When Julia Wraithmell is at home, time seems to stand still as she feeds her beautiful horses and plays fetch with her dogs. Often donning a pair of wellies and a baseball cap, she loves nothing more than relaxing in her countryside home with her animals. But when she’s at work, she’s the Head of On Time Performance Improvement at Northern Trains which is all about making sure you get to your destination on time, every time.
Better three hours too soon, than one minute too late
Julia and her team are responsible for determining the continuous improvement strategy for delivering the promise of the Northern Trains timetable to get commuters from A to B with minimal delay.
It may seem simple, but in the UK, the train network infrastructure was built during the Victorian era, which means it can get complicated and congested quickly.
When things go wrong such as flooding, Julia’s teamwork in collaboration with Network Rail and other Northern departments in identifying improvement opportunities to ensure that lessons are learnt and customers are inconvenienced in future as little as possible.
My job is all about relationships. We make a promise to the customer in our journey opportunities; we need to work together to deliver that promise.
Julia has been at Northern for 33 years across a diverse number of roles. Starting out as a school leaver, she has loved every minute of working in the rail industry.
“I started with British Rail on a youth training scheme which is basically an apprenticeship programme. There weren’t a lot of career options back then for 16-year-old school leavers. My mum’s advice was to go and find a career — not a job, and I haven’t looked back. The Railway offered me the opportunity to develop as an individual and has provided me with the opportunity to further my education.”
The sum of all parts
One of Julia’s favourite roles was as the District Maintenance Manager, responsible for over 350 talented engineers and support staff. She laughs as she reflects on that first day entering the depot soaking wet from the torrential rain.
“You couldn’t have an umbrella at the depot for safety reasons. I left home with full makeup and hair perfect, I arrived dishevelled. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice, and that was just fine for me.”
Julia is not an engineer by trade, so we asked her what it was like to lead a big team of highly technical experts. She says it’s all about communication, leadership and empowering your people to do their job that they have been trained for.
Engineering was and still is a male-dominated environment, but the team were always attentive and most were keen to get involved. They had lots of ideas and frustrations, and I was there to listen to them and work with them to make a difference.
Julia says that not having a technical background was an advantage because she could see things from a different point of view.
“The engineers were absolutely brilliant to work with. There is a beauty in not knowing the intricacies of a process or how a component works. By asking questions and challenging perceptions you can empower people through coaching to deliver improvements that are driven from their own ideas, this had a big impact on our depot engagement and culture.”
We asked what it means to be a good leader, she says, “Honesty, communication and trust are key.”
Julia believes in leaving ego at the door. “I don’t do hierarchy. We had someone in the depot that said ‘I’m just a cleaner’. I told them that everyone has their own part to play and that no one person’s role is more or less important than another’s, our roles are just different and we all have to deliver. It’s important to have mutual respect for others regardless of grade or title.”
The historic 9.63 seconds
Julia says she is very lucky and counts mentors as the key to her career success.
I’ve always been fortunate to have had unofficial mentors. I’ve taken guidance and feedback from a lot of leaders. Now that I am part of the leadership team, it’s my time to offer others the same, I do a lot of coaching, especially with women.
Julia wants to see more women represented in the industry which is why she’s also actively involved in promoting more women in rail.
When mentoring women, Julia thinks women can sometimes be their own worst enemies in doubting themselves. She shared her own experience of imposter syndrome when she was asked to write the Operational plan for London 2012 Olympics in a franchise rail bid.
The proposal involved providing a comprehensive plan of how the franchisee (if successful in its bid) would manage operations during the Olympics and the measures in place to mitigate any risk — and to Julia’s delight not only was the bid successful, the operational plan worked too. She learnt a very valuable lesson which was never to discount our abilities and to believe in ourselves.
And hard work truly pays off. Julia was excited to receive an invitation to attend the Olympics in person.
I watched Usain Bolt collect his medal for his record time of 9.63 seconds!
Julia also gives back by inspiring the next generation. She visits secondary schools and talks about the career opportunities available, especially in the rail industry. As a school leaver herself, she feels it is important to educate others, especially girls, on the options they have that may not be visible or seem accessible at the time, Rail offers that opportunity to broaden your horizons.
Enjoy the journey, not just the destination
Julia feels blessed to have the support of both her family and work colleagues, allowing her career to thrive. She says the work-life balance at Northern is great.
It’s very flexible here. I’ve always felt supported in my roles, and I love how it’s a very family-orientated business. We are one big family, and it is nice to go anywhere on the Northern network, and you are welcomed.
"I love the variety of roles available here too, I’ve never been bored due to the experience and expertise you can get."
For Julia, time flies when you have fun and love what you do.
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