March 18, 2016

How Senior Leaders Lead Safety Improvement

One of the most difficult things for a leader to understand is how we influence the safety, health, and wellness of an organization. It’s easy to know the outcomes we want – zero injuries and a thriving workforce. It’s much more difficult to know what individual leaders do on a day-to-day basis to achieve those outcomes. And for those whose career paths take them away from the front lines, the line of sight becomes even more blurred.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing a panel of senior vice presidents, each of whom had led their organizations to unprecedented levels of success in preventing workplace injuries. An audience of 200 EHS professionals, labor representatives, front line employees, and managers faced a simple stage set with 5 chairs. An unknown number of their 150,000 coworkers were also viewing over WebEx. I stood to the side with a small podium as each panelist was introduced. These were 5 of the senior-most leaders in the entire organization. They each had far reaching operational responsibilities. The mere fact of their presence on the stage made it clear that safety and health was at the top of their list of responsibilities that day, while the discussion that followed showed that worker safety and health was at the top of their list every day.

This article contains my observations about how these leaders came across, what they did, and why those things were so effective.

Their Messages Were Authentic and Compelling

In response to my opening question, “Do we really have to be excellent in safety and health in order to fulfill the organization’s mission?” each leader delivered his or her safety message passionately and with conviction:

“Quality and affordable service relies on people,” said the first panelist.

“People are the heart of this organization,” said the next. “We must respect and honor them by looking out for their safety.”

“Employees are our [customers] too,” said another. “We must care for them first.”

From a certain kind of leader, such sentiments can sound empty, but it was apparent that my panelists were tapping into their deep personal values. You could hear it in the subtle inflections in their voices, see it in their body language, and connect to it through the powerful stories they offered to help make their points. The personal value for safety – that deeply felt moral responsibility – shone through in these leaders’ comments, just as it drove their consistent safety leadership and their willingness to invest personal time and attention to ensure success.

They Articulated Big Goals for Safety and Culture

To these exemplary safety leaders, “success” meant so much more than preventing injuries and illness, though those outcomes were critical. Beyond that, they defined success in terms of the culture that they were creating as they worked to prevent harm to their employees and contractors.

I asked for particulars about the culture they were trying to create. They described a culture characterized by teamwork, engagement, and mutual respect. They spoke of reducing competition between units and eliminating silos. They talked about fostering an environment in which people have the confidence to face issues head-on and to learn together. These leaders were unified in their efforts to create a learning organization.

To some, it might seem possible to improve safety without addressing culture: Create systems, train people on them, and then enforce the rules. Install video cameras and fine anyone who violates a rule. But experience has shown that the two are inherently interrelated, which means that leaders’ efforts in safety will always create culture, for better or worse. Everything we do, every minute of every day, impacts the culture. But not all organizational cultures benefit safety. And not all cultures benefit the business generally. A truly strong safety culture benefits both safety and the business. Tom Krause and I explore this at length in our book, the 7 Insights into Safety Leadership. Our first insight is that when an organization improves safety by engaging workers, it not only prevents injuries, but it also creates the type of culture that supports excellence generally.

Leaders who understand the connections between safety, culture, and organizational outcomes stand to achieve safety excellence and organizational excellence simultaneously. This understanding was exemplified by the SVP’s on the panel. They approached safety and culture together. Every one of them championed an improvement strategy that hinged on engaging employees in identifying problems and offering solutions.

They Started with Leadership … Their Own Leadership

I asked the leaders on the panel about what they did to create the safety culture they wanted. In a strong, unified voice, they spoke of humility, openness to learning, and showing respect for others in every interaction. They were talking about leadership: their own leadership.

Each panelist had gone out of their way to connect with their staff and their operations. Those who had oversight for service locations visited their sites frequently and conducted regular “gemba walks.” The leader responsible for corporate functions also created opportunities to meet with employees and visit sites. During site visits, they asked questions like, “Show me what makes this difficult?” and “Is there a better way?” Occasionally they brought their EHS professionals with them so that they could learn together. Their interactions served more than one purpose: they were connecting with workers, they were learning about the operation, they were gathering feedback. One leader used the opportunity to identify and challenge unhelpful assumptions. For example, if an employee were to say, “The customer has to come first,” she would ask, “What does that mean for safety?” And they would talk.

Research on transformational leadership confirms what these leaders intuitively know to be true: leaders who build relationships with their employees and their teams, leaders who stimulate new thinking about how to work, leaders who educate themselves about safety and operational issues have better performing organizations. Better in safety and in general.

They Had Two Inter-Related Leadership Objectives

Note that the connection between transformational leadership and safety performance is indirect: each helps create a culture in which people are highly motivated and bring their best effort. So it’s critically important to realize that these extraordinary safety leaders were also taking actions that had a direct influence on safety. They were doing things to make their workplaces safer. They were surfacing safety issues. They were lending their authority to expedite solutions. One of my panelists spoke to this directly. More than one organization had seen dramatic safety improvements on his watch, and his biggest learning from those experiences was that workers carry a wealth of information about the risks of the workplace. By being curious, asking questions, and staying humble, he learned to uncover real opportunities to reduce risk for his entire workforce. It was an important learning about safety and culture improvement.

By the end of the panel discussion, two things were crystal clear: Safety initiatives have the most impact when they are woven into the culture, and culture thrives when it focuses on an issue with widespread engagement. We have more to learn from each other. I wish I had asked the panel about the way they interacted with their management teams, about how they developed and enabled safety leadership in the middle of the organization, and what they anticipate in the future.

Learn more about our approach to safety leadership

How Senior Leaders Lead Safety Improvement

March 18, 2016


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