Career Advice To My Younger Self: ‘Sometimes You Have to Go Sideways To Go Up’

To celebrate International Women’s Day, women are sharing career advice. Here, we talk to HS1 chief exec Dyan Crowther. Catch-up with Katie Piperentrepreneur Lana Elie, Google’s Marily Nika and MP Chi Onwurah.

“Don’t try to be a man,” advises Dyan Crowther, 54, the first ever female managing director in UK rail history and currently the chief executive for HS1 high-speed rail, in charge of major international stations including St Pancras, Stratford, Ebbsfleet and Ashford. “The minute you try to be something you’re not, you won’t be authentic. People work that out quite quickly.” 

Crowther is thinking about her early years in an industry she’s worked in for three decades and the advice she’d give her younger self : “I would love to tell that shy little girl stood in the corner, think about the skills you have rather than the ones you don’t.”

This stance also extends to motherhood in the workplace, Crowther, who lives in Hertfordshire, encourages women to be confident when it comes to combining work with parenthood. “Don’t be embarrassed about saying I have to leave at four because I have a parents evening, or I need take emergency leave because my children are ill. You put your family first, and do it with confidence.”

The CEO might have been shy when she first started as a graduate on the British Rail programme, before the railways were privatised, but she has taken on some of the toughest jobs during her career. Responsible for Southern Rail during the 2.5 years of strikes, she often had to face angry commuters on the platform at London Victoria station. 

“It’s tough, you learn to be pretty resilient. You have to be. People crying because yet another weekend we’ve let them down and they’ve not been able to get home to put their children to bed.”

The experience has taught her to leave her work at the office, she says. “You need to learn not to take that home.”

One of Crowther’s earliest challenges was taking on Arriva Trains Northern, which at the time had just been voted worst train operator in the UK. She explains how a local newspaper described it as the ‘job few would want’. “I like to take on challenges, and I like to go in and leave a legacy somewhere – not just keep things ticking over. That’s not why I get out of bed in the morning,” she says. 

Dyan (right) showing George Osborne the proposed site for HS2 during her role as route managing director of Network Rail. 

Crowther advises other women to not always think about a career path as a straight line. Her own CV includes a lot of sideways steps. “Sometimes you have to go sideways to go up. And you shouldn’t be afraid to do that, it’s not always about going up the pole. It’s about the navigation.”

In taking on jobs that weren’t necessarily the most popular options, she has carved out a name for herself. “The great thing about this industry is you can go anywhere if you have the right attitude and the right heart,” she says.

“I was the one prepared to take the risk and move from company to company. And that gave me the rounded view of the industry. A different set of skills and experience and that helps the organisation grow and get better.”

And how to know when you’ve spent long enough in one role? Dyan says: “It’s a good time to move on when you see yourself coming round the circle again, you’ve given your knowledge and experience. It’s knowing when it’s time.”