Virgin Trains - blended learning helps take leaders and teams to amazing

Virgin Trains - creating a shift in hierarchy

Between March 2015 and June 2018, Virgin Trains East Coast operated the InterCity East Coast train franchise connecting London, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland, as a joint venture between Stagecoach and Virgin Group. The company had inherited a disempowering, hierarchical culture, with low morale and a marked reluctance among the workforce of 3500 to take ownership. In a highly unionised industry, local union reps, not managers, were the first port of call for grievances. This environment contrasted starkly with the Virgin ethos and Richard Branson’s own personal philosophy that if a company looks after its people, they, in turn, will look after the company’s customers.

The culture used to be old-school ‘command and control’. Now people are emboldened to feedback and challenge. We’re seeing a blurring of the hierarchy – and that’s a massive shift – with some powerful ideas coming through

Danny Gonzalez, Marketing and Sales Director

The challenge

The solution

  • 1. Developing the learner journey

    The Leading Amazing programme set out to turn over 400 Virgin Trains East Coast managers into leaders who can create a high-performance environment and ‘take their teams to amazing’, whether they work in safety, talent, employee relations, driving trains or customer experience.

    The programme is breaking down silos, building a unified culture with a shared language and teamwork across functional boundaries, and delivering an amazing customer experience.

    Launched in late 2016, Leading Amazing takes delegates on a 12-month journey that engages, activates and accelerates their learning. The programme combines four workshops in high-performance settings, such as Loughborough University, with a specially designed learning management system to keep delegates engaged between workshops with reminders and thought-provoking content.

    A ‘resource locker’ offers online and digital resources, such as leadership insight and ideas for delegates to try with their teams, with the ability to share their own learning on a closed group.

    An engaging 30-page workbook, containing a learning journal, prompts for reflections and actions, supports each module.

    This blended approach maximises the company’s training budget and busy managers’ time, by focusing the four one-day workshops on the discussions and activities that need people to work together in person.

    With input from Team GB Olympic athletes and support teams, the workshops take delegates out of the classroom, their comfort zone and the rail industry. For example, delegates learn about managing change through wheelchair basketball and explore what makes a high-performing team through puzzling scenarios using escape rooms.

    Back in the workplace, action learning groups bring together managers who wouldn’t normally work together to share best practice and provide mutual support in tackling day-to-day challenges.

  • Embedding learning into the organisation

    In addition to quantifiable improvements in employee engagement and customer satisfaction, functional silos are crumbling as collaboration, teamwork and feedback become the new normal.

    Jennie Pitt, People Engagement & Corporate Responsibility Manager, notes, “Line managers now see the value of employee engagement and understand how it drives other business metrics. It’s a shift from the previous culture, where they were technically and operationally focused.”

    The workshops will run until March 2019. However, learning will continue long after, with new content and reminders being published on the learning management system and regular update events.

Key benefits of the programme

  • Over 12 months, the percentage of employees submitting their engagement surveys soared from 53% to 73%
  • The company came top for overall customer satisfaction – at 92% – out of all the UK franchised train operating companies (National Rail Passenger Survey, January 2018)
  • For the 2017/2018 rail year, passenger journeys grew by over 1%, counter to the UK-wide trend that saw the biggest fall in journeys for almost a decade


This programme has been shortlisted for the 2018 Personnel Today Awards for Excellence in Learning & Development!

  • 92% customer satisfaction, the highest of all the UK franchised train operating companies
  • 91% rated the facilitators as engaging and impactful

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