Stop doing, start being

First published on Safety Differently

A little while ago, I participated in a workshop for CEOs discussing health and safety matters. We did the usual workshop thing of breaking into table discussions and feeding back to the group in time-honoured fashion. It is relatively rare to bring together such a large group of influencers, so I was looking forward to the output and the opportunity it could give to drive wholesale improvements across a number of businesses and their supply chains – as the principal topic was contractor engagement and supply chain management.

Unfortunately, the output did not live up to its billing. There are many thousands of discussions, blogs and articles on the difference between leadership and management, so I won’t repeat them here. Suffice to say that there was a lot of management and not a lot of leadership. Worse still, it wasn’t even corporate management – it was safety management. Improvement areas included better early engagement, more efficient pre-qualification processes and ideas for leading indicators. As safety practitioners, while always being open to new ideas and not wanting to dismiss their input, this is not really what we need from CEOs. We can design the transactional safety management part ourselves and have (hopefully) got that aspect covered.

So, what do we need? This is not intended to be a treatise on contractor management, but for this particular topic it could include:

  • Leading a mind-set change to start treating contractors like partners in achieving the business goals, rather than disposable resources we throw work at
  • Changing contractual models so that cost and corner cutting are not so well rewarded, with associated pressures on safe work
  • A return to employing the front-line workforce instead of ever extending long tails of contractors in the supply chain culminating in hundreds of itinerant sole traders.

These all require changes in philosophy and the underlying approach to how we think about our work. They are not quick fix actions to be taken immediately. Yet, frequently when interfacing with executives and boards, the requirement is for just that – quick fix actions. They are busy people; they need to know what it is they have to do. They can’t spend hours thinking about things. After all, a board may only meet once a quarter for a day. They simply don’t have time to ‘waste’. Many discussions have come to a close based on a statement of, “This is all very well, but what are the two or three things we are going to go away and actually do?”

Partly, this is due to the reality of a senior role – there is a lot to do – but it also an embodiment of the well-known Peter Principle, which states that people are promoted based on the requirements of their previous role, not on those of the new, more senior one. People are often successful due to their ability to get things done when they were in a more transactional role. In a leadership role that requires more vision, strategy and delegation, they can struggle. This can also be exacerbated by the fact that one of the reasons they are good at fire-fighting is that they enjoy it and so, even sub-consciously, find opportunities to do more of it.

There is a success model in life coaching based on the approach of ‘Be-Do-Have’. The idea is that you need to be the type of person who will do the necessary things to have the outcome you want. The order in which these are done is very important. ‘Be’ first and then ‘do’. The ‘have’ will look after itself. Yet most of us jump straight into the ‘do’ phase. A short-term feeling of achievement replaces the long-term improvement in output and gives us an illusion of progress. When it doesn’t work, we do the next action and continue to spin the wheels without gaining any traction. As noted here, it is who a leader is that influences the most, rather than what they do.

So, how to overcome the bias for action?

When I begin a safety review with a leadership team, I start off with a high level conversation to get team alignment and understanding. This covers what safety means to them, what their objectives are, why it matters, what they are worried about and how it aligns with the rest of their business. This develops into an emotional and sometimes surprising discussion. Particularly in high risk industries, there are unfortunately few experienced leaders who have not been touched in some way by a significant injury, a fatality or a major health issue with a colleague. This conversation reconnects them with why it is important and adds genuineness to their future involvement.

For this to be effective, it must not be a rushed conversation. In preparing for a recent discussion, one of the participants had only one requirement – that adequate time would be given to do it properly. When I receive a request like that, I know it’s going to go well.

The New Zealand Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum states that, “Leadership is about what you say, do and measure.” But there is an earlier step. If what you say is not authentic and founded genuinely in who you are, the message will be lost. While we cannot just discuss things for ever, senior leaders need to be aware that their bias for action can be counter-productive. To do safety differently, they need to spend more time on the ‘be’ before launching into the ‘do.’

How do leaders achieve this? Transformational leadership is about clarity of vision and inspiration to action. They need to be prepared to commit time, as individuals and as teams, to thinking about what they are trying to achieve in safety and why. Such considerations for an executive team or a board may include:

  • What is safety and what does it mean to us?
  • Would our workforce describe us as caring for their wellbeing?
  • Are we asking about safety, or are we telling?
  • Are we thoughtful in our response to the business, or do we react to headline data?
  • Are we bold enough to do the right things for the right reasons? To leave the benchmarking herd and genuinely lead in doing things differently?

Answering these questions with honesty and self-awareness lays a foundation for returning safety to Dekker’s “ethical responsibility downwards.” This context provides a stronger understanding of the subject matter and allows the leadership team to be more effective in judging whether what they and their business are doing is likely to achieve their safety vision. This is a request to all business leaders. Before you look at that next safety report and decide what to do, look at yourself and decide who to be.

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