If some leaders direct at a comfortable distance from the project they are working on, Simon Blanchflower is not that person. When we meet Simon, major programme director of Network Rail’s Thameslink Programme to talk about the qualities of leadership, it is not in a towering skyscraper, but in an office in the midst of the action.
From it we can hear the rumbling and screeching of rail tracks, the sounds of a nine-year project coming to life. The immersive setting of part of the new Thameslink line is a good metaphor for his style of leadership, which is all about leading from within and empowering the community and is what we are here to discover more about.
The Thameslink Programme is a £7 billion government-funded scheme to upgrade and expand the rail network to connect passengers to a wider range of stations to the north and to the south of London. It has three key benefits; improved connections, more reliable journeys (eventually trains will run every 2-3 minutes like the tube), and newer, better trains. “It’s very much about increased capacity, increased journey opportunity, which itself has a socioeconomic benefit with which the government’s business case is predicated. In a nutshell it’s transforming rail travel in London,” says Simon.
As major programme director, Simon is responsible for railway infrastructure works, which make up £5 billion of the total cost. Network Rail is the project management organisation, and its supply chain directly delivers the works. Simon’s job is to lead the team which oversees that supply chain (10 directly contracted companies, with 100s more in the wider supply chain), as well as to lead the health and safety, engineering and other functional teams.
He also has overall accountability for the delivery of the scheme, and manages the relationships with the stakeholders, including the train operating companies, and crucially, he manages the relationship with the Department for Transport, the ultimate client.
It is a huge undertaking. Yet when we meet Simon he seems relaxed, focused, and looks incredibly well for someone who has just come to the end of a project of this scale. Work started in 2008 and has involved major feats of engineering, not least rebuilding the 182-year-old London Bridge station that debuted new platforms, entrance and massive concourse (larger than the pitch at Wembley stadium, it can accommodate 96 million passengers a year, doubling previous capacity) this January. “We’re well into 90% complete now, it’s the last few little bits,” he says modestly.
These include new shops and a traffic management system that will complete the journey to making the station world class and help to manage the reliability of the trains approaching the centre of London. But we’re here to look back on the more challenging past few years of the project, to find out the approaches Simon took to leading the project, the qualities he personally has brought to the leadership role and how it has influenced the approach to safety.
Simon’s answer to our key question; what makes good leadership, is revealing. “Integrity is really important in terms of the way I operate. I would hope there is an alignment between what I say and what I do, because integrity is ultimately about that alignment,” he says first. But he quickly moves on to his role in relation to the community he leads and encouraging individuals’ growth and good work. It shows he has seemingly less interest in the status of leadership, being more motivated by the benefits he can bring through it.
Empowered to change
He speaks of an early piece of work, which was to change the safety culture to make it about giving others confidence and engagement in the programme. To do this, Network Rail employed a consultancy to run workshops and interviews with operatives and managers to find out what their feelings were on safety. “It came out that it was very much a directing culture, so that people did things because they were told to do things, rather than necessarily because they felt empowered to change.”
Introducing a safety culture improvement plan has redressed this balance and in particular helped the success of the company’s focus on investigating near misses with the same rigour as they would an actual incident. People need to feel they can speak out and report a problem if they see it, he says. “It’s reliant upon having the right safety culture for people to actually be willing to report those incidents in the first place, rather than sweep them under the carpet.”
Simon’s focus on community is not just a job, but stems from voluntary experience in helping communities and is a driving passion. He is longstanding chair of governors at the local primary school where he lives in Kensington & Chelsea. “I thrive in terms of what I contribute back into the local community that I’m part of. My Christian faith is part of that in terms of what I do within the church, but it’s also a motivation in terms of wanting to drive for a greater level of social cohesion within the community I’m part of,” he explains.
His local church where he is on the leadership team was one of the disaster relief centres for the victims of the Grenfell tragedy. The experience has been upsetting and not one he wishes to talk about, but must only serve to cement this sense of responsibility, we imagine.
Believing the best
His leadership style is a reflection of his strong values and beliefs, but also we discover, of a striving personality. He has a tremendous belief in the best possible outcomes and in the capacity of people to do well. Simon explains to us how children at the school where he is a governor are among the 10 per cent most deprived people in the country. Yet the Sunday Times recently ranked the school 15th best in the country. “You might come from a particular background, but that doesn’t need to affect your educational attainment. And, therefore, our expectation is that every child at our school will achieve national standards or beyond by the time that they leave it. And they do.”
His powers of positive thinking must be invaluable in a safety context because he wants the best for people’s safety and is unwavering in his commitment that this can be attained. “I believe that I can send everybody home safe every day. I think if we can’t have that continual focus and belief then I think we’re letting our staff down. We’ve got to continue to strive with the belief that every injury is preventable.”
But the role comes with a certain degree of added pressure on the delivery side of the work to be done. In December 2017, MPs launched an inquiry looking into why the completion of the project had been pushed back to 2019, a year later than planned. The Department for Transport announced the delay of full service rollout after it emerged that acquisition of new trains had not been completed and that there were problems with Thameslink’s integration with the wider UK train network.
The delay does not include the infrastructure side of it – which has succeeded in remaining on schedule – but the delivery of services impacts on his work. “Every additional bit of infrastructure capability I bring in provides greater resilience to the timetable, greater operational reliability. So, yes, there is pressure, and I have to be very clear in terms of how we will deliver things and when it’s safe to deliver them.”
It’s all about planning for each stage of operation he says. “We carry out reviews before all of our infrastructure work to make sure that we’re ready to go, that everything is in place, we’ve got confidence around the preparation and planning. I wouldn’t give the go ahead for something to happen if I wasn’t confident it wasn’t properly planned and ready to be executed.”
On cue, the trains we can see out of the window are part of the early phase of service roll out. Drivers are currently practising the route on the line that runs between Blackfriars and London Bridge, but, from May, 18 trains will run per hour through the centre of London, gearing up to 24 by the end of 2019. It must be music to his ears and perhaps a reason he seems invigorated.
We suspect that his healthy appearance must also stem from something more than work success however, and we are right. Simon is a keen fitness enthusiast. “I’m busy at work and I do challenge myself physically sporting wise.” He cycles to work and last year he did the London Marathon, Ride Prudential and Scottish Islands Peaks Race, a sailing and running event.
This year he is doing an ultra-duathlon. But he does not say whether or not this is the key to good resilience at work, declining to make such neat lines of deduction perhaps. Earlier for example, he tells us that you can use structured ways to change safety for the better, but that this does not mean they will always work completely: “Some things will be more effective than others [when it comes to safety]. But I don’t think it’s all science.”
Thameslink will make a huge difference to commuters when it opens this spring, allowing quicker and more comfortable journeys right through the heart of London and connecting new destinations into London. It’s a complex project that has required structured thinking and achieving the seemingly impossible, including keeping London Bridge open for the duration of all the construction work.
No surprise then that the specific leadership qualities it takes to run such a project are organisation, endurance and belief that nothing is too tall an order. As a project that will be about connecting communities, it’s also a good fit that the leader of the project is someone for whom community is so central to his life.