What distinguishes great leaders for me is that they stand for something they believe in, something bigger than the job. Mark Carne could easily have retired when he left Shell. He had nothing else he needed to prove or do as a business leader. But instead he opted to take on the extremely challenging role of Chief Executive of Network Rail because he had a mission.

At the end of 2010 I sat down with Mark in his office by Euston Station in London to reflect on his mission, what he had learned in his career and his last year with Network Rail, and who he is now as a leader.

This conversation with Mark is the first interview in FirstHuman’s Leadership Showcase called ‘Conscious Leadership’. Our intention is to share the thinking and ideas of people we have worked with who we believe both to be extraordinary leaders and people interested in making a difference in the world. Our intention is to celebrate and acknowledge greatness while also sharing their life experience that others can learn from – to create a legacy. We want it to be rich, vivid and interesting.

What follows is a summary of our conversation with Mark – I hope you will find it interesting.

What had you take the leap from a long and prosperous career in the Energy industry to Network Rail?

“I had a successful career in the oil and gas industry and left fulfilled. I had no interest in going back to that industry doing things that I had already done. I had been lucky enough to be a part of some really amazing things. How was I going to top that?”

“I lead with a focus on the things that are important to me”

“However, I am someone who is driven and want to make a difference, it is part of my DNA. The opportunity to help make a difference to the lives of people in this country was important to me. It is nice to work in companies that make money – don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to work in a company that makes a direct difference to people’s lives. If you’re driven that way, and an engineer, becoming the CEO of Network Rail must be the best job in the country! I have to rely on my engineering skills, technical judgement and experiences that I have had in my life, and the job affects the lives of 45 million people every day.”

“Being a chief executive is a huge privilege and whilst it does have burdens, it is also a great liberation. I can be the person I want to be. I can lead with a focus on the things that are important to me.”

What does your role as Chief Executive boil down to?

“My job is to turn this into a truly great company. That means we have to get really good at the operational side of the business, getting the basics right, whilst at the same time look ahead to the kind of company we want to be in the future. And that future thinking requires us to not be constrained by too many of the current paradigms. We are working hard on a strategy to totally transform the way Britain’s railways run, using digital technology. We call this strategy ‘The Digital Railway’. By using technology we can carry many more passengers, faster, more reliably, safer, at lower cost and at with a lower environmental footprint. It is a thrilling future. But to earn the right to deliver that future, we have to get the basics right today – and we have a lot of catching up to do to meet the standards of operational excellence that other industries achieve today.”

“My mantra is ‘Better Every Day’. I am a driven person and I come to work every day with a belief that the company I work in should perform better than it did the day before. It is a very simple idea, but really hard to do. It’s like being an athlete, saying that every day when I train I am going to perform a little bit better than I did yesterday. And I think that is what marks out a great company from the mediocre. Great companies and great athletes have that ability to relentlessly strive for something better.”

“You need to tap into the brainpower of every individual of the company”

“However, don’t strive for the silver bullet because there isn’t one. Strive to be a little better at each part of your job. It is crucial to instil that in this organisation. Then again, you can’t just take any old box of tricks and say ‘better every day’. You have to get the basics in place: are you clear what the strategy of the company is? Have you structured the people to work in the most effective way? Within that organisation, have you got the right clarity of accountability? Do you have the right performance management systems to focus people on the things that are most important? Do you have the right reward mechanisms? Do you have the right people? All of these things have to be in place. This is basic management, but too easily overlooked in large complex organisations. Once you have the building blocks in place you can turn attention to the better every day culture – and that is what really kick starts performance.”

How do you translate ‘Better Every Day’ into action?

“What makes this simple idea so powerful is that in order to identify the things to do better, you need to tap into the brainpower of every individual in the company. I often say that this is like turning the organisational pyramid of the company upside down. I want to listen carefully to the people at the sharp end of the business and their ideas on how to improve the performance of the business. It is very often those people, who have been in the company for years and who have seen people like me come and go, that know how their part of the business can be done better. If we can tap into their ideas, prioritise them, take the most important ones and deliver them, they will see that they are making a difference. They will then come up with more ideas and you create this virtuous circle of performance.”

So how do you get this to unfold?

“I start of from the principle that people come to work to do a good job. They want to do the best they can. As leaders we need to identify what it is that stops people from being as good as they can be. Sometimes there are ways of working, processes, which get in the way and prevent things from being done really well. But in really long term established companies, Network Rail being one example, you have people who have been working for 25 years and now say: “I tried all that stuff years ago, nobody listened, nobody cared, I don’t bother any more”. So the barrier is not a process or physical barrier, it is a barrier in the mind built up from years of cultural indoctrination. We have to change that mindset – show people that we actually are going to value them for their ideas and creativity. I repeatedly say to people that I value them more for the quality of their ideas than I do for the number of stripes they have on their arm or where they sit in the hierarchy. What is important to me is that people come to work every day with that drive and ambition to find a better way of doing things.”

“When you get this working well you create this virtuous circle of success. People see that they are being listened to, valued and that their ideas are being picked up. They feel a sense of pride and will come up with more ideas.”

Ideas are great, but how do you get from idea to action?

“As I said earlier, you have to have the basic management systems in place. We have to ask ourselves: “Is it really clear to people what their targets are; what we are expecting of them?” If people come to work fundamentally to do a good job and they know what the targets are, they will try and hit those targets. Then we have to get clear on the mechanisms we use to capture the ideas that people have, prioritise those ideas and how we make the improvements. This is structured continuous improvement – this is what it is all about. Painting a compelling picture of the kind of company that we want it to be, what the ideas are, how we decide which ones we are going to pursue and then making sure it is clear who is accountable for implementing. However, this isn’t a mechanistic process. We have to start from a premise that the creativity will come from the people. We have to inspire them to want to be part of it.”

What are some other aspects of the culture you are building at Network Rail?

“I want an organisation that enables people to achieve their potential. I want an organisation where people are able to bring 100% of themselves to work every day. A lot of people only bring a fraction of what they are capable of doing to work, because that is the only thing that the company has ever asked them for. I want you to be able to bring every part of you and your personality to work every day. This is where the diversity and inclusiveness agenda is so fundamental. For me diversity and inclusiveness has nothing to do with political correctness. It is all about creating an environment where we really value the different ideas that people bring, the different perspectives people have.”

“I try to be very straight with people on how I see things and to treat people with integrity and respect.”

“We need to become a truly caring organisation. An organisation that deeply cares about passengers, our neighbours and the communities we affect. The public needs to see a high performing organisation that delivers, but also one that has proper contingency plans when works overrun, cleans up the mess along the railway, communicates openly and does everything in its power to get people to their destination safely and on time.”

“I also keep looking forward. Although I am genuinely interested in where we have come from, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, I am far more interested in what we are going to do now. I am not that interested in the rear view mirror. One of the things I have observed is that we can spend an incredible amount of time talking about the things we can see in the rear view mirror. What gets me and most other people out of bed is going out and achieving something, rather than just explaining why things are where they are.”

I know safety is a fundamental core value of yours. On its own clear merit, and also as a lever for performance conversations. Tell me more.

“I have had a career that has been punctuated by really dark moments where people have lost their lives in businesses that I have been accountable for. Those are terrible moments that have deeply affected me. I now try to ensure that we balance the technical, process and behavioural side of safety. I believe that the skills needed to have people behave differently in safety are precisely the same skills you need in order to have people deliver better levels of performance.”

“It is a really simple thing. If you get people to do the right job, at the right time, with the right plan, with the right tools, with the right skills and with the right supervision, the job will get done right the first time. And it will be done safely. But, if you take any one of those ingredients out, you will probably not get the job done right, the performance will be worse and every now and again events will conspire such that you will have an accident. Sometimes it will be a small accident and sometimes more than one thing will go wrong and you will have a more serious accident. The point about focusing on safety is that it is an easy way of entering into a conversation with people, because nobody comes to work wanting to have an accident. Also, nobody comes to work wanting to see one of their colleagues get hurt. We all want everyone to go home safely at the end of every day. It is a core value to me that everyone deserves to go home safely every day. We all need to come together to work out how we do that.”

“This is such a powerful philosophy, because I know that if I focus on safety, the performance will come. I don’t need to say to people: “Work harder to deliver better performance.” I ask them how they can do this job safer. And, all of a sudden you find that performance improves. Shifting that focus from “I am focusing relentlessly on performance” to “I am focusing relentlessly on safety and the performance will follow” is not an easy transition to make. But it is actually is true. If the first thing you think about when you have a new project or job is how to do it safely, it is amazing how that will drive innovation and creativity on the job.”

So, having said all that, who is Mark Carne?

“It depends where you are looking from. I suppose I am a bit like one of these mirror balls with lots of facets so that light will bounce off in different directions. I’m different to different people. I am a different person to my children than I am to my wife, than I am to my father, than I am to my colleagues, than I am to the people who see me once a year. But I hope that whichever part of my life you are looking at it from, hopefully the light will reflect back with a sense of continuity in terms of underlying principles. I try to be very straight with people on how I see things and to treat people with integrity and respect. If I have hidden agendas, or people think I have hidden agendas, they will try to work out something about me all the time. And I am not that complicated a person. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I am afraid that I am hard to work for – and hard to live with – because, I always believe that there is a better way. That makes me restless and sometimes hard to please. That is consistent with 360 feedback from my family and my work colleagues!”

When you have your dark moments where do you go to source yourself to come back again?

“This can be quite a tough job and I definitely do have moments when I think “bloody hell, why am I doing this?” In this job there are an awful lot of people who criticise; that the trains are not running on time, that we are doing a lousy job. If you ever pick up a newspaper you are never going to read anybody saying that I am doing a great job – that’s the nature of this job I’m afraid. I have to have a drive that is internally powered. One has to be able to get up in the morning and be able to ask oneself: “Am I the right person for the job, am I making a difference, am I doing it to the very best of my ability?” And if I can say yes to that, I can go to work and feel great about it.”

“So when I have those dark days I will go into the middle of a major station concourse – and I am very lucky here being next to Euston station – and I just stand there. I just stand there for 5 minutes and watch the thousands of people that are walking past me. Every single one of those thousands of people is depending on the organisation to do a great job for them. It makes me realise that this really matters – it matters to every single person that I can see. That is a very quick way of saying “bloody hell, I better get on with it then”.”

“The moment I think there is somebody else that can do the job better than I can – and who wants to come and do it – then it would be the right thing for me to do to hand over the reins. Ultimately the reason I am doing this job is because I want to make a difference to peoples’ lives – my motivation is to improve the experience that passengers have.”

What has you go home with that buzzing feeling, smiling and saying “wow, I feel good today”?

“When I see people in the depths of the organisation really do something they didn’t think they were capable of doing or being valued for something they didn’t think they were going to be valued for. Seeing those people suddenly develop and grow and become part of that virtuous circle. That is when I get a real kick out of leadership because that is when I begin to think that things are beginning to fall into place. This is an organisation that is driven by the people within it. If those people are delivering a bit better every day then the passenger experience is a bit better every day. And that is why we are here – to serve passengers.”