People in health and safety roles are increasingly expected to act like leaders, whatever their level. But what does this really mean? KIRSTIN FERGUSON suggests some approaches.
Health and safety professionals are the thought leaders and internal experts for health and safety within their organisations, yet often underestimate the level of influence they hold.
That could be because, all too often, health and safety professionals find themselves primarily focused on activities such as collating and analysing incident data, overseeing safety investigations, ensuring timely close out of corrective actions, or conducting safety observations.
In other words, the administration of health and safety can often make it challenging to find the time and space needed to add value to the senior executive team and board at a more strategic level.
I have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s leading health and safety professionals. Two traits they have all had in common is the ability to recognise the strategic importance of health and safety to business excellence, and the wisdom to understand that while there are numerous health and safety-related administrative tasks that need to be undertaken every day, the real value they can add lies elsewhere.
The most effective OHS professionals I have worked with bring to their interactions with senior executive teams and boards an understanding of the context in which the organisation is operating. They grasp the impact of volatile commodity prices on their business. They understand the level of distraction (and therefore potential impact on safety outcomes) that a potential divestment (or acquisition) is likely to have on employees. They are aware of digital disruptions impacting their industry and the ways such a disruption can be leveraged by the organisation to have a beneficial impact on health and safety.
The health and safety professionals who are best placed to develop credibility are those who can add value to their organisation by understanding the strategic context in which their role operates, as well as the broader environment in which their organisation functions.
So, how can a health and safety professional best add value? One way is to put yourself in the shoes of your CEO or board during each interaction and ask: what information would they want to hear from the internal expert in this field? It is also important to learn as much about the business and the industry in which you operate as possible. Credibility will follow from being able to participate and add value in business discussions with other leaders, beyond focusing solely on the health and safety function.
But a key opportunity to demonstrate your thought leadership in health and safety lies in the quality of the internal reporting you produce for the board. I am seeing a much greater focus on the meaning and usefulness of reporting, regardless of industry. As the safety governance approach of an organisation matures, so too does the expectations and knowledge of those receiving the reports. As board directors become more experienced in reading and analysing health and safety reports I would expect that will drive a continuing expectation of better quality reporting from health and safety professionals. This provides a real opportunity for health and safety professionals to add value and influence the quality of health and safety discussions inside boardrooms.
Health and safety professionals should work closely with their CEO and board on getting reporting right. It is essential that health and safety reporting focus on the right metrics and commentary, as the board discussion that follows will reflect the report received.
For example, if your reporting focuses primarily on lag indicators then the conversation will most likely focus on minor personal injuries including slips, trips and falls – rather than the significant near miss that also happened during the month but which either wasn’t included in the report or was not even captured.
Often I hear from health and safety professionals who feel frustrated by the low level of discussion during board meetings, where much time is spent on minor incidents. In almost all cases the reason will relate to the reporting template being used.
What drives the reporting template? In most cases it will reflect the level of safety governance maturity of an organisation. It is important for OHS professionals to identify the level safety governance maturity in their organisation in order to be an effect agent of change at the board and the senior executive level. The pathway illustrated explains the various stages of safety governance maturity and the following questions can help to identify where your organisation sits.
Does your board and senior executive team generally see health and safety as the responsibility of the OHS team? Do they tend to become engaged in health and safety only after an incident has occurred? Do you have a culture of ‘production over safety’? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the transactional stage.
Is compliance with health and safety legislation the main driver of reporting to the senior executive team or board? Are they primarily focused on ensuring the minimum legislation standards are met? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the compliance stage.
Have you noticed the senior executive team and board asking more detailed questions lately, often wanting to drill down into the causes of incidents with much greater understanding? Does your senior executive team and board consider site visits an important part of their safety leadership role? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the focused stage.
Do you feel that most of your senior executive team and board ‘get’ safety? That is, they understand that a strong safety culture involves much more than simply compliance, and requires safety leadership both inside and outside the boardroom? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the pro-active stage.
Do your senior executive team and board seek to understand the safety impacts of every decision being made across the organisation? Does the concept of ‘safe production’ set the tone for all health and safety discussions? If so, it is likely your organisation is at the integrated stage.
Making it relevant
The best presentations make health and safety relevant and interesting. On one board I sat on as a director there was a particular hazard which had been raised in a board paper for discussion. So we talked about the hazards based on the written description in the monthly board report. As we were relying on words to explain a very technical task, it was difficult for board members to really appreciate the risks involved.
The next month the health and safety professional presented the same task to the board, but this time presented a video of it being undertaken by an employee, while talking through the risks and the mitigation strategies being adopted. A much more robust discussion followed!
Many institutional investors are already focusing on health and safety disclosures of publicly listed companies and I expect that trend to continue. Therein lies another opportunity for OHS professionals to demonstrate leadership.
It is likely there will be an increasing demand for transparency around KPIs linked to safety, especially for public companies. During my PhD research I analysed 10 years of safety reporting in the annual reports of ASX200 companies. I found that the disclosure of safety statistical information, for example, increased from 29% of all companies in 2001 to 67% of all companies by 2011.
The quality of such disclosures can vary immensely, however, and is very rarely comparable between or within industries. So, just as board safety governance processes and reporting is maturing, I suspect the level of public disclosures will continue to mature as well.
I hope that in the near to medium term we will start to see some agreed standards of reporting which will allow for some level of benchmarking that isn’t so reliant on lag indicators such as LTIs or TRIFR. This is something that needs to be driven by an organisation’s thought leader on health and safety.
Becoming a leader
There are other ways to develop as a leader. One is to take any opportunity to work outside your function for a period, or to take on additional line management responsibilities, to broaden your commercial skills and expand your career options.
Another is further education – whether something like an MBA or another tertiary qualification – since as the more senior the role the greater the expectation is that you will have followed this path. But there are also less formal opportunities, such as speaking at conferences, developing an online professional profile, and networking with industry sector peers.
Which brings us back to where we started. It is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day pressures and activities of the business you are in. My advice would be to expand beyond those walls whenever you can to engage and interact with others. Doing so will ultimately develop your credibility and further your professional development opportunities.
Australian-based Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director on ASX100, ASX200, government and private company boards. She has a PhD in safety governance and leadership and is the Founder of Orbitas Group. Kirstin was a keynote speaker at the 2015 Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference.