What does it take to be an effective EHS leader?
“We have a new Vice President of Operations, and she doesn’t think we are doing well in safety.”
“After three years of declining incident rates we’ve just had a fatality and two serious injuries.”
“Our leadership team thinks we can improve the safety culture, but there are differences in how our leaders think we should approach it.”
These statements open a conversation I’ve had many times over the years, leading to the question of what is the optimal strategy to attain EHS improvement objectives. The conversation then goes to core questions — How strong is safety and operations leadership? How good are existing safety systems? Do leaders understand the role of behavior in incident causation? What initiatives are ongoing? How strong is “initiative fatigue”?How do we get a safety improvement strategy that our leaders will understand and support?”
Interestingly, the most important variable in the mix may go unrecognized: the knowledge and skill level of the EHS leader.
Historically EHS leaders are selected for their technical expertise. They often report to an executive leader who is not an EHS professional but who represents the EHS perspective to the senior leadership team. This happens most often above the site level, but it still happens sometimes at the site level. The EHS function is not seen as deserving of a place at the table where decisions are made.
This is a tough problem, because some of the time the EHS person really isn’t qualified to sit at the table. Other times they are but they aren’t recognized. An operations leader, or a leader from another field who has leadership experience and qualifications is selected to represent the EHS piece. I’ve seen this work and I’ve seen it be a disaster, more often the later. The disaster scenario is something like this: the leader has massive over confidence bias, doesn’t know that they lack sufficient knowledge, and makes and then leads poor decisions in spite of their ignorance. The EHS leader is frustrated but doesn’t know how to navigate in order to address the situation effectively.
The root of this problem is twofold:
- The senior leader making the decision about who will lead the safety effort at the senior level doesn’t understand the problem.
If I’m an executive in a large organization, I know what it takes to do the jobs that report to me, mostly. Finance, Legal, Sales and Marketing, Supply Chain are all things I understand well enough to evaluate who will be able to do the job well. I know enough about those jobs to distinguish good decision making from bad. But how can I evaluate the competence of the senior-most EHS leader? If the EHS leader says, “We need to upgrade the skill level of our first line supervisors, so they can be sure our employees behave safely,” does the executive recognize the extent to which this statement is flawed? Often not. The result is that opportunities to improve and related resources are squandered.
- The EHS person who should be leading doesn’t have the knowledge to do it effectively.
Executives don’t select people outside EHS to lead the EHS function for no reason. They do it because they need a sufficient level of skill, knowledge, and attributes to play at the necessary level. One of the most interesting observations I’ve had over the past 35 years or so is how much variation there is in the effectiveness of EHS leaders. Often the best of these leaders have been assigned to operations roles along the path, and this helps enormously. One to one coaching can also help. Ultimately, our colleges, universities and organizations need to develop the skills EHS leaders need to be successful in today’s organization. In the meantime, when a person outside of safety is selected for a safety leadership job, they should be assessed and systematically prepared. Of the skills, knowledge and attributes required, the biggest issue is often knowledge. I’m not referring to the technical aspects of safety, but instead the strategic issues that underlie safety improvement strategy. Executive presence is another frequent issue.
Organizations that attain real safety excellence are aware of this issue and taking active steps to address it.