Women in Leadership Series: Head of Strategic Planning and Research, Nicola Kane

On March 8th 2019, International Women’s Day (#IWD2019) will be celebrated with the campaign #BalanceforBetter; calling for a more gender-balanced world. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in leadership roles. I asked a number of female leaders to answer a series of questions about their experiences to share with you right here on the Ad Florem blog.

In this interview, we meet Nicola, Head of Strategic Planning and Research. Read our Women in Leadership Interview Series to meet the other interviewees.

Nicola’s role is to lead the development of transport strategy for Greater Manchester. She works on behalf of and in close collaboration with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, 10 district councils and other key partners, such as Highways England and Network Rail.  A key aspect of this is to ensure that the strategy is based on good evidence, and is focused on meeting the needs of a wide range of different people travelling into and around the city-region.

In 2017, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) consulted on and published their new transport strategy for the year 2040. This is the most long-term and integrated strategy they have ever prepared. In January 2019 they published a new draft 5-year transport delivery plan. This has been developed closely with colleagues working on a new spatial plan for Greater Manchester.

Nicola got into transport planning after completing an MSc in Urban Planning at Oxford Brookes where she decided to specialise in transport.  Whilst studying, she realised that good transport planning is critical to tackling so many of the major challenges we face in our towns and cities. These include air pollution, access to employment and education, climate change, community cohesion, low levels of physical activity, road safety, and so on.  Tackling those big issues is what motivates her in her job.

Prior to joining TfGM, Nicola spent 15 years working in consultancy, predominantly working with local authorities to develop local transport plans, strategies and sustainable transport projects; as well as advising developers on major planning applications.

Nicola, thank you for taking part in our Women in Leadership series. Tell us, what are the skills that you have that make you well suited to your role?

I enjoy leading teams, and bringing together people with different skill-sets and perspectives, and developing new approaches to long-term planning.  Since a young age, I have always been interested in environmental and social issues and this job is a great opportunity to combine these interests to shape a more sustainable and inclusive transport system in a fast growing and dynamic city.  I’m definitely a generalist in terms of my skill-set, but I enjoy working with experts in different fields and helping to communicate complex issues in a way that people can understand and relate to.

And what does leadership look like for you?

Allowing people to play to their strengths; setting a clear vision and then providing team members with as much autonomy as possible to deliver that vision, whilst providing support and encouragement when needed; encouraging new ways of working and thinking;  and facilitating collaboration between individuals and teams with different to develop the best possible integrated solution.

Can you share one leadership lesson you have learned in your career?

To learn to let go and not try to do everything yourself because it’s not in any way sustainable and also because there are other people who may be better able to do the work than you.  So, always ask for help and support; and bring people into the team who have different skill sets and perspectives from you.

Who inspires you, and why?

I’m in inspired by lots of people but, particularly, by those who are willing to stand up for their values and speak out against injustice.  Some inspiring women who immediately spring to mind include:  Jo Cox, Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama who all, in their own way, have sought to make a difference to the world around them.

From a professional perspective, Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transport commissioner for New York City, is also a personal inspiration to me.  Her Ted Talk on transforming New York’s streets is fantastic.

How do you balance work and life responsibilities? Do you have any practical tips?

Taking time out to have my two kids and to work part-time for several years taught me a lot of lessons about balancing work and life. It is a constant juggling act and I have learned that you have to put your own boundaries around your work, as no-one else will do it for you.

I’m not naturally the most organised person, so I do have to work hard to plan more effectively and to allow enough time to do work properly (I constantly under-estimate how long tasks will take which is why I seem to be perennially late!).

I’ve developed a few daily habits that really help me to balance a full-time job with my family and home life.  The most important one is getting up early in the morning (usually before 6am), as this gives me some time to myself to do a bit of exercise, meditate and do some reading every morning before anyone else has got up.  This seems to keep me on an even keel and gives me some time to look after my own health and wellbeing which can otherwise be difficult to fit into a busy working day.

I also try to batch tasks wherever possible by spending time each week planning my diary more effectively:

  • block out time to work on specific projects each day
  • schedule time to respond to emails at key points through the day rather than being constantly distracted every time an email comes into my inbox
  • schedule meetings in the afternoon when my energy levels are lower so that I can keep mornings clear for doing focused work

Managing my emails and time spent in meetings continue to be major challenges for me.

It’s also a challenge not to let the weekends be as heavily scheduled as week days, so I do try to protect some time just to relax with the kids and not be completely overwhelmed with chores and activities at the weekend.    Trying to get little jobs done at home during the week does help with this.

Describe yourself in three words

Enthusiastic, supportive, and idealistic.

Have you ever suffered with ‘imposter syndrome’? What does it mean to you?

Yes, all the time!  Instead of panicking every time I feel this way, I now try to view imposter syndrome in a more positive light. It’s a sign that I’m being challenged and stretched out of my comfort zone.  It’s then possible to view it as an opportunity to develop and grow.  I think everyone feels like an imposter at times in their career. You mustn’t let it hold you back from taking up new opportunities and challenges.

What challenges have you faced in your leadership career, and what tips do you have for how to overcome them?

  •  Letting stuff go – you can’t be involved in everything and will burn-out if you try!
  • Having great people around you – not being afraid to recruit people who are smarter than you.
  • Not letting difficult people get to you or undermine your confidence.

What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?

 I’m very proud of work that the team has done on developing Greater Manchester’s 2040 transport strategy. Particularly the work we’re now doing to better integrate transport and land use planning in the city-region. This is why I came into the profession originally.  I was incredibly proud to be awarded transport planner of the year in 2017 for my work on the 2040 strategy. Particularly as this award was nominated by my peers at the Transport Planning Society, who I have a lot of respect for.

What does gender balance in the workplace mean to you?

Making sure we always have a range of different perspectives in the room.  As a transport planner, my job is to ensure our transport system is as inclusive as possible, enabling people to access the opportunities they need to live fulfilling lives.  I think this is much more difficult if the only people doing the planning are white, middle-aged, middle-class men.  Gender balance is improving in transport planning and TfGM has a lot of bright, enthusiastic women in the organisation. But we have a long way still to go and can’t be complacent about continually promoting diversity.   Achieving greater ethnic diversity will be an even bigger challenge, as it is still a predominantly white profession.

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for aspiring female leaders? Or just for leaders in general if you prefer.

  • Take opportunities when they come up, even if you’re not sure that you can do it
  • Regularly ask for feedback from colleagues and managers
  • Listen to the feedback with an open mind, so that you are always developing and progressing
  • Ask for support and help
  • Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability by admitting that you don’t always know the answer or the best way to proceed.

How to find Nicola online

Nicola Kane, Head of Strategic Planning and Research

Transport for Greater Manchester




Read our Women in Leadership Interview Series to meet the other interviewees.

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