CEO of Europe's largest infrastructure project interviewed by Walmsley Wilkinson Associates
Inspiring Leaders – Mark Wild – Chief Executive – Crossrail
Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of Lancashire based executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2019 she is undertaking a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Mark Wild became Chief Executive of Crossrail Limited in November 2018, having joined from London Underground, where he served as Managing Director from June 2016.
Crossrail Limited, established in 2001, is the company that has been set up to build the new railway that will become known as the Elizabeth Line when it opens through central London.
It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Transport for London (TfL) and is jointly sponsored by TfL and the Department for Transport (DfT). Once the railway is complete it will be run by TfL as part of London’s integrated transport network.
Prior to joining London Underground as Managing Director, Mark Wild served as Special Advisor to the Minister and Secretary of the State Government of Victoria, Australia.
Previously, he had been the Chief Executive of Public Transport Victoria, the integrated transport authority based in Melbourne, which serves a population of some six million people.
He was also Managing Director of Westinghouse Signals, where he was responsible for successful integration projects such as the upgrade of the Victoria line for London Underground as well as the delivery of Communications-Based Train Control metro lines around the world, including the Downtown Line in Singapore, Airport Line in Taiwan and Line 5 in Beijing.
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
To be an Engineer. I became an Engineer because my Dad was a coal miner in County Durham. I came from quite a humble, working class background and when you are a coal miner, the Engineer is a big figure in your life. They keep you safe, they give you over-time, they give you work – the Engineer was the big boss and my Dad always had aspirations for me to become a “Big Boss” and encouraged me into engineering. I’ve always thought of myself as an Engineer, even from an early age and that’s what I became. Even now, after I have completed lots of different jobs, if I am ever at Passport Control and they ask me what I do, I still say Engineer. It makes me proud and it certainly goes way back into where and how I grew up. My heroes back then were Charles Parsons, Edwards Vickers - the Victorian Engineers were my heroes and in fact they still are.
What was your first job?
My Dad was also Secretary at Durham City Working Men's Club and my first job was actually working behind the bar, where I certainly learnt a lot. I then did an Electrical Engineering at University and during that degree course, I worked at Royal Victoria Infirmary Newcastle in amongst public servants, Nurses, Doctors, Administrators and I looked after electrical infrastructure. I guess that was my first contact with the public service and that has been another theme throughout my career – I’ve always admired public service. Although I’ve probably worked more in the private sector; probably 60% private and 40% public sector. I think every professional should work in both private and public; happens a lot more in America than in the UK. I guess that foundation for me was built in my first job at the RVI. I can still smell it – the chemical, acrid smell at that time and I remember just how brilliant the people were in this old Victorian built hospital.
Who / What has inspired you in your business career?
My Mum inspired me in my private life but the propelling force in my entry into engineering as a career was my Dad and he’s still proud of my achievements. In my business career, the person that inspired me was Warren Buffett. The person who was most influential in my career, you may be surprised to hear, was Margaret Thatcher. I left University in 86/87 and in 1990 I joined the nationalised electricity company NEEB and I was quite happy being in a nationalised company. Thatcher of course privatised the electricity industry but what it did, was to liberalise it. The company I worked for, Northern Electric, was bought by Warren Buffett’s company. The management team that he put in, were extremely entrepreneurial and they completely lit a commercial fire in me. They opened a door for me and although I really don’t think that Thatcher did a great job for the North East of England, the liberalisation of that market really helped me. Without that, I would have struggled. Warren Buffett bought that company through a company called MidAmerican and they absolutely changed the course of my career.
What five words best describe you?
Friendly, focused, committed (perhaps over-committed), trustworthy, but probably the predominate thing about me is affable. I don’t see myself as hierarchical. I am the same now as that 18-year-old Durham boy – I don’t feel any different - so most people would say that I am affable and friendly; which by the way makes me very happy.
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher said “We have two lives. The second begins when we realise, we only have one”. I read that quotation recently and liked it, but in general I’m not really into quotes. What I do like and what I’d also encourage other Leaders to be into, is a stream of thinking around the human perspective of leadership. I rate and read a lot about people possibilities and traits - kindness, humility and vulnerability being positive dominant traits in today’s effective leaders. I’m not really into inspirational quotes but I read a lot about how human beings respond in a changing world.
What technology are you passionate about?
My passion is about mobility of people, connectivity, creating something better and adding value. I get excited about connecting technologies. I think my job at Crossrail is amazing. For example, in the near future, we will be taking someone from Heathrow Airport and in 51 minutes they can be in Canary Wharf for a lower cost fare than they will pay today. The technological efforts to get that person from Heathrow Airport to Canary Wharf is just epic – to keep it safe, reliable and to keep them connected to their mobile devices. I am really passionate about enabling technology. What I am not passionate about is the “gizmology” of the digital age.
There is a lot of talk about connected and autonomous vehicles and that we will all be travelling around in self-driving cars. I’m not a fan of technology for technology’s sake. As I’ve said, I’m from the North East of England, the Engineers there were driven by creating value and for me, technology is about value creation and I’m particularly interested in mobility. One of the greatest things we are doing with the new Elizabeth line is that we are making it completely step-free. I met a young mother in Abbey Wood, which is at the Eastern end of our line, who has a severely disabled son. Her passion for the Elizabeth line was that her son will get a job. He can’t get work in his locale as he isn’t mobile, but this extra transport link will help him. For me, technology is pursuant to something bigger.
What is your approach to interviewing and hiring?
There is a big trend towards competency-based interviewing, which I understand, but for me I’m looking for the deeper spirit of the person. I don’t believe I am the brightest spark, but I’ve got a good spirit, I’m a hard worker and I like connecting with people. So that’s what I’m looking for – the right spirit, the right attitude. Of course, the individual has to be competent for the role as well. I seek the difference in someone, the contraview, it’s not just gender or ethnicity, but difference of opinion, diverse contribution, someone who isn’t just like me and I’ve learnt this over time. I am looking for the spirit, the resilience, difference of opinions, new approaches and someone who really wants it. The problem for many young people in the current environment is that when I was a graduate, there weren’t actually many of us around.
My Grad Trainee programme for the whole of the UK electricity industry in 1986 was for 34 people. Now TfL will get thousands of applicants for their graduate programme and I bet that’s very typical of other organisations, so there is a lot of competition. Difference, not just competency, is the real crucial point in what I am looking for
Do you have a favourite interview question?
I do and it’s an easy one. After greeting the candidate and settling them down, I explain that I have already read their CV and then the first question I ask is “In the next 3 minutes, could you please give me a thumbnail sketch of your career and explain why you want to be here? Unfortunately, a large percentage of people just can’t do that – 10 minutes later, I am looking at my watch, so for me it proves whether someone can listen and summarise a thought effectively within a given timeframe. This question hasn’t let me down so far.
How should the Human Resources function operate within any business?
Crossrail isn’t a business, it’s there to execute a programme, so this is a bit of an unusual situation. Through the experiences in my career so far, my belief is that progress only really happens through the people. The technology is secondary. I have worked in some massively complex, safety critical, technology businesses and the key thing I have learnt is, that its people are the enabler to make it all happen. In general leadership happens through conversation. I haven’t yet met anyone who can refute that. I believe in human beings talking to each other in the spirit of collaboration to achieve a goal.
The HR function is central. When I have been the Managing Director or CEO of an enterprise, there have always been three important people around me – the CFO, the delivery person and the HR person. In that triumvirate, generally the HR person has been the most influential because the value is in the people. What you are looking for in HR functions are people who clearly have bureaucratic, personnel, volume, metric duties to do, but you are looking for strategy. The most advanced businesses align their business strategy in their HR function. I have been very lucky to work with some of the best HR Directors – they have all transcended their discipline and are more interested in the shape of the business and the people.
Do you think workplace diversity will now become embedded or is there still much more to do?
There is a fantastic leader who works in HS2 called Mark Lomas, he is the Diversity & Inclusion Director. He talks very eloquently about how evolution hasn’t worked, we need a revolution. There is a diversity and inclusion crisis and I also think the inclusivity bit is completely under-sold. You may achieve diversity but still not be inclusive. I believe the inclusive environment is so important.
If you look at the Crossrail / TfL age range under thirty-five, then there are some really positive stories. There has been a lot of investment. The talent pipeline has improved, although it is still a bit threadbare in places, including in areas of engineering. When you get to our mid-forties / early fifties range then it starts to get quite thin, particularly in areas that weren’t traditionally gender or BAME balanced. As an example, we have recently been looking at a certain role here and I was presented with a shortlist which consisted of all white males in their fifties.
There was a reason for that, as this role was in a very specific technical niche where it is difficult to find diversity. However, I sent the list back and a month later they were able to produce a more diverse, balanced shortlist, so the talent was out there but more work was required to find it. In the lower age group of emerging talent, it’s absolutely about continuing to foster that and there are plenty of programmes already in place, but the trick for me is to break through the glass ceilings and for leaders to insist on balanced, diverse shortlists. There is no doubt for me that safety is now completely embedded in organisations and that people recognise safety as a pre cursor to business excellence and that it is morally right. Diversity and inclusion needs to follow the same story.
I can give you countless examples from my career and other people’s, where diverse and inclusive teams will beat non-diverse and inclusive teams every time. Pound for pound with the same capabilities, they will beat them every time due to the three-dimensional, different thinking and different perspective within the team. There is a real crisis and it’s not helped with the laziness of blaming it on the pipeline. We need to rage against it. Vicky Pryce has written about why we should have quotas. Her work provides an interesting read. I’m not quite there with all the thinking, as we have still got to have a meritocracy, but there is certainly a conversation to be had.
What legislation would you amend or implement to support UK business?
As I mentioned, I’m not a massive fan of forced quotas because it has to be a meritocracy. I am a fan of legislating within the gender pay gap. There are potentially some practices within the HR world that could be looked at. You shouldn’t be able to start until you’ve demonstrated that you have tried to get a balanced shortlist. The biggest change the government could positively influence is in the gender pay gap. Depressingly I read recently that the national gender pay gap has actually recently increased so we have lots of work to do in this area.
In your opinion, what elements are key to being a successful CEO?
Authenticity. I was in Australia for a few years and I was mentored for a brief time by the Head of the Australian Army and he taught me that in extreme circumstances, people actually follow vulnerability, authenticity and leaders who have the courage to say,” I don’t know, what do you think?”. There is a merit in the humble, kind, authentic leader.
There are theories around this. If you go the University of Oxford in their Major Projects Leadership Academy, they talk about the incomplete leader and in the modern world, it’s impossible now for one human being to master every tool; maybe that wasn’t the case thirty years ago. Now, in the communication age, the ball is moving so fast that the incomplete leader might be the best one to have.
So, authenticity, being humble, being able to work from the shop-floor to the top of the organisation, able to show your vulnerability, able to sometimes say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” and resilience, in my opinion they are some of the key elements. I think it must be tough these days if you are aged between 25 and 35. How do you get that spirit of resilience; how do you push through? I think it can be taught and to be successful you certainly need resilience.
Has your leadership style changed over time?
I’ve not really thought about it too much. I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of development along the way. I have extensively used coaching. Even now, I have a coach, it’s a very useful thing for me and I have benefited from a myriad of mentors. I’m not saying that I haven’t had a huge amount of infrastructure that has been expensive to get me to where I am, but I am an intuitive person and I just don’t think too much about it. I act naturally, I am just me, but I guess you might say I am a product of all the things that have got me to this point. It’s just important for me to be me.
What are your biggest career highlights to date?
There have been a lot. Running the Tube was special. There aren’t many global icons that you can manage and the Tube, the London Underground is one of them. The twenty thousand women and men who make up the Tube are the most remarkable group of people. Spirit of diversity, just look at how diverse the Tube is, look at the Tube line and look at how strong the Tube is; such a highlight. One of the biggest career achievements, is the development of the people. A lot of people that I have developed are now in very senior jobs. I could probably lay claim to having really helped ten to twenty people develop their careers; this is incredibly satisfying.
What’s next for you and Crossrail?
We are ending the build phase now. We inherited quite a complex, difficult challenging environment a year ago. During the whole of the calendar year 2019, we have put a lot of effort into the build work. We have pretty much finished the tunnels now, a lot of the stations are near to completion, the software development is baking in the oven and ahead of us is the hard yards of integration and assurance.
This is the biggest thing that has happened in railways in Britain in decades and is still the biggest project in Europe. Integrating it and powering it up will take us into 2021. I will get this done and I am not sure what will be next. I am not really a career planner, I just look for interesting work – probably something a bit different for the next challenge. I think what I was given from my upbringing was a bit of restlessness and exploration When you come from those sorts of communities, they give you a huge value set, you understand the value of money, people and community and how hard it is.
It also gives you that determination to make something of yourself so although I don’t know what the next stage will be, there will certainly be another challenge to take up.
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