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Creating a high-performance executive team

Transport | Leadership development – Northern trains

Growth Needs Assessment

Northern Rail Ltd was established in 2003 when a 50:50 joint venture between Serco and NedRailways, (now called Abellio) won the contract to operate local train services in the North. This area had previously been served by two separate franchises, Arriva in the north-west and First in the north-east and the new franchise became the largest in the UK, at the time, with almost 5,000 employees.

Northern did not exist until the franchise was won, and therefore there was nothing tangible for customers or employees to engage with. Whilst the safety and reliability of the train service was maintained, customers did not know who to turn to when things went wrong, and employees behaved as they still worked for their previous employees. 

We set out to develop a new, compelling vision for the franchise that would set the long-term agenda for its development and be equally engaging for customers, employees, and other stakeholders. 

Our Approach

The initial focus was to get the Executive Team ready to lead change, following which we developed and implemented a two-year change programme to create a shift in emphasis towards the customer and to embed a customer-focused culture.

The development and implementation of the change programme involved us working with the Executive Leadership Team, the Senior Management Team, cross-functional groups of employees working on specific initiatives and functional teams, such as the HR team with whom we introduced the business partner model. 

Following the initial Customer Insight and Employee Insight work, we developed a Leadership Development programme. The Northern brand was introduced on a gradual basis from 2005 and the new vision, values and strategy were launched from 2006, along with an entirely new focus on customers, (and how their expectations are met) and people, (and how they are managed and developed).

Impact of our work

The Northern Rail franchise became one of the most successful with a high-performing leadership team which we had coached to become more customer-focused and effective. 

We coached and developed the Executive Leadership Team, individually and collectively, supported the Steering Group until they felt comfortable to progress without us, developed the structure and skills of the HR team (including recruiting new people to the team) and helped to set up the business planning function that maintained the ongoing programme and embedding of strategic and business planning as a business-as-usual activity.