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Which of us hasn’t stood in a queue in the rain at a bus stop, and thought: “Do the bosses, sitting up there in the warm and dry in Cowley, really care about us? You can bet your bottom dollar that any departure signs at the bus stop are helpfully reading: “please refer to timetables” too.“Well, I very much care,” says Phil Southall, managing director of Oxford Bus Company, “Because I use the bus every day myself.
More recently I’ve moved to Bicester – I catch the opposition [Stagecoach] bus on the way in, and our own on the way back, to get a balanced view of how the services are operating.I’m passionate about delivering good customer service, and quality public transport.” Of course, you would expect a bus company boss to say that.But Phil comes over as someone who is totally in love with his job – after we’ve talked in his office, he eagerly takes me on an engrossing tour covering every inch of Oxford Bus’s Cowley headquarters.Besides caring about his passengers, he’s keen to improve conditions for his staff too.Promoted to managing director just over a year ago, he recently told a trade magazine: “The most fundamental change I’ve made [since becoming managing director] has been to our approach to staff.” “This building has an upstairs and downstairs,” Phil points out – and indeed we are talking in his upstairs office.“The approach was: if you’ve been naughty, you come upstairs, see a manager, and more often than not you got a disciplinary report. When you tot that up across the business, morale was quite low: people felt that they were in a straightjacket, and couldn’t use their initiative.
And because the managers were conditioned in that way as well, we needed to engage on a real culture change.
“So we developed a company vision – “one team delivering an ever-improving customer experience” - and helped staff relate to that.
In addition all our managers went on a leadership development course, to show them how to get the best out of people.
We now try not to resort to the disciplinary process, and that’s already paying dividends.
We don’t expect everyone to be all-singing, all-dancing, and all-smiling from one end of the day to the other – all I ask of people is that they bring the best version of themselves to work.” All of which suggests that Phil is a people person, rather than the sort of manager who spends all day glued to spreadsheets on a computer screen.
“We do have our financial targets to achieve, we’re a plc,” he comments.