If the true test of a great people leader is the way they interact with the wider organisation MTR Crossrail’s HRD Alison Bell must be doing something right.
When HR magazine heads with Bell to Liverpool Street station for our photoshoot it’s intriguing to see how the station staff – with important jobs to do and a time-sensitive timetable to run –respond to this disruption.
Instantly we are greeted warmly by station managers and fitters, laughing and joking with Bell. “What colour are you wearing on Thursday so we can match?” quips one, referring to the organisation’s annual awards, which Bell later relates are “the talk of the town”. (It brings together employees from every level and part of the business – from HQ to frontline – to celebrate successes.)
“I know most people and like to get out and about,” confirms Bell. “I couldn’t say I know everyone as we have more than 700 employees. But generally I know a lot of people and we have a bit of banter and a debate.”
The “banter” continues as we return to MTR Crossrail’s HQ near Liverpool Street station and bump into a young trainee driver in the lift, who Bell knows from “having a chat over some wine”.
“We do have a number of initiatives to make sure the directorate team and senior managers are visiting stations and staff and having conversations with them,” Bell says, citing the ‘adopt a station’ programme where every member of the directorate team, certain heads of departments, and senior managers have a designated station for a six-month period that they must visit at least once a month.
There’s also ‘ask the leader’ sessions, and ‘depot dialogue’ where leaders go and sit in the drivers’ mess rooms to have a chat with staff. “Some drivers will want their own space. But some will chat away and ask you about what’s going on in head office or just general life,” says Bell.
And so it becomes quickly apparent that this is a leader for whom, and an organisation where, employee engagement goes far beyond policy and papers. Instead it’s about building genuine, non-hierarchical relationships. Which has been critical to the organisation’s meteoric rise from not existing pre-2014 to becoming the biggest infrastructure project in Europe.
The organisation began life in July 2014 when Hong Kong-based transport operator MTR was awarded the contract to operate the services along the Elizabeth line – the railway that will stretch more than 60 miles from Reading and Heathrow through central London and across to Shenfield, Essex, and Abbey Wood.
The railway will serve 40 stations, with an estimated 200 million passengers travelling on the line each year, increasing rail-based transport in the capital by 10%. The line will be formally launched in December this year, before construction is completed and full service introduced by December 2019, requiring a carefully-orchestrated staged opening.
Bell joined in August 2014, one month after the contract was won. “Nothing existed – we didn’t even have a company name, we didn’t have a head office, no systems, no processes, no people, nothing,” she muses. “We were starting a company completely from scratch.”
Bell was brought over on secondment from LOROL (London Overground Rail Operations Limited). She explains that the workforce at that time was made up solely of managing director Steve Murphy (who Bell worked with at LOROL), the finance director, the head of comms and the now-IT director. The team had just nine months until the first services had to be up and running in May 2015; to say time was against them would be something of an understatement.
“It was August and we had to mobilise and recruit an entire company, create a head office, put all systems in place, all people in place, do a TUPE transfer of staff and go live by May,” Bell says. “When I think about those early days now I don’t know how I didn’t have a breakdown. But we all got stuck in, put all hands on deck, and were too busy to stop and think about the prospect of failure.”
Recruitment was the first priority, as “without the right people in the right posts at the right time you can’t do anything”, Bell says, adding: “We recruited the recruitment and core HR teams first of all so we could establish processes.”
But Bell was quick to lay down the law around recruitment from the off. She made it clear that the ongoing drive – which by the time the line launches will have recruited around 1,000 employees, roughly half of whom will be drivers – could not fall entirely to HR.
“I was strict during the mobilisation that my role and the role of the HR team is to support each area of the business with recruitment, but that getting each team and area positioned is the responsibility of the director in that area,” Bell says.
“It was challenging as everyone thinks anything to do with people and process is our responsibility. But we couldn’t and won’t take on all of that – we all have to be in this together.”
In those early days, when taking over the Shenfield to Liverpool Street line in May 2015, a number of station staff and drivers TUPE-transferred across from then-owner of the line Abellio Greater Anglia. “Many of these staff were disengaged and happy to come to us as we made sure a clear comms strategy and engagement were top priorities,” reports Bell.
But aside from those brought over in this way – and those from a TUPE transfer of Great Western Railway and Southeastern staff in 2017 – the organisation has a target to recruit 500 new drivers by 2019. “They have to be new as there’s a shortage of drivers in the UK. So we’ve had to recruit people from the street and train them,” Bell explains.
Much of this recruitment strategy has centred around not simply hiring the same faces. “Because these people have never worked in rail before we’ve been in a position to build a more diverse portfolio that represents the communities they serve,” she adds.
Key to this has been local recruitment campaigns, such as advertising at West Ham United Football Club’s former stadium to target people living along the rail route. Apprenticeships have offered another option, with the launch of the first trainee driver scheme in February 2016; to date 97% of trainee drivers have elected to go down the apprenticeship route.
Another example has been the commitment to recruit female train drivers into what has traditionally been a very male-dominated sector. “There’s still a perception that it’s a man’s job, so we have deliberately targeted working mothers and returners as we want to see that sea change happen,” Bell says.
It’s a strategy that’s paying off. Of the drivers taken on in the 2015 TUPE transfer, just 3.3% were female. Now the organisation’s figure stands at 12%, dwarfing the industry average of 6%.
Defying the norm in a male-dominated industry is a challenge Bell faces firsthand as the only woman on MTR Crossrail’s board. Which is part of her motivation for insisting that everyone involved in recruitment – of drivers or otherwise – undergoes unconscious bias training.
“This year we’re doing a big recruitment drive for the central operating section and we need to recruit and train up staff from scratch to be in post by December,” she explains. “Every person in this campaign has to do unconscious bias training or they can’t be involved. I don’t care who they are, what level they are at, whether they’re a director or whatever, they have to do it.”
Alongside tackling unconscious bias, there’s also work to be done around promoting the work/life balance that mothers and female carers need. “We’ve not got the perfect setup yet as flexible working options aren’t something the industry has addressed in the past. But we’re doing some work on this at the moment,” Bell says.
Again firsthand experience is a key driver for Bell. In the height of the project she discovered she was pregnant, meaning she subsequently had to juggle managing unions, teams and the board with feeling unwell. By the time she went on maternity leave in December 2015 Bell had become a permanent employee as head of HR. On her return she became HR director.
“With a two-year-old at home who I am the main carer for and with a very demanding full-time job I’m trying to work flexibly,” she says. “I drop off and pick up my daughter at nursery so work different hours. And when we get home it’s my daughter’s time until she goes to bed. Then when she’s asleep I’m back into work mode.”
It’s a balance Bell is quick to admit isn’t easy; hence her determination to put in place mechanisms to help open the industry up to a more diverse group of employees.
It’s in such efforts to modernise a very traditional industry that Bell’s previous experience in rail comes in handy. Coming from London Overground into the opportunity to build a new rail business from scratch meant she was in a unique position to “learn from what was and wasn’t working in the industry and get it right here first time”.
The importance of good relationships with unions is perhaps the biggest lesson she brought with her and turned into a “success story”.
“Because we are a new company we didn’t inherit historical ballots, strikes, or notices short of strike action. So we had an opportunity to build strong relationships with trade unions,” says Bell. “I’d seen where things could go wrong in relationships with unions so wanted to make sure we were in a good place from the start.”
Fundamental to this success, Bell says, was going away for three days with union representatives to work on and define the terms and conditions for drivers together, prior to recruiting any.
The results are impressive (making Bell, along with her other achievements, a worthy contender for this year’s HRD of the Year shortlist). The organisation still boasts no ballots, strike action or notices short of strikes. “I think if I moved to another industry I’d miss working with the unions,” adds Bell.
But it’s not all plain sailing; a staged opening programme creates a complex set of challenges. “Because we take over parts of the line in stages at one point we’ll be running three separate railways, and then they’ll eventually join up and we’ll be running one very big railway,” Bell explains.
“It’s constant change and, with any staged opening programme of this kind, the nature of the beast is that not everything goes exactly to plan.”
This is where recruiting the right people from the start proves vital, she adds. The emphasis is on “people able to cope with change and adapt so that we still deliver against commitments and what the public expects”. The focus now is gearing up for the launch of the Elizabeth line in December.
And if they don’t deliver? “It’s just not an option,” says Bell. “I’ve never once had a conversation with the board or my team on the possibility that we don’t get everyone and everything in place on time.”
High pressure indeed. Which begs the question as to what attracts someone – particularly someone new to an HRD role – to such a mammoth task?
Bell laughs: “There’s been times where I’ve been terrified. The industry is fast-paced – and with all the rail acronyms it feels like learning another language – so it’s not for everyone. But it’s the biggest infrastructure project in Europe and all eyes are on it. And so to be part of it is very exciting.”