A leadership blueprint for rail megaprojects

Beth West, interim CEO of East West Railway Company, and Nick Petschek, MD at Kotter, share their insights from leading major capital projects.

Beth West, interim CEO, East West Railway Company

In an era where Britain’s rail megaprojects face constant financial and logistical challenges, effective leadership, and teamwork are the keys to success.

Recent political and economic disruptions have made it harder than ever for infrastructure and improvement initiatives to stay on track during each stage of the capital megaproject.

Beth West, interim CEO, East West Railway Company

However, rewiring how leaders approach the challenge can facilitate more efficient outcomes. Society and our needs have changed, but how we select leadership for capital megaprojects has not kept pace.

Megaprojects, by definition, create a “bigger than thou” framing that can seem far removed from the daily lives of the people they benefit. Rounding errors on capital megaprojects are often greater than most people’s annual salaries. Their reputation is often hurt by the fact that they are consistently over budget and over time.

Nick Petschek, managing director at Kotter.

Even a decade ago, the slow pace and gargantuan financial investment required for a rail megaproject was considered par for the course. Leaders were comfortable saying, “It will be ready when it’s ready. It will cost what it costs.”

But our world is no longer comfortable sticking to that status quo, not least because we have an incredibly urgent climate emergency that needs solutions.

So, how can selecting the right leaders and creating the right teams disrupt the megaproject status quo for the better?

Finding the right leader(s)

The size and scale of megaprojects means that typically, we try to find an Elon Musk-type personality around which a megaproject ecosystem can be organised. The problem with these leaders is that when they move onto a bigger project and must be replaced, there is little to no chance of finding someone who can fill their shoes.

Those kinds of leaders also tend to want to deliver very big things to demonstrate their importance without considering whether those things are necessary to achieve a successful project. Megaprojects then run the risk of getting even bigger with a larger budget and longer timeline.

Due to the duration of capital megaprojects, it is difficult to imagine the same leader continuing throughout a megaproject’s entire life, so it is important to identify leaders who have the right emphasis on leadership qualities at the right time of the lifecycle.

Caption. Credit: 

It is important to identify leaders who have the right emphasis on leadership qualities at the right time of the lifecycle.

However, irrespective of the stage of the project lifecycle, some elements must endure throughout. Importantly, leaders must define a strong purpose for the project that can last from development to operation and be able to use that purpose to drive stakeholder support. This purpose must be returned to and stakeholders engaged constantly to achieve success.

Another enduring reality is that the skills needed to deliver the various components of a project are unlikely to be found in a single individual. Delivery of rail megaprojects is a team sport. The job of the chief executive is to recognise this and make sure that project teams are formed around multi-disciplinary capabilities.

Like in football, where having an entire team of strikers is highly unlikely to be a successful strategy, having project teams comprised of only one type of person is unlikely to end up with good outcomes.

Building the right teams

But putting a multi-disciplinary group of people into a team and hoping that they just figure it out has a low probability of success. Comments along the lines of “we all know of each other” or “we’re just here to work and get things done” are too common. Planned interventions are necessary to build the team into a high-performing one.

These interventions should start even before the team is formed, if possible. Leaders should consider team dynamics as well as capability dynamics – leadership hires are about more than just their professional expertise – and view leadership hires holistically to find and encourage diversity of backgrounds, thoughts, and personalities on the team.

Once the team takes shape, even if in the “interim” as often occurs with these types of projects, create space and time upfront to understand how to best work together.

Breaking out of the status quo by finding the right leaders and building the right teams is critical.

This work should start by understanding how the overall purpose that the chief executive has defined impacts and inspires each individual, how they can complement and productively challenge each other at different project stages, and how they can foment healthy engagement that can be a model for the larger organisation.

Like stakeholder support, you can’t “bank” this initial teaming. chief executives must instead constantly create the space for the what (the work) and the how (how work gets done and how people behave together) at concrete intervals.

Megaprojects have long durations and impact many people’s lives, so we must find ways to more effectively deliver them. Breaking out of the status quo by finding the right leaders and building the right teams is critical to delivering the megaprojects we need to support our collective future.

Phillip Day. Credit: Scotgold Resources

Caption. Credit: 

$345m: Lynas Rare Earth's planned investment into Mount Weld.

Caption. Credit: 

Total annual production

Australia could be one of the main beneficiaries of this dramatic increase in demand, where private companies and local governments alike are eager to expand the country’s nascent rare earths production. In 2021, Australia produced the fourth-most rare earths in the world. It’s total annual production of 19,958 tonnes remains significantly less than the mammoth 152,407 tonnes produced by China, but a dramatic improvement over the 1,995 tonnes produced domestically in 2011.

The dominance of China in the rare earths space has also encouraged other countries, notably the US, to look further afield for rare earth deposits to diversify their supply of the increasingly vital minerals. With the US eager to ringfence rare earth production within its allies as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, including potentially allowing the Department of Defense to invest in Australian rare earths, there could be an unexpected windfall for Australian rare earths producers.

The mine’s concentrator can produce around 240,000 tonnes of ore, including around 26,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides.

Gavin John Lockyer, CEO of Arafura Resources