicles - a quarter of all the buses in the UK.
I am very excited about our most recent crop of graduates. Their enthusiasm is infectious. It's hard to foresee the changes they will experience, but I predict that they'll be able to manage.
- Sir Moir Lockhead is one of the keynote speakers at the Chartered Management Institute's National Convention at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole on 9-10 October 2008; other speakers include Ben Verwaayen KBE and Steve Holliday. For information and bookings, please visit www.managers.org.uk/convention08 or call 01536 207330.
- CV: Sir Moir Lockhead OBE is deputy chairman and chief executive of FirstGroup. Sir Moir left school at 15 and enjoyed a career in engineering before joining Grampian Regional Transport. Under his leadership, the company - subsequently known as First - has become the largest bus and rail operator in the UK. In June, he was awarded a knighthood for services to transport.