Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Why executive education will be critical in the talent-shortage era

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2014, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety performance.

Three years ago, the first baby boomers reached retirement age, officially launching the demographic shift that will change the workforce as we know it. But it is not just a shortage of people that is driving change; it is a shortage of skills. In safety, the skills gap is projected to be sizeable – by some estimates, there will be as many as two new positions for every qualified safety professional entering the workforce. While safety professional recruitment, development and retention are now high priorities for organizations, executive education will be especially critical to safety talent strategy.

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Executive education around safety is relatively rare, but that is changing. Among organizations that strive to make safety integral to their culture and identity, it’s no longer enough that executives have good intentions. They also must have the competencies to drive safety strategy effectively.

Senior leaders don’t need to have the expertise of a Certified Safety Professional, but they do need to know how to establish and communicate their safety vision. They must know how to engage in-field leaders, model safety leadership and guarantee consistent actions across the organization. They need to ensure the resources (including selection, promotion and staffing) and support the actions associated with desired safety culture. Currently, few companies have a formal way for operational leaders to develop these and other critical safety leadership competencies.

In addition to supporting safety advancement, there are a number of reasons why executive education will be especially important in today’s environment. Among them:

  1. Operational leaders are accountable for safety. Safety is no longer just the “safety department’s job.” If safety is to be a defining characteristic of an organization’s mission and culture, that expertise must be extended to leaders with strategic oversight. Executives need training that equips them to guide the organization in limiting risks, creating opportunities, and improving safety and organizational functioning. In turn, safety professionals supported by well-educated leaders will be better enabled to focus on running safety processes and programs that fit with the greater strategy.
  2. Safety drives high-performance cultures. Safety has long had a natural partnership with healthy culture. Organizations that perform better in safety tend to have higher levels of employee commitment, satisfaction and discretionary effort. They also see lower levels of turnover, absenteeism and stress – all critical to attracting and retaining talent. By virtue of their position, executives are key to creating the culture change and safety performance that helps achieve and sustain these results even as their organization experiences change.
  3. Safety can help organizations become more agile. In addition to the talent shortage, organizations are contending with an unprecedented level of change in other areas. Increasingly globalized workforces and supply chains, growing competition for natural resources, heightened public concern over social and environmental impacts, and mounting government and regulatory intervention all will require sophistication in executing change. The change management disciplines that safety has established over the past 30 years are highly transferable to goals such as sustainability and operational excellence. Executives with fluency in safety practices and principles will be better able to navigate these challenges and lead their organizations into the future.

Executive education is not a quick fix. Coursework must be rigorous and focused on role-specific disciplines and competencies. At a minimum, executives must be able to demonstrate knowledge in critical areas, including addressing exposure, behavior analysis, the hierarchy of controls and safety data analysis. They also must be able to show fluency in competencies such as communication, safety strategy, risk response and directing people in safety.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Michael Mangan is director of research and development for BST. Mangan’s work helps organizations understand performance and design interventions for improvement.


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