Interview with Wilma Allan

Chief Financial Officer, Govia Thameslink Railway Limited

How did you get into the rail industry: what is by choice or by accident?

By accident. I come from a very small town in the north of Scotland. Fresh out of Aberdeen uni, I found a job in the oil exploration sector. This was followed by spells in the nuclear and car industries.
After a few years in the car industry, I looked for a new challenge. I was not particularly excited by trains – and it took me ages to figure out one type of train from another! – but I liked the role on offer. It was the right role for me and I quickly found my skill set gave me a distinct advantage: I have an analytical brain and challenged decisions and ideas with facts, therefore going against the traditional anecdotal, custom based, thought process which was being used in some areas.

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

I always worked in a male dominated environment and never focussed on the fact that I was a woman, so the issue really is what is the most rewarding thing about being in a senior position. The simple answer is watching the people I worked with and brought into the team enjoying a very successful career as a result of the experience and development they gained whilst working for me. It is the quiet knowledge that I helped them succeed in realising their career potential. I am talking about men and women.
One advantage of being a female leader is that, with respect to women, I was quick to spot their lack of confidence and was able to help them develop the tools to overcome their lack of self-belief. This makes me proud.
Another rewarding fact about being a senior leader is knowing that I had a key role in the success of the companies I have worked in. Feeling I can make a difference is really important to me.

Do you think men and women handle leadership roles differently?

Yes, most definitely. Their competitive nature is different. Generally, women lead and work in a team differently from men. Personally, I have always made sure that people in my team got the credit for the good work they did and, more precisely, from the executives. It is crucial to develop your team and give them the exposure they deserve and help them grow to realise their full potential.

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

Lack of self-confidence. It held me back in some ways but at the same time, I always grasped every opportunity that presented itself to me and pushed myself out of my comfort zone.
I specifically recall a big opportunity I took while working in Aberdeen. I was offered a secondment in London and took it. This meant leaving my husband in Scotland and go alone to London. Not too many people did that back then! It was a little daunting but, looking back, grabbing that opportunity was a game changer in my career. I had proved to myself that I could be successful in a different environment, I could step out of the comfort of the role and team I was used to. Nowadays, I think this obstacle is more in my head: I have proved myself – I am a senior executive with a good reputation.

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

I am passionate and strong and that may sometimes be perceived as being emotional or, on the other hand, just tough. When it comes to my personal life, I am soft. In my professional life, I care deeply about the people in my team and when I have to take tough decisions, I find it difficult and challenging emotionally.

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

A few years back, when I was wondering where I wanted my career to go, a friend asked me to make the decision on the basis of what I wanted to do, what was truly important to me and, more importantly, to think really hard about why I wanted to apply for that particular job, rather than applying for the job because I thought it was expected of me. It made me reassess what I really wanted to do rather than what I thought I should be doing – and lead to me not applying for the job as I knew I didn’t really want it.

What has been your career high?

Recently, when I witnessed two of the people who used to work in my team being appointed as Directors. It was a high because I had helped them grow and fostered their talent so that they were able to achieve their full potential.
Another career high was many years back when I was working in the oil exploration industry. My boss, who was a very critical person and whom I personally believed did not rate me much, praised my skills and competence, showing me off as an example to everyone in an external multi party meeting. I was completely taken aback. It was completely unexpected from him and certainly in front of such a large audience. This boosted my self-confidence.
There have been lots of other successes in my career ranging from successful contract negotiations to being part of the team that delivered the Javelin service for the Olympics.

What has been your career low and what did you learn from it?

There was a point in my career when I was working in what for me was avery difficult environment. Looking back, I was making myself ill. One day, self-preservation kicked in and I walked away. That day I learned that I valued myself more than to put up with the situation any longer. The future was uncertain and I was very unsure about what would happen next but the overwhelming emotion was relief that I had quit. It proved of course the correct choice: within a couple of months, my life had been turned around and I had found another, much better, job. That taught me that the culture of the company and the environment you work in are crucial to your well being.

Who is your role model and why?

In the early days, when I was working in the oil exploration sector and fresh out of university, I worked with a Finance Director who was very critical of me. Working with him was tough but I believe he was instrumental in getting me to where I am today. He recognised that I didn’t like being criticised and would not make the same mistake again. At the same time he was the one who gave me the opportunity that I believe really kick started my career. He saw something which I probably didn’t realise I had and pushed me to develop and progress. Praise from him really meant something and it didn’t come that often. Unconsciously I think I have become him, in management style anyway! Another big influence was the then Vice President. He was a real leader. He set high standards, told us where he wanted us to be, shared his vision, and got us to push ourselves very hard. He also admitted that some of the choices he, as an executive, had made for the company had not all been the correct ones. He took full responsibility for some of the setbacks we had had. We respected him even more after that.

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?

Push yourself to do it. You are better than you think. And find somebody who knows you well to chat it through with and give you the pep talk.
I recently was able to do this for a young manager: she was thinking of applying for a job and asked me to review her CV. On reading it, I knew she was better than the job she was applying for, and that the way she had presented her CV didn’t really reflect her experience. I got her to think carefully about her choices, challenge them and look at what she really wanted to achieve. She ended up in another more suitable job.
It is very important to have a “champion” or mentor, someone who can get you to think in a different way about the choices you are considering, someone to challenge your perspective and sometimes your own self.

What would you say are the day-to-day challenges of your role?

The political environment, but that also keeps me interested because it is truly unique to the rail industry. Most other industries do not have to deal with the government on a day-to-day basis. It gives a different dynamic to the role and, as an executive, gives you a broader view of your business.

What would you say to a young graduate considering a career in rail?

Don’t assume rail is all about steam engines! The rail industry is going through a period of incredible and exciting change. A lot of innovations are coming through the sector and it is the perfect time to become a part of it. A lot of the legacy systems and infrastructure are coming to an end and are being replaced. Huge investments are being injected into the industry to modernise it. If you join now, you can be a part of something that is going through tremendous changes and offers big opportunities in many areas: new trains are being built, new infrastructure is being put in place, customer interfaces are evolving, new partnerships are being created, every angle or every part of the industry is being challenged. You can be part of something that has a deep impact on the broader community you are part of and that is not often on offer in a job. I came into the rail industry thinking I would stay 18 months. It has been 16 years!

 

Interviewed February 2015