Interview with Michelle Nolan-McSweeney

Head of Training Strategy at Network Rail

How long have you been in the rail industry? What brought you to the railway industry? (why did you join the rail sector or what inspired you to join the rail sector?)

A little over 30 years.  My father was a train driver, and became a train crew supervisor in the latter stages of his career.  He worked in the industry for almost 50 years and when he knew I didn’t want to go to college or on to University (at the time of leaving school) he encouraged me to join the British Rail Youth Training Scheme.  I have never looked back.

What does your role consist of? What is a typical day?

I work for Network Rail as the Head of Training Strategy.  No two days are quite the same as I find myself travelling around the country attending internal and external stakeholder meetings (quite often involving a range of Government departments too) all related to apprentice policy and training development opportunities within Network Rail, and in support of the Railway industry including the supply chain.  A typical day involves me catching the 06.03 train from my local station, Cosham, and heading in to London to offices in and around Westminster.  I usually get home about 20.00.  It can be a long day – and with stays away from home fairly regularly – which requires me to be very organised in my home and personal life too.

How do you balance home and work life? What advice would you give to other women?

I find it quite a struggle to balance home and work life, especially as I am also studying part-time for a PhD.  That said, I am very action-oriented and generally well organised, so I plan my days carefully to optimise the time I spend in meetings versus the time I allow for commuting (and the travelling gives me a chance to catch up on some PhD homework for a couple of hours as I head home).

What is it about the industry that you love? (what do you find most rewarding in your career?)

The opportunities are endless; I joined because of a genuine interest in finding a role with purpose, and I have remained by passion for what I do.

I genuinely believe I make a difference, and this is what I find most rewarding, and is the reason why I get out of bed every day for that long commute!

What would you say is the achievement you are most proud of?

Seeing apprentices graduate year on year with great prospects ahead of them, knowing that in some way we have influenced and inspired them to join and then remain in such a fantastic industry.

In your career, what is the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

Dealing with the aftermath of rail accidents when I was the Head of Corporate Assurance & Accident Investigation; I cannot describe just how tough those times were, hence why I prefer to be in a proactive role now – one that seeks to avoid such events happening ever again.

Has anyone inspired you during your career (and, if so who and why?)

There have been many inspiring role models that I have met during my career; men and women, young and old, and from different backgrounds and faiths.  Some have helped me build confidence in myself and my abilities, and others have enabled me to recognise my own strengths and weakness, and then also the potential talent of others.  I have also learnt from them the importance of having the power of your convictions, but also not to be afraid to ask / take advice, and admit when you sometimes get it wrong.

In your opinion, what is the recipe for success – for a team, career, or otherwise?

Building resilience, for myself and within my team, ready to face any challenge, and being creative in our thinking and flexible in our approach to work; strongly determined to improve every day.

Do you think women handle leadership roles differently from men?

Not really.  I think great leadership means being self-aware; knowing that what you do and say and the impact of this can be very powerful (positive / negative).

I believe leadership also means building trust and working towards a common set of objectives through motivation, clear messaging etc.

These are gender neutral to my mind.

What do you see as the challenges to attracting more women into rail and what do you think could be done to make a difference?

I have not personally experienced difficulties in progressing my career, but I absolutely recognise that we need to increase diversity in what is currently a white middle-aged male dominated rail sector.

What advice would you give to young women / other women working in rail?

As an individual, I would say come to work with the right attitude and positive approach to your career; believe that you can achieve your goals and aim to be better every day.

 

As a leader, I would advise that to be successful both individually and collectively you need to give people autonomy; allow them to be self-directed and thus engaged in their work.  Engagement leads on to mastery; individuals with the desire to get better and better about something that matters.  Then set this all within the context of a purpose; in motivating people you seek to achieve something greater and more permanent than just for yourself, e.g. an objective, a goal, a target, a profit etc.

 

Interviewed September 2016