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May 19

Safety Isn’t Number One!

How Safety Leaders work with the corner office

Take the following quiz about your person in the corner office. In the last ten presentations given by your CEO, what was the main topic? Next, if you looked at the agenda presented at your company’s most recent board of director meeting, what would be the primary focus? Finally, if you looked at your CEO’s calendar this week, what is the purpose or topic in the majority of his/her meetings?

I have a good friend who teaches for a MBA program. To begin the session he will give his students a 10 page business scenario. Along with a description of the business, the packet includes balance sheets, bank statements, revenue flows and production costs. The students have a few days to read the material and come to class ready to discuss.

My friend tells me that each semester the discussion is very similar. When he asks the class what the major problem is with the business, the responses are varied. Someone on the back row will immediately speak up and suggest that the company has a problem because of a very weak social media presence. Another will point to a slow production process compared to their competition. One will propose that the company has branding and customer identity issues. Yet another will submit that the company is struggling because it has not tapped overseas markets. Finally, after nearly two hours of debate a quiet person on the front row will timidly raise her hand and say, “I’m not sure it’s what you are looking for, but the way I read the cash flows, this company isn’t going to make payroll next week.”

My friend will then hurry to the board and write in enormous letters, C-A-S-H. “Cash, my students, is the most important thing in business…never forget that.”

If you have taken the quiz above you have discovered what your CEO and senior leaders already know; cash is the most important thing in business. Cash sometimes goes by different names in different businesses like dividends, earnings per share, stockholder value, budget compliance, profit margin or simply making payroll. My guess is that your CEO and senior leaders manage cash very well. Because they are so good at it, they were promoted – – that is the reason they are now leading your company! Senior leaders and CEOs are laser focused on cash, no matter how they say it. And we should want it that way, right?

Unclear Expectations by Safety Professionals – – So, what’s the problem? In the last decade safety professionals have consulted, written, urged and established that an organization can only be effective if these same cash driven senior leaders make safety a value. Not only must they make it a value, they must get out there and support it! So, our CEO will inadvertently end up at an employee meeting where safety comes up. He will then articulate that it’s the most important thing. Thirty minutes later he will be back in his office making a cash related decision that in the eyes of the employees appears to contradict his statements on safety.

In truth, we more than likely, have set him and our organizations up to fail. Failure comes in a number of ways. Failure means the employees believe there is a ‘say-do’ gap on the part of the CEO and senior management, because they say one thing about safety and then do another. Failure is the appearance that senior management team is disconnected. Or, that it is ‘wrongly connected;’ meaning they want to help and be supportive but have not been given clear direction. In short, we do need our CEO and senior management team’s support in order to run an effective safety program. And, in order to get their support, we as safety professionals need to be very clear about what ‘support’ looks like. Here are five things that safety professionals should do with their CEO and senior management.

Give your CEO three things to do

“One of safety’s greatest failings has been its total inability to involve top management in safety,” Dan Peterson writes in Safety By Objectives. “Probably all corporate presidents in this country want safety for their people and yet they usually fail to do anything to achieve it. This is more often than not the fault of the safety managers. We simply have not told these presidents what it is that they must do to achieve safety. Safety managers have traditionally bemoaned the fact that they need management support and cannot get it.”

In working with our CEO’s, we must give them specific things to do. I suggest three items each month. I like one written, like a note to a supervisor or field worker related to safety, for example. Think about the ripple effect this has on your organization. Scribbling a note takes no more than 15 minutes. Consider one spoken, like discussing safety with a small group of workers. In this setting, have your CEO share a personal story; it will make him or her seem more human and approachable. This takes about 30 minutes. Finally, schedule a field related visit. Have a supervisor or safety professional accompany your CEO to the field or through the shop floor. Stop and talk safety with as many workers as you can. This activity, depending on your industry can take anywhere from an hour to four hours. In total, you are asking about five hours or less of your CEO’s time per month…and your expectations are clear.

Using the calendar to your advantage

While the goal of your CEO is cash, he or she is driven by their calendar. As you know, CEOs are incredibly busy and each day to them presents ten to twelve hours of appointments and meetings. But, if we understand that CEOs are driven by their calendars, we can plug into those calendars to help us with safety. In addition to giving your CEO three specific things to do, schedule a monthly or bi-monthly meeting with him/her. This doesn’t have to be a long meeting, thirty minutes to an hour will be sufficient. This meeting has many purposes. First, it gives you a chance to better know and understand the CEO and gives the CEO a better chance to know you, and safety. You can share status updates on safety goals and discuss any recent incidents. In short, just as the CEO meets with other critical department heads, you need to be on that rotation, educating and informing the person in the corner office.

What is the Score?

“You play different,” the old saying reads, “when you know the score.” One of the primary responsibilities is to make sure your CEIO and senior team know the ‘safety score.’ You can bet that your CEO gets daily or weekly ‘scores,’ sometimes called ‘dashboard’ reports, related to cash. These are typically one page, real time reports that offer a quick snap shot on the exact financial health of the company. What kind of scores do we offer? Traditionally, we offer a once a month injury report. And, this report generally comes out about the middle of the following month, so an injury could be more than 45 days past before making it to the CEO’s desk. What if we initiated a safety dashboard? Information could include injuries, the cost of injuries, near miss reports, job observations, safety audit scores, and more. This real time report is typically much different than the reports that are currently provided. But, setting up a process to give our CEO a real time score (safety dashboard) will not only give you and your safety team real time data to identify trends, but it will leave a positive impression on your CEO as well.

Appoint a Vicar

Now that you are on your CEO’s calendar on a regular bases, you have worked with your CEO on three, or so, specific activities and you are giving him/her a weekly dashboards, it’s time to take the next step. Just because your CEO can’t be out in front of work groups talking safety day in and day out doesn’t mean that it’s not a very important role for a member of your senior management team. So, who is your safety vicar? If you have one great, if not have your CEO appoint one. A vicar is a representative who is entrusted to act “in the person of” or agent of the CEO. In this case, it is to carry out the CEO’s message about safety. It is best if this person is an operations manager or VP and has ‘the ear’ of the CEO on a regular basis. There needs to be close communication and goal alignment between the safety staff, the vicar and the CEO. This is a very good way to have a safety champion out with your workers day in and day out.

Strive for Operational Excellence

Finally, make safety part of operational excellence instead of making operational excellence about safety. Many organizations fall into the trap of making safety about ‘the right thing to do’ or a moral issue. I agree that it is both, but if we want to be more effect we need to be able to build a solid business case around safety; a business case that has a strong and sound financial foundation. To make this case, we should strive for operational excellence. Operational excellence is striving to perform in all aspects of your business, from product quality to human performance, to safety performance – – they are all tied together. The more we can talk about operational excellence and convince our CEO that operational excellence is the threshold to exceptional safety performance, the more successful we and our organizations will be.

In the end, we can’t be successful without the person in the corner office. Just because safety isn’t the most important thing on your CEO’s mind doesn’t mean that you and he/she can’t forge a strong bond. It is a relationship that can move your organization forward toward operational excellence – – and safety!

Matt Forck directs Safestrat, www.safestrat.com

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