Global transportation industries and supply chains were rocked by COVID-19 – and the Australian rail network was no different. During the first eight months of 2020, rail travel across Australia and New Zealand dropped by a massive 268 million trips.

And with various production and shipping methods disrupted at home and abroad, the Australian rail network became even more crucial for moving goods and materials in such uncertain times.

“Although rail patronage went through the floor, rail freight went through the ceiling,” Natalie Currey, General Manager – Supply Chain of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) says. “It was great to see that recognition of rail in Australian logistics.”

To help Australia bounce back from the pandemic, the federal Government announced $120 billion in infrastructure investment over the next 10 years. With billions earmarked for rail, the ARA – and Natalie – will be busy.

In her role, Natalie is responsible for supporting all members of the rail supply chain including track and train builders and equipment manufacturers through to technologists, training providers and consultants and more: “I deal with lots of differing views. This makes my role very dynamic, which I love,” she says.

But she has also made another big priority for herself: ensuring the rail industry is a more inclusive place to work.

“The rail industry offers so many opportunities to move around and have an international career,” she says. “But it can often be perceived as ‘male, stale and pale”.

Here’s how Natalie and her colleagues at the ARA are working hard to unite the country’s rail network, making it not only more efficient, but more inclusive, too.

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Natalie Currey is trying to change this with the ARA’s Women in Rail initiative. Image: supplied

Building a more cohesive rail system

Much of Natalie’s day-to-day work revolves around “harmonisation.”

“It’s like we have eight separate countries acting in isolation,” she explains. “State jurisdictions use their own procurement practices, standards, type approval processes, and network competencies to acquire rolling stock [train cars and carriages] and infrastructure assets. We want to encourage members to realise the benefits that come through standardisation.

“Scheduling of the procurement pipeline is also important to maximise value for money for both the buyer and the supplier. Everybody wants everything now. However, if all these projects happen at the same time, demand will go up and with limited supply and labour, it increases costs for everyone. A smoother work program ensures a more sustainable industry”

So, Natalie helps advocate for more efficient procurement processes through committees and initiatives that bring states and other stakeholders to the table to work together.

“We have a rail supply chain strategy, which includes a variety of initiatives, – there’s a whole work program to address the challenges for suppliers and contractors and improve the outcomes for clients and it’s my job to help lead the execution of it.”

A large part of that execution is getting different people from around the country on the same page – which can be extremely difficult and takes a lot of careful consideration.

Natalie says it’s addressing these competing stakeholder needs across that work program that can feel extremely difficult to manage – like “herding cats”. So, when her CEO encouraged her to use some of the ARA training budget to upskill last year, she jumped at the chance.

Finding skills that make it easier to “herd the cats”

When researching options, it was the content at the AGSM @ UNSW Business School that first grabbed Natalie’s attention.

“It was so applicable to so many situations – it was more holistic than some of the other programs out there and would really enhance what I already do,” she says.

“We have a vision that requires all rail stakeholders to be committed to achieving the objectives, but it is difficult to achieve cooperation, to realise the outcomes. So, I wanted to find new ways to communicate with people and frame messages.”

Natalie, who’s based in Canberra, was drawn to the intensive nature of AGSM’s week-long short course in Sydney. The location was close enough to be accessible while also far enough that she could step away from the daily grind and immerse herself in study.

“Because I was offsite, I was really able to focus,” she says. “And there weren’t any sort of tests or assessments for these courses. The style of course suited me, as I am an active learner by and benefit from talking through ideas. So being able to discuss concepts fit me perfectly.”

Natalie completed the General Manager Program in April 2021 and the Advanced Negotiation and Influencing Program in August, which qualified her for a Certificate of Executive Management and Development.

It didn’t take her long to put what she learned into action.

Read more: AGSM alum Chad Moffiet is helping businesses navigate complex business issues

Short courses equipped Natalie handle multiple stakeholders and peers

Earlier this year, Natalie was trying to establish national rail roles and associated competencies. Her initial efforts to lay out how it would benefit the greater industry, as opposed to how it would benefit the stakeholders themselves, weren’t working.

Instead, she used learnings from the Advanced Negotiation course, using a new technique to address the competing agendas in front of her: “It’s all about positioning the value proposition to get everybody working toward the same goal,” she explains. “It’s not about winning people over, but about framing the message, so it’s seen as a benefit by all sides.”

“I had to show what we would deliver specifically for each organisation. People need to see what’s in it for them to get it over the line.”

Following individual meetings with multiple stakeholders to better understand their needs and perspectives and demonstrate how the project would support them delivering their objectives, she was able to get the project back on track.

Natalie also focuses on the importance of adaptive leadership – and how her leadership style affects those around her. Instead of giving blunt feedback on a project’s performance which can be taken personally, Natalie takes a more objective approach in a new-and-improved feedback loop based on observations.

“It’s more ‘I’ve noticed this, what do you think?’ It’s again about framing and observing – recognising the mechanics of the approach and how a process can improved next time.”

All this means Natalie is now working with other members of her executiver team at the ARA to lead an organisation-wide refresh of how they communicate, manage and work together. 

Read more: Unilever ANZ CEO Nicole Sparshott prioritises embedding responsible management throughout the entire supply chain.

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Natalie Currey and her team at the Australasian Railway Association (ARA). photo: supplied

Making rail more inclusive – and attractive – for all

Natalie is also working hard at her passion project: making the rail industry more inclusive.

It’s an industry that is often perceived as monocultural. But Natalie is trying to change this with the ARA’s Women in Rail initiative.

Created to face critical issues and possible opportunities for women in rail, ARA’s Women in Rail initiative aims to provide spaces for women to network, access professional development and share information; with the ultimate aim of greater gender diversity in the space.

Natalie helps run its mentoring programme, connecting novice female rail workers with support, and learning opportunities from industry veterans. But in addition to advocating for women in the industry, Natalie would like to enhance diversity across the board.

“Any role should be inclusive of all genders, races, ethnicities and religions,” she says.

Along with the mentorship program, Natalie and her team facilitate industry diversity training and run networking events and online seminars where people can share their experience.

“Metro Trains Melbourne has a huge cohort of women train drivers coming through that’s setting a great example,” Natalie says. “We want to provide a platform to share lessons of progress like that.”

Natalie says these initiatives have received tremendous feedback – and are generating results.

“Plenty of women have joined the industry after leaving their service or hospitality roles because of COVID. They didn’t know what to expect, but now they say they love it and wouldn’t dream of leaving.”

And Natalie isn’t either. After 12 years of government roles, she shifted to her rail industry position from roles in Commonwealth government for a different perspective.

“I wanted to see the value I was creating,” she says. “I love policy, but it can be so dry. By working within the industry, I can better understand our impact on efficiencies and business outcomes.”

And her recent experience with AGSM is helping ensure she’s able to make that impact.

“It’s a brilliant refresher for any senior leader on different leadership strategies and when to apply them – picking effective communication approaches depending on the audience. The templates and frameworks from my AGSM courses really help me plan, structure and communicate more effectively – which is what my job is all about.”

Learn more about AGSM’s globally ranked Executive Education Programs here.

Find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School here.

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Natalie Currey, General Manager, Supply Chain, ARA Majura Photo: supplied