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Samantha Rowles: Operations Director - Transport

Name, Job Title, Years in Serco

Samantha Rowles, Operations Director – Transport, 2 years

Tell us a little bit about your role?

I am responsible for operations and organic growth of all transportation contracts across the region. This includes leading over 1,200 people within our aviation operations, air navigation services and rail business, to ensure successful delivery of services to our clients. In addition, client engagement is a fundamental part of my role and I also hold accountability for the transport sector’s profit and loss.

Describe your career progression, and what has supported you to progress to a senior leader position?

I’d describe my career progression as fairly rapid but by no means easy! I first became part of an executive leadership team at 34 years old, which I think is considered young. I’d say a lot of hard work, grit and resilience facilitated that rapid progress, but I also wouldn’t have achieved any of it without significant mentoring and sponsorship along the way from the men and women I’ve worked with.

I’m still in touch with one of my first ever mentors, Bob Stewart, from when I embarked on the Babcock Graduate Programme. He is a great friend and continues to support my career even in his retirement. The same goes for Maggie Walsh, who came into my world at such an important point of my career and life, and taught me so much about leadership and how to support other women in their journeys.

Our CEO Phil Malem, who I have now worked with for four years, has always provided me with opportunities to shine. He has genuinely believed in me, sponsored me, mentored me and held me to account for everything I do. Without all of these people, I wouldn’t have achieved half of what I have.

At Serco, 42% of our Executive Leadership Team is made up of females – how do you feel the business has supported you?

I came into the business as part of the Executive Leadership Team (ELT), at a time when the percentage of representation for women was only 27%. I am so proud of the actions we have taken to reach 42% females at ELT. As the Executive Sponsor of Serco Inspire, I put effort into supporting the rest of the business by driving cultural change in this space, so we are truly inclusive for everyone! Whilst we celebrate our successes, I never rest on them – there is always more to do.

What barriers have you personally faced in your career when progressing into leadership positions, and what advice would you give to others to overcome these?

I’ve faced many barriers in my career - more than I consider acceptable. I sincerely hope my outspoken advocation for a more equal and inclusive workforce and culture helps all those who come after me to have an easier journey. Women and men succeed despite the workplace barriers experienced – imagine how many more would succeed if the barriers were removed.   

Women are expected to operate within such a narrow set of defined acceptable behaviours to not be perceived as too feminine, or too aggressive, underdressed or overdressed, etc.  We experience some extremely critical judgements both in appearance and behaviours before our actual capabilities are considered.

Men also experience barriers – workplace structures that are still aligned with success criteria of the 1960’s – where success is determined by the number of hours spent in the office. Workplace culture still exists wherein it is still frowned upon that men might want to work part-time or take their children to the doctors when they are sick.

Anyone in leadership must hold a progressive diversity and inclusion agenda as part of their core responsibilities. It is our duty to everyone to bring workplaces and cultures into a world fit for how we live our lives today. We need to advocate for flexibility, co-parenting, focus on delivery and a collaborative and inclusive culture.

What makes a good leader?

A good leader is someone who can create a vision within their sphere of influence that inspires. That inspiration and buy-in must then be backed up by bounds of energy to drive execution and make change happen. A good leader also has solid foundations in their purpose and the values they live by, day-in and day-out. Finally, I believe it is critical to have empathy and compassion but also stand-up and make hard decisions and own them when required.  

How do you balance work and life responsibilities?

I definitely don’t claim to do this very well at all! I think it would be irresponsible to give the impression that anything is ‘in balance’ in my life between working and parenting; and I am sure most people would agree if they were honest. There is no such thing as ‘having it all’. One thing that helps me is to consciously practice being present: when I am with my children for the short period of time that I spend with them a day, I try to set aside work until after their bedtime.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Definitely becoming the first female in Serco Middle East to ever hold the executive responsibility for leading a sector. I hope it is just one of the many things I will achieve that helps pave the way for a more gender diverse and inclusive workforce. It is important to fight for, and be, the change you want to see.  

Who inspires you and why?

So many people! We have so many fantastic people in our organisation and beyond. I am inspired by so many, from the culture and innovation created by CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings, to the Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris and all she has achieved in her life and career.

There are also so many fantastic women that I work with including our Head of Strategy & Client Engagement Nathalie Hattatowa, who brings relentless energy and leadership to our team. She really lives the Serco values every day and her ability to successfully turn her hand to anything is truly inspiring.

Dubai Airports Guest Services General Manager Kayleigh Houghton is another inspiration. She has an infectious leadership style that brings together large teams of people to achieve what we sometimes think is impossible. Her collaboration and drive to succeed is outstanding.

I feel truly lucky to be surrounded by so many inspiring people!

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders in Serco?

Work hard, network hard, never compromise your values and always stand up for what you believe in. No one ever grew in their comfort zone, so if you feel uncomfortable – good! It means you’re learning. Spend your privilege and help those around you achieve the impossible. Be confident and go and change the world!