Feb 20, 2019
Too many managers, especially those working in safety complain of being trapped in meeting rooms or behind a desk. When faced with real-world concerns, they communicate policy, statistics and too often, “corporate-speak”, but don’t provide on-the-ground leadership to make change happen.
They act like they manage a sparkling, modern research centre or a yacht sailing smoothly on ocean waters. A better analogy would be a “field hospital” facing constant issues, changing conditions with staff stretched thinly. Their answers to problem-solving are emails or memos, preaching accountability or operational discipline, instead of on-site pragmatic actions that often look radically different to the traditional policies and formal rules.
Safety Leaders create personal and shared responsibility in their organizations and inspire both compliance and new ways of working in complicated workplaces. They often act in a role more like community activists than scientific managers
In some countries, the role of “Community Activist” has got a bad name. They are scorned as socialist, anti-government, campaigning for people to get government entitlements they should earn, and so on. But despite this negative image, I see examples of positive and effective local activism that embody or provide great illustrations of Safety Leadership.
My first example is an email I received in mid-September from a project director for a “brownfield” construction site. This is an edited summary:
This morning I had my personal walk around the site for 3 hours following the morning exercise session:
I can share more good stories, and safety observations. I strongly believe I just need to continue with passion. And people are now starting to feel it.
I was floored, gob-smacked, truly impressed, after I read this! In how many meetings do you and I hear words such as Fatal Risks, SimOps or Accountability as being important, yet tangible changes in these areas take forever to make?
This leader has internalized these concepts and is making them happen in a timely way – he is literally animating them on site. He is following through on his commitments and concerns, conducting personal checks on critical topics, bringing relevance and meaning to pre-starts, and perhaps most importantly, building rapport and relationships with workers and supervisors.
Did I mention that this site is in South Asia where it is common for workers to avoid or “clam up” at the sight of a senior manager? On his site, the workers are pleased to see and greet him. No policy talk, platitudes or righteous mottos, blame or bs. Instead: respect, recognition, relationship.
A second example comes from a news article from the United States about Ras Baraka, the current mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Baraka is the son of a radical leader from the 1960s who was jailed repeatedly; the mayor himself is a former community activist.
Newark has been synonymous with urban failure in the USA for many years. It continues to face tremendous challenges – high crime, low budgets, difficulties in educating its youth and more.
Under Baraka’s leadership projects stalled for years are moving forward and new industries are taking root. Indicative of his approach, at a recent rally wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “We Are Newark”, he shouted to the thousands gathered there; “Everybody has a responsibility. The mayor has a responsibility, yes. The police have a responsibility, yes. But so do our fathers, so do our mothers, so do our brothers. The question is – are you living up to your responsibility?”
Baraka’s approach (like the project director in the first example above) is winning over constituents and even critics. Todd R. Clear, the provost and a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Newark, confessed to having been worried about the new mayor coming in. “Now I’m really engaged, I’m all in,” he said, impressed by the mayor’s energy in dealing with crime, his willingness to enlist help and push the police and residents out of their traditional postures.
“I am as encouraged about what’s going on in Newark with public safety as I’ve ever been. He realizes that he can’t do this out of City Hall,” Mr Clear said, “This is sort of like making everyone mayor.”
The radical activist now looks more like a radical pragmatist. And he’s got people on his side.
(A personal aside: This example is close to my heart as I attended High School in Newark in the 1970s, a tough time and place for a young teenager.) If you can find a bit of time to read this story, I think you’ll enjoy it and be inspired.
One final example: At a petrochemical plant in Asia a security guard refused to let a delivery truck into the site as it did not meet safety requirements. The driver, probably at risk for late or non-delivery, and with his next deadline looming, parked outside the gate. He borrowed a trolley and proceeded to unload and move his heavy goods into the plant on his own… until he fainted from heat stress in the plant.
The driver recovered; the load was delivered; work got back to normal.
The plant manager, seeing an opportunity, got the various departments of the plant together. First praising the security guard for doing his job and upholding the rules, she then took her leadership team to task: “We have been talking about ‘one plant’, ‘one team’ and not hurting people in our management meetings. Did no one notice the man under stress? Do we not care about the driver or our suppliers? Is following the rules enough? How could we have responded better to this situation as one team?”
The ensuing discussions were challenging and revealing. After some hesitation, the plant leaders openly discussed near misses, quality gaps, and hiccups in reliability due to organizational silos, limits to their thinking and weak interfaces that hinder safety, and equally important, hinder the performance of the plant.
Instead of hunkering down and enforcing rules after an incident, the plant manager inspired her leaders to reach out, raise their perspective, and bridge the gaps, both internally and with their contractors. She is using safety to drive the performance of her plant, not slow it down.
What do these examples have in common? Inspiration. Boots on the ground. Bringing people together. Solving real problems. Asking others to take responsibility and backing them up with resources. Bridging differences and building relationships.
So, workers on a brownfield construction site are looking out for each other and working more productively in South Asia, opening their eyes to risks. The citizens of Newark are responding to an inspiring call for action: “We are all Mayor of this city” and a plant in North Asia is transcending cultural limits to performance.