Interview with Karen Boswell

Managing Director, East Coast Main Line Company Limited (until 1st March 2015)

How did you get into the rail industry?

By accident! I started my career following catering college. I went on to work in the hospitality industry where I spent 20 years of my working life, working in contract catering and general services such as Facilities Management, with clients both in the public and private sectors. I took on roles ranging from training and development, general management, sales and business development, working with a variety of interesting businesses. Luckily, I also got to work for a Fortune 500 company based in the US again working in business development and general management, always managing large teams and focussing on the customer.
I’m really fortunate to have had a very diverse career. One day, a colleague introduced me to someone at First Group. They were looking for a head of on board catering services. The job was offered – and I took it. It was a new industry to me and I was attracted by the challenge. I started at First Great Western then worked on various refranchising bids. I was part of the senior team that won the First Capital Connect franchise back in 2006, thereafter joining the executive team as Customer Service Director to mobilise the company and a few years on also took up the role as Deputy Managing Director.
In November 2009, I was asked to join East Coast as Managing Director. This was a new and exciting challenge: First Capital Connect was essentially a commuter focussed company whilst East Coast is a premier long distance business with a primarily leisure based customer profile.
I’ve never been worried about changing industries, but funnily enough, the only real shock for me was to give the company car back! But of course it turned out to be symbolic and positive: you can throw everything in the back of a company car, whereas when taking the train, you have to be more focussed. It’s a completely different mentality when planning your working day! I remember in the first week, looking at my e-mails and having absolutely no idea what people were saying or asking me to do: the jargon, the acronyms. I also remember being amazed at the complexity of the rail sector and the coming together of so many parts. That impressed me hugely. Now my attitude is different – and I resent it if I have to drive when I could be taking the train, reflecting, reading, and working.

So what’s a typical day for you?

Well actually, there’s no typical day – and that’s just why I enjoy the job so much. There’s no routine, there are constant challenges – and you always have to be pro-active and adept at change

What is the most rewarding thing about being a woman who has achieved a senior role in her career?

On a personal level, my home life is the most important – so having been able to build a successful career and keep it balanced with a solid home life, bringing up two children for example whilst working (which has always been a challenge) has been incredibly rewarding. I count that as a great achievement.
Professionally, I’ve reached a point in my career where I can really shape and influence strategy and successful business outcomes. I’ve had the privilege of working with great people and great businesses, and act as a mentor and a role model for others along the way is hugely rewarding.

Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?

In my opinion, yes they do. Men often have bigger egos! And whilst men usually approach decision making with confidence, women tend to be more focussed on ‘tasks’ and can be reluctant to put themselves forward. By the way, this is a massive generalisation (and I’m not over fond of sweeping generalisations) and remember there are some great male and female leaders – so it’s also about adapting your mindset. Men and women look, talk and think differently – but it’s that diversity that can bring with it many positive outcomes in well balanced teams.

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

Obstacles quite often can be of your own making. For me personally for example, not attending university or gaining a degree meant that I often worried about that when I was around some of my peers. I was conscious that people are prejudiced and I didn’t necessarily ‘fit the model’. But I had to overcome this if I was to achieve my goals and I’ve learned to build my self-confidence and self-belief, refusing to let the fact that I was working in a male dominated industry stop me. I pushed through it though by not by behaving like a man! I just knew instinctively that it was the right thing for me to do.
The best piece of advice I can give a woman, or a man for that matter, is: no matter how hard things are, don’t walk away when the going gets tough because quite simply, you’ll never forgive yourself. Resilience is a great quality to develop. I’ve never been one to go for the soft option or the easy route and I’ve always taken the view that results speak for themselves and my values, and ‘who I am’, will be measured in my results, but having said that, you also have to be tenacious and determined. This is what will see you through anything and help build your self-confidence – and a route to overcoming what you see as obstacles.

So what are the day-to-day challenges of being a senior female leader?

I really don’t think this is gender specific, although I do believe that as a senior woman you live more under the microscope than a man. One of the challenges of being a senior leader first and foremost is that it can be lonely. You also have a dramatic fear of failure. When you have the top job, CEO or MD, everyone expects you to come up with all the answers which of is course completely unrealistic. Good leadership is surrounding oneself with people you trust and that can share the weight of responsibilities. I take my leadership role very seriously: I’m ultimately accountable for the company being successful, the customers and stakeholders being happy, and I’m conscious that every decision I make can affect people’s lives – and their jobs. These responsibilities result in a great pressure on a day-to-day basis.
But the upsides are brilliant: when you succeed in creating a successful business with motivated people, it gives rise to an amazing sense of achievement.

What has been the best piece of career advice you’ve received to date?

Well that’s fairly easy, quite simply, never give up.
Don’t be frightened of change, meet it straight on and be true to yourself. I always had a belief that no matter what I came up against, I’d always find a way. I’m not hierarchical person and I feel quite strongly that there’s no place for this in modern business. Within two days of joining East Coast, I explained to the team that from my perspective, every single person in the company was as important as the other, it was part of the puzzle of success, and we all needed to work and push forward together as a team. The current results speak for themselves. It’s like that quote from the NASA janitor: when asked by President Kennedy what his job was, he responded “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”. It’s not a big secret: it is not CEOs that make things happen, yes they will set the strategy and path – but it’s the team and the people working in that team that make businesses successful.

What has been your career high?

Without a doubt, being MD at East Coast. We significantly turned around a business that had a chequered past and had failed twice previously. Train Companies operate in complex environments so the business success of the last five and half years at East Coast for me personally is massively rewarding. We’ve lived in a goldfish bowl most of the time, scrutinised by the government, passengers, the industry and the media. There was a huge pressure to succeed. We worked really hard, we cared and the results got better from year to year. East Coast has achieved success on a shifting horizon too. I can honestly say I have never had the same day twice. I created a company which, as well as a sustained success, is a legacy, a foundation to build on. I believe I’ve made ECML a great place to be. No matter what people may say, I can show that the last few years have been the most profitable and successful time for this company, year on year.

What has been your career low?

There’s not been a low as such. Of course, there are choices I’ve made which I enjoyed making more than others, but that’s all.

Who is your role model and why?

I don’t have one role model. But I do have people who inspired me in my personal life and career.
My grandma inspired me for example. She was a resilient person, and brought up four children and managed a budget in difficult times. She has fun and surrounded everyone with love and affection.
My first ever line manager was an inspiration too. He was an extremely successful businessman but was dyslexic and had a speech impediment. That never stopped him, and I was a trainee manager at the time and he told me about standards. I started every day on the edge of the business: checking bins, car parks, ensuring there were enough toilet rolls. The approach he had about everything was really detailed; he maintained the highest of standards day-in, and day-out, and was really customer focussed. He kept everything simple and efficient: he grounded me and was an excellent team player and a lot of fun to be with. I learnt a huge amount from him, and that’s stood in me in good stead.
Vivienne Westwood is another of my role models. She hasn’t been afraid of change, is passionate, and focussed. She always remains true to herself and inspires women all around the world. She influenced fashion – and has left a legacy.
Stuart Rose is another one. He of course has ran four giant businesses and made them all successful. He really knew how to connect the business with its customers. He wasn’t frightened of change and has always been able to keep a connection with customers’ changing needs. He is my inspiration on how to make a business sustainable and profitable. I saw him speak once and he was incredibly impressive, simple, straightforward and passionate.
The headmaster of a school I visited last year also left a deep impression on me. As part of our community engagement, I visited a school in Gateshead. It was a difficult, challenging area. The headmaster displayed such warmth and such a great passion for what he is trying to shape for the children and their families in tough times. He’s a genuine inspiration and making a very real difference every day.

Using your experience as an example, what piece of advice would you give to any woman who hopes to take the next step in her career?

Just go for it. Be true to yourself and your values, and keep your promises. Put yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time, unfreeze the paradigm, look at things in a different way, but keep it simple. As far as ‘managing’ is concerned, make your intentions and goals clear and enjoy rewarding the team and yourself. I know, that’s more than one piece of advice but if I was pressed to say just one piece of advice, it would be: don’t look back, you’ll have done great stuff, learn; build on that and then move on, you can’t change the past – but you most certainly can influence the future!

And finally, what do you think the industry could do more of?

Support its women and actively embrace diversity. The Rail Industry must get and encourage more women into rail and into senior roles. If rail tackles this, by definition, things will get better. I personally believe there’s some significant way to go on this agenda yet. That’s why the Focus Group created by Women in Rail is a great initiative – and I wholeheartedly support it.

 

Interviewed February 2015