Interview with Alison Munro

Executive Board Member at HS2

How did you get into the rail industry, was it by choice or was it more by accident?

I got into transport by choice because I was an economist and there are a lot of opportunities for economists in transport. Rail itself was not really my first preference, so that really was a bit more by accident, but it turns out it was a great option for me.

What do you do?

I started as an economist in government, but wanted a new challenge once I reached senior management level so I moved into transport policy. I had a spell dealing with airport policy, deciding where the next runway should be, I also worked as the sponsor for the second part of High Speed 1, The Channel Tunnel rail link from St Pancras down to the Channel Tunnel.

I have a strong history in terms of investment in transport and major projects. In 2009 I was fortunate enough to be given the Chief Executive job when High Speed 2 was set up. I was Chief Executive until September 2014 during the early stages of preparing the strategy and I am now managing director of development.

What does a typical day involve for you?

It varies day to day. I have a fair amount of executive business, dealing with issues about the company and the programme as a whole, contributing to the direction, and also building the organisation, because we are growing. There is also the managing director role I hold, which involves providing leadership in the work we are doing. This includes managing the development of a hybrid build for the route from Birmingham to Crewe. We have just heard confirmation from the government that they now want us to proceed; much of my time will now be in discussions with my team about next steps. I also spend a lot of my time managing relationships with external partners and stakeholders.

What aspects of that are the most challenging?

There are several aspects that I think are challenging. One is delivering ambitious plans that the government has for High Speed 2, both in terms of what they want to achieve and what benefits they want it to bring. There is a big challenge with High Speed 2 because it’s a high profile project: we have to communicate really carefully as there are many people it affects. There is also an organisational aspect: we have grown considerably, when we first started we were literally two or three people and now have over 1,000 people.

Another aspect that we have come up against recently is the expectation that 25,000 people will be employed. We are in a very lucky position – we now have a government that is very committed to delivering High Speed 2 – that in turn brings job opportunities right into the early 2030’s. The question is, though, do we actually have the skills in this country to feed that demand? Especially with other infrastructure investment that is going on at the same time.

We have to ensure that the supply chain is aware of these opportunities, so they can be gearing themselves up. Additionally conversations with schools and universities need to be ongoing to try and encourage young people to go into the professions that will fill those jobs on High Speed 2.

What do you like most about your job?

The most enjoyable part for me is the opportunity to shape what is going to be a transformational project for generations to come – having that opportunity to be in the early planning stages and influence what it is that we will actually deliver is really exciting.

What could be improved in the rail industry for you personally?

In this industry, we face a challenge with ensuring there is a good level of skills available. We need to nurture and build these skills, and the people that are needed to fill these jobs. Furthermore, as an industry we need to be aware that there is a need to increase the diversity of people filling these roles, and not just gender diversity but diversity in a more general sense. We need to make sure that we are tapping into all of the talent out there, and to do that requires us to have a much more diverse workforce in the rail future.

How do you think that we can attract more women to the rail industry?

There are a number of things that we can do; one is trying to project a more appealing face of rail to a broader range of people. It’s not just about building shiny new trains and shiny new infrastructure; we should focus on promoting what rail and transport deliver, which is providing a service that makes a difference to the public’s everyday lives.

In terms of attracting people into rail I think we have got to be more pro active in addressing the diversity agenda, by supporting groups like Women in Rail, and making more concerted efforts in our searches for people. We need to go as far as we possibly can to track down candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds. I think recruitment processes can be improved to actively get a better diversity in the industry.

What is the most rewarding thing in your career?

I think you can, as a woman, bring a different dimension to things and I think that is rewarding because you feel you can make a difference. The other I thing I do find very rewarding and very humbling is being seen as a role model. You have an opportunity to change things in the industry and that aspect is very rewarding.

Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?

There are differences in characteristics, but I think having a more diverse workforce is beneficial. Women can approach things in a different way, and it doesn’t just have to be women, but having a more diverse mix of people brings different perspective. With High Speed 2 we had to do a lot of public consultation and you’re out there talking to members of the public and it is important that, on some level, you do reasonably represent the people that you are talking to. It is very important to have a mix of people who are better able to engage with the sort of people you are targeting, having an appreciation of the mix of your passengers is important.

As you have moved up the career ladder what would you say has been your biggest obstacle and how did you overcome it?

The biggest obstacle has been building my own capabilities and confidence. Reflecting back on my career, with the benefit of hindsight, I could have done more at an earlier stage to build my own self confidence and my presentation of myself. Particularly when you are operating in a man’s world, I think you probably have got to go a bit above and beyond, as things won’t land in your lap. Preparing myself for a leadership position is probably the hardest thing I have come up against.

You have to test yourself; you end up in situations that you wouldn’t have necessarily chosen. You will find that once you have completed it you think ‘well actually that wasn’t quite as bad’ – and that does build your confidence.

I have participated in development programmes; I think those are good to build techniques and skills that you can actually learn and develop yourself. Observing other behaviours and approaches helps you identify the approaches you want to take.

What has been the best piece of career advice that you have received to date?

I think probably the best advice I had was really focusing on the positives of what you’re good at. I think we spend a lot of time looking at what we’re not good at. It would benefit anyone in business to focus on their strengths and build their career around that. Of course you should always strive to improve all your skills, but your strongest ones should be celebrated.

 

Interviewed March 2016