What leaders think
Chair, Highways England
What challenge did you tackle and overcome in your business this week?
The past week has been devoted almost entirely to Highways England rather than the other organisations I Chair. It involved Boardroom, Committee and team meetings to review all aspects of the £27.4bn programme we have for the Strategic Road Network during the current 5 year period. We agreed a number of initiatives as well as how best to step into thought leadership across several significant trends delineated from our horizon scanning. We adopted a “no stones unturned” approach which made every conversation refreshing. As the new Chair, this has been an important week to ascertain progress within the organisation and its willingness to take on fresh challenges, which I am happy to report, it is. Moreover our motorways remain amongst the safest internationally. A very busy week.
My remaining Boards, I fear, received much less attention from me during the past week although this will naturally correct itself shortly.
Which ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this week/month?
Landing the actions I have referenced will undoubtedly occupy time over the coming weeks.
Equally, at every organisation I am involved in, we are examining what a post-Covid world will look like. This is amidst an astonishing step-up in investment in infrastructure, in the UK, in the EU and globally. At the same time, the financial sector (investment banking and wealth management) is tremendously busy. I am energised by all of this activity and by conversations with colleagues.
We have had 2 national lockdowns and a range of regional tier variations over many months. In what way has your approach to these lockdowns / tier restrictions permanently influenced your own way of working and will you make any adjustments now we are in a 3rd lockdown?
I am itching to come out of lockdown and to visit colleagues at their place of work, both here and internationally. I enjoy getting out and about, learning of the fantastic things that colleagues are involved in. The 3 lockdowns have certainly cramped my style, albeit the digital world has eased the constraints. These lockdowns have, however, brought home to me how much easier it is to arrange to “see” people, because they themselves are similarly constrained. Moving forward, I would want to maintain the ease of these aspects of the digital world whilst having more face to face engagement with colleagues.
Given the reliance on technology during lockdowns, do you now envisage an acceleration in digital/workforce transformation in the short-medium term?
Indeed. We are accelerating our journey to “Digital Roads”. These cover 3 parts: Digital design and construction; Digital operation; and Digital customers. Each involves a step change in new business practices and our plans for each will get public airing over the coming months. In addition, for some of our staff, working from home is now a realistic option, and we have invested heavily to upgrade our digital platform to enable this.
What are the new working norms starting to look like for your organisation?
I have been fascinated to note that, for each of the organisations I am associated with, there are some common themes. Amongst the workforce, roughly one third like the flexibility afforded by blending home and office work (but even then they want to meet physically at regular intervals); a third would prefer to return to the offices of old, particularly weighted towards the young, especially in cities such as London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne; and the final third are reflecting on their preferences. This will in turn have a material impact on the type and location of real estate requirements for these organisations going forward.
Similarly, at Highways England we have benefited hugely from the strong collaborative relationship we foster with our supply chain. They have engaged and supported their people to help us to keep the strategic road network operating through very challenging times.
There is a dramatic reduction in carbon footprints during lockdowns, what is your business planning to do to help continue this going forward?
At one level, Highways England staff will undoubtedly reduce commute to and from offices wherever this makes sense. In addition, the transition to electrification will materially alter the carbon footprint for our customers. Equally significantly, we are looking to drive (no pun intended!) our carbon footprint to net zero and to work with the supply chain to do likewise. In this regard, we hope to make our journey visible over the coming months. In doing so, I believe I am right in saying that we will be amongst the first such organisations internationally, which provide the arterial backbone of roads for the nation, to set a time frame for its net zero carbon footprint.
In terms of personal well-being, what changes have you made and will you stick to them post lockdown?
More diligent use of the gym and more walks over the weekend. I am now acutely aware of how beautiful nature is around us and that I really should enjoy it frequently. During the lockdowns, it has been a pleasure to spend time as a family in the garden. I hope I will sustain this – it is certainly one of my new year resolutions!
Who or what has inspired you this week? (They don’t need to be famous)
It has to be the Scientists who never cease to amaze me at the pace of their work on Covid vaccines. The NHS staff run a close second.
How did you spend Christmas?
At home as a family. Each year we enjoy doing this both at Diwali and over Christmas. Sadly, family members who live abroad and traditionally would have joined us could not do so for obvious reasons, but those days will come.
Christmas is such a wonderful time, largely untroubled by work, although I have to confess I did receive daily calls this time given the challenges presented for cross-Channel transport by the new strain of Covid and EU transition. Nevertheless, largely a relaxing, fun time as a family which are memories I always cherish.
Any words of wisdom?
I hesitate to offer any. If pushed, I would quote an infamous Hindu saying which captures my philosophy well:
“Life is short, Time is fleeing,
Awake, arise and realise”
Not too trite, I trust!