How Did We Get Here?
As a safety consultant, I talk to a lot of frustrated safety professionals. What I hear are countless stories of people feeling underappreciated, overworked, isolated, powerless, etc. When I come away from these conversations I often ask myself, “Why do safety people so often feel this way? Do business leaders respect and care about safety?”. Are we seen as a critical component to an organization’s mission, vision, and success? In some cases, obviously yes. But in most cases, I’m not sure.
And then I thought about this question the other day. One would think that since the dawn of time, there would be one example of a safety professional who rose up through the ranks of a Fortune 500 company to become CEO. Nope! It’s never happened. How do I know? If it did happen, that person would be safety royalty, bigger than Conklin, Gellar and Dekker all rolled into one! Plus, they would sell a million books telling all of us other safety professionals how to duplicate his/her success.
Trust me. It’s never happened. But is it because businesses believe safety leaders provide marginal value when compared to other business functions? Or are safety professionals ill-prepared to think in a business-like manner? Are we not taken seriously, or do we not act seriously? I’ve thought about it, and I blame safety professionals.
Safety Leaders, Not Business Leaders?
I spoke to a safety professional this week who didn’t know his company’s net profit margin. I spoke to another who didn’t know how much it costs to onboard a new hire? I spoke to another who couldn’t tell me what his safety and health goals and objectives are (what he’s trying to accomplish) for next year beyond “Zero Accidents”.
Don’t get me wrong. I speak from experience. I got my Masters Degree in Safety nearly a decade ago, and I never took a single business course. The Management part was missing from my Safety Management Degree. We didn’t talk about ROI, game theory, corporate strategy, goal setting, effective communication, etc. Instead, we talked about fire safety, scaffolding, fall protection, workers compensation, OSHA regulations, and auditing, etc. All good things, but not necessarily the most critical to managing a business, only a small part of it. So what is the answer?
What Safety Leaders Need
If safety leaders want business leaders to respect them, they have to earn it. To earn it, safety leaders begin acting and thinking more like business leaders. We can’t wait for Safety schools to adopt a more business-focused curriculum, but there are things people can do today to start becoming more business-minded leaders. Such as….
We need to be more strategic in our thoughts and actions. We need to believe in something; a set of principles that define our character and actions. We need to cultivate and harvest better data on safety performance beyond the current series of accident-based lagging indicators. We need to learn how to learn from successful work. We need to cultivate a culture of learning and continuous improvement. We need to make sure our people have what they need to be successful. We need to be more mindful of how we interact and communicate, and be more intentional about building relationships. We need to show compassion and concern. We need to understand that people make mistakes. We need to stop blaming people when they make mistakes and let them know it’s okay to be human. We need to act ethically, and hold others accountable for the same. We need to stop punishing people for making mistakes. We need to say please and thank you. We have to ask people about their hobbies, and what they did this past weekend. We need to know the names of our co-workers’ kids. We need to ask people if we can help them, and mean it! We need to come through on our promises. We need to tell the truth! We need to say “I don’t know” if we don’t know.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. Safety professionals should focus less on re-writing safety programs and procedures and focus more on understanding how you get the results you get! Learn to think critically and strategically, and work to build relationships. Leave the clipboard behind and walk the floor and just have a conversation with someone. Being a leader doesn’t cost anything, but it can mean everything to your career, your organization, your co-workers and their families.