Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Tony Collins, CEO of Virgin Trains and a CMI Companion, says directors need to support the entrepreneurs and experts throughout their business.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

There are few greater pleasures for me than seeing colleagues flourish and showing the leadership skills that could turn them into the business leaders of the future. When it happens, it underlines the power of individuals to grab hold of their own situation, adapt to deal with it and take others with them in achieving a solution. But how difficult is it to make it happen, and how many of us overlook many potential leaders at all levels of our business?

For us, finding those leaders is core to continuing growth at its current rate - we have seen a 20% rise in customer numbers in the past year. But I am not looking for leaders who are trapped in offices, spewing out e-mail instructions to all around them. Instead, I'm searching for leadership qualities in every part of the business, and among people who have never aspired to sit at a board table.

In all parts of our company - in the kitchens on our trains, in the ticket offices, in the drivers' cabs, as well as the offices - there are leadership skills that will determine whether we succeed. In many cases, people have previously had those skills almost stifled to death by a rigid command-and-control regime that says: 'The only leader who matters is the MD/COO/CEO.'

How crazy it is to think that one person has the knowledge, judgment and vision to deal with the myriad complexities of a modern business. Yet in much of the British Rail model of working, that was a general belief, and it still lingers in parts of traditional industries, even today. In the past, the sign of leadership was whether you had linoleum, an unfitted or a fitted carpet in your railway office. Now it is purely down to the ability of the individual - at whatever level in the company - to lead.

I am often asked to pinpoint what Virgin Trains does differently, and I believe we have gone further than most in the rail industry in dismantling the command-and-control model that preceded privatisation in 1997. All our 3,000 staff have had the opportunity to spend time away from their workplace, enjoy some time in a hotel at the company's expense and start a process of being open and honest enough to challenge the decisions of their peers and managers. These 'Vision' workshops were intended to give staff confidence to ask questions that had been in their minds for too long. 'Why do we do it that way?', 'I've seen better ideas in ... ', 'Why don't we give this a try?'

For some, it is a scary move from simply following an instruction; for most, it has been liberating in giving them the opportunity to prove they know best.

When I am on a train, I'm low in expertise - my train manager, driver and catering team are the experts. The same is true in our central control, timetable-planning team, revenue management etc. We must listen to the local 'expert' and then put that advice in the context of the wider business.

That is where directors come in - not to dictate the minutiae of everyday working. We were given two ears and one mouth so that we could listen more than we talk, and that is the absolute bedrock of leadership - to really listen to what people are telling you, even when the comments make uncomfortable listening.

Entrepreneurs who start a business are closely in tune with their small number of staff and customers at first, and then grow further away from the day-to-day as the business thrives. That is when leadership at all levels becomes crucial - for other 'entrepreneurs' to come through, spotting new ideas, challenging the status quo and making new things happen.

It is not about the multi-million pound ideas: it might be a better way of serving on-board drinks, or thinking of a better ticket offer. Our 'leaders' at the customer-facing end of the business are more likely to spot those ideas than I am - but they must be given the environment to try them out.

We have launched our internal campaign 'It's Everyone's Business' to emphasise that every member of staff has knowledge to improve our company. This doesn't mean that every idea will work - many steps are needed to make sure decisions are safe, viable and bring sustainable benefits - and leadership training is needed to explain why some ideas can't be introduced.

In our own team leadership courses, 89% of attendees said they had been helped to adapt their leadership style to the situation - a key component of effective leadership. But the process never stops, and the skills learned on a course can disappear without constant practice. That is why our leadership development training for our managers is primarily 'on the job', where people can test their skills in real situations - and get feedback from real people. That gives us a chance to adapt to the dynamic, fast-changing environment that surrounds us.

And what is success? To have challenging, inspirational leaders throughout the business who contribute to the progress of the company. True, we are not doing it for purely altruistic reasons - it makes good business sense, too.


Tony Collins has been chief executive of Virgin Rail Group since September 2004. He was previously responsible for contractual, commercial and project management of major contracts, including the ú2.5bn order for 131 Voyager and Pendolino trains, as well as rail infrastructure schemes, such as the complex West Coast route modernisation.

An accountant by training, he joined Virgin Trains in 1999 from Alstom Passenger Group, where as commercial director he was lead negotiator on the ú1.3bn Virgin Rail Pendolino build and maintenance contract.

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