Over the years, I've got to work with some great safety professionals and senior executives. What I have noticed about companies that are excellent at safety, is that they often have a senior executive (such as a board member, CEO, COO, Executive General Manager etc) who has been heavily involved in safety at some time in their career. They've had experience, at a grassroots level, to improve company safety. They know that it always pays to put safety first, before profits.
Senior leaders who are very strong advocates for safety ensure that the CEO or their board address safety issues promptly and correctly.
Too often, I get safety professionals asking me how to sell safety benefits to their senior management. My knee-jerk response is to say that they need to resign, as it's a pretty tough call to improve safety without senior management support. However, the reality is that if there were more company leaders with a safety background, there wouldn't even be this ridiculous issue whereby senior management need to be convinced that safety is important (it seems so 1960s, no wait 1990s!).
So my challenge to all the budding (and even those, who have, shall we say blossomed) safety professionals out there, is that if you are really passionate about safety, then you need to seriously consider working towards being senior management material so that you can improve the scope of safety at a higher level. While you can do a lot to improve safety on the front line, it's being able to drive decisions at a senior level with an unequivocal bias towards safety, that will make the real difference. This means you need to start developing a whole lot of skills that aren't to do with compliance. Rather you need to start developing your influence, communication and engagement skills. By doing this you can be the secret safety superhero, that works quietly behind the scenes for safety.
I don't recommend that every safety professional should aspire to be the next company executive general manager or Chief Operating Officer. Those jobs aren't for everyone. However, even if you don't consider yourself senior management material, it's still important to develop your safety superhero skills.
Here are 10 important skills for safety professionals (that exclude compliance and safety knowledge which is a given):
- Commercial knowledge - Too often, safety professionals consider safety as one piece of the jigsaw, but don't understand how it fits in across a range of areas of key business areas such as profits, production and so on. Ideally, safety professionals get the opportunity to work in a range of departments, so that they understand how the business works as a whole.
- People skills - This one is a given, but I would add that a true safety professional must be a real people person who likes people. After all, to really care about safety is to care about humanity and keeping people alive at work (remember this is superhero work). Being a great safety professional is like being an artist. This means being able to listen, take action upon safety concerns and feel real empathy (as opposed to sympathy) towards fellow workers. And when I meant listen, I mean real active listening where you could repeat back what the person said, rather than just listening so that you can work out when to say next. It's about being curious as to what drives people, but not just so that you can compare yourself to them and feel better about yourself. Instead, it's about accepting that everyone is an individual with different motivators and working out the best way to improve for them. It also means getting out on the floor, experiencing working the night shift and being highly visible and approachable, among workers.
- Written Communication skills - Being able to write a convincing safety campaign, is in the realm of copywriters. Yet, a safety professional needs to know how to make the month's safety theme an interesting topic of discussion. It's really important that safety professionals learn some basic marketing skills, to better influence staff with email newsletters and posters. A good resource is the book, Transform Your Safety Communication. Download a free chapter here.
- Safety conversation skills - Most professions need people with great verbal skills. When it comes to safety, it's integral that safety professionals have the skills to encourage people to openly discuss issues in safety meetings, but also the ability to be able to initiate a difficult safety conversation. You need to know a variety of approaches to talk to people about improving their safety habits.
- Ask, don't tell - If you want to build rapport and get the real answer from people, ask questions and hold back from answering. A real leader shows interest in people and asks questions. This means if someone omitted a key safety step you'd ask them about why they did, how they could have done it better, rather than just telling them what to do.
- Encourage safety accountability - It's important that safety professionals let people know that they are each responsible for safety, but also subtly demonstrate this. This means asking questions in safety meetings that get the team to come up with safety solutions, but not offering any ideas. In fact, the more you give ideas or offer the suggestions, the more the weight of safety accountability will fall back on you. Ask tough questions that challenge any outdated assumptions in your organisation. Find out what safety challenge they are most concerned about and what needs to be done. This is important, as by allowing your team to come up with ideas you are growing their collective brainpower. You're also encouraging them to think more in their jobs (and improve autonomy and even, job satisfaction), which will result in you having to help them less, while they become more responsible (quick note: this is also good with children of all ages).
- Run a high performance safety meeting - Running a safety meeting at a high performance level means getting everyone to come up with safety solutions, having open safety discussions and ensuring action is taken. Learn how to be an expert in running a safety meeting where everyone collaborates and action is taken (which is also about the two previous skills - encouraging safety accountability and leading by asking questions).
- Share information - companies that are great at safety have supervisors and safety staff that freely share safety information. For example, this means if they saw an article in the paper about a safety accident that involved the same equipment at their premises they would use that as an opportunity to discuss risks. It means passing on information from production. And it means giving everyone the best chance to do well in their jobs from a safety perspective. One of the ways Alcoa improved their safety record back in the late 1980's was to share safety information in real time to all of their sites worldwide (in fact, they were the first company to use email for corporate purposes).
- Removing gender bias - Human beings can be remarkably biased. Men can often unwittingly have a bias towards women at work even when they think they agree with feminist principles. It's important for male leaders to also include women in the team (without subconsciously blocking them). And it's also important that female leaders, include males. However, if you're a male safety leader, it's important that you ensure women feel comfortable talking to you about safety issues and that you will take matters seriously. Here are some suggestions from, the Harvard Business Review article, Is Gender Bias Undermining your Company?:
Notice how you interact. When you’re in a small group, do you tend to exchange more eye contact with the men in it? Do you speak more often to men than to women? If you do notice a bias toward men, try shifting your attention slightly. Shake the woman’s hand, and exchange eye contact with her even if she's not talking. If she's being quiet, ask for her thoughts. (Don’t overdo all this, though, as you could raise the discomfort level.)
Actively listen. It’s easy to ‘hear past’ someone who is talking. (Our minds work about five times the speed of our mouths. In our rush to finish the speaker’s thought and put our own two cents in, we shut the other person down.) If you have a bias, it’s even easier to want to interrupt. Slow down and listen. If your response demonstrates that you've heard what she's said, she'll feel more enabled to contribute more fully to your organization.
- Be able to work with senior management - It's important that safety staff know how to work with senior management and also how to influence them. Being able to get senior staff to support a new safety initiative is integral. At the same time, if senior management want to push a new initiative it's important that you let them know they best way for it to work. It's a two-way relationship.
It takes a fairly remarkable safety professional to be able to talk candidly with a range of people and foster an open and positive safety culture. Having the courage, to lead by asking questions will grow your organisation's intelligence, but also improve safety accountability. This means being able to see the big picture of how safety fits into the whole organisation and all its moving parts, while at the same time acknowledging that every individual is different and being able to change your communication and influence style per person (and gender). Oh yes, also having compliance knowledge is important, too!
So do you have what it takes to be a safety hero? What do you want to be - dedicated to compliance, or someone who can foster others to have a deep awareness (and appreciation) for keeping safe in their job or someone who can secretly be safety's supporter working quietly in the background?
Image credit: Arielle Ross, 8.75 years