What is it that makes a great safety leader? Sometimes it is good just to pause and reflect on these things. There are some really great role models out there. I’m sure like me, during your career you have come across some great safety leaders and on the other hand, you may have seen others who have been not so great.
I don’t think great safety leaders necessary conform to one stereotype. Each leader is an individual and brings their own styles and strengths to the table. That is the beauty of leadership. But as I think about it, there are a few common characteristics that apply to each of these great safety leaders. Now I am not going to offer a theoretical framework in which to support my observations. I am going to be pragmatic and share what I feel are four key characteristics when it comes to being a great safety leader.
I’m sure as you read this, you may do a little bit of self-assessment. Are these characteristics that I value and consistently display? The best safety leaders I am talking about are people within my professional network. So chances are you are one of them or you may also be able to identify them, because you work with them.
First up, fundamentally the best safety leaders are also the best business leaders. Safety is not an extra part of the job, it is integral to how they think and work. I’m sure I don’t need to convince you that good safety equals good business. It is no coincidence that the leaders and organisations that care about the health and safety of their people, are also the same organisations that care for their customers and deliver great results.
Poor safety is generally the result of poor business practices. It might be because the wrong people are on the job. Is the necessary time and rigour placed on recruitment to ensure employees have the experience and more importantly a values alignment with your safety culture? Inadequate preparation and training can also be a factor. I’m not talking about “tick the box”, form filling compliance training. I am talking about developing real competence through proper training and development.
Following on from this, the insight that may come as a surprise is that the best safety leaders are well planned. Their jobs are organised and under control. Their people have the time and resources necessary to do their job properly and safely. Good management practices go hand in hand with good safety leadership. If you come across a job that looks rushed and chaotic, I guarantee it won’t be a safe job. Poor planning puts people at unnecessary risk.
The second of the big four characteristics is “Care Factor”. The best safety leaders genuinely care about their people. Where does this “Care Factor” come from? Is in innate or can it be developed? In my experience it is a bit of both. But the thing I know for sure is you cannot fake it. At least not for very long. Because it is the many small things you do in the course of a day or a week that demonstrates care. Engaging with the team and really listening. What are their concerns? How can I help them as a leader to do the job more effectively and more safely?
This is not necessary a warm and fuzzy type of caring either. Caring can be demonstrated through tough love actions involved in removing people from a task or their role, because they chose to break the rules and put themselves or others at risk of being hurt or worse. Again, “Care Factor” extends well beyond the safety realm. The best leaders care about their team, they care about their clients, and they care about the quality of their products and services.
Walking the talk is the third characteristic I see done well by the best safety leaders. Another way to describe walking the talk is showing visible leadership. It is all well and good to have the best intentions, however people cannot see intentions – good or bad. The best intentions needs to be turned into the best actions. This can be tough in a big business. It is not always possible to spend meaningful time with every person or team in every location as often as you would like. However there are actions that a well-planned leader can take that demonstrates their commitment to the health and safety of their people. A really important one we see in our safety leadership program is the power of having a leader led approach to co-facilitate and open and close the program. Their presence goes beyond just showing their face and disappearing in a rush, they genuinely engage with the program participants, they listen and they clearly articulate their expectations and “why” safety is important to them.
The power of a symbolic action cannot be overstated. Quite quickly, one action can become folk-law. One of the rail workers who attended our program, stopped the job to work safely. On this occasion it stopped all rail traffic over Sydney Harbour Bridge in peak hour. The media and the public complained loudly. The leadership reviewed the actions taken and acknowledged the worker with a safety award. Safety did come before production and the leaders reinforced this in the face of significant public pressure. This was a symbolic moment of truth for the leaders and the organsiation.
The fourth characteristic of the best safety leaders I know is the courage to Act on It. The worker and the leaders I referred to above had the courage to act on it. You cannot be a good safety leader if you are not consistent. Actions speak louder than words. Acting on it involves many things. It means making the tough calls. It means investing time and resources in the important things. Do you consider safety a cost or an investment? I know I am biased, but I don’t think there is a better investment than building a high performing safety culture. Why? Because it is not only great for people, but great for business. Good safety leaders are good leaders. They engage their people, they engage with their customers and simply lead great business performance.
I hope that in reading this article, you were a little bit surprised in the “Top Four” behaviours that I have shared. I barely mentioned compliance and I don’t think I referred to the law at all. Of course rules and regulation are important, but they alone are not going to deliver a high performing safety culture. The best safety leaders work well beyond compliance and rules, they work in the space of values, passion, care and respect.