The 2017 CEOs Who 'Get It'

2017 CEOs Who Get it
Joe Slater

Joe Slater

President and CEO
Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative
Hughesville, MD


  • Attends and presents at employee safety meetings
  • Personally wear-tested an approved flame-resistant company uniform while performing maintenance activities at his home to assess the comfort of the garment
  • Opened a campus gym, allowing employees to exercise at no cost and at times that are convenient for their schedule
  • Opened a campus family health center that allows retirees, employees and family members access to urgent and routine medical care
  • Implemented a smoke-free policy for company vehicles and worksites

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative is a not-for-profit electric cooperative that provides electricity to more than 160,000 accounts in southern Maryland. SMECO’s mission is to provide safe, reliable and affordable electric service while assisting its communities and enhancing the quality of life in southern Maryland. SMECO employs 530 workers.

Why is safety a core value at your organization?

Safety is a core value at SMECO because our success is directly tied to keeping our employees – in particular our linemen – healthy and safe, especially as they perform work in hazardous conditions. It is essential that our employees place the highest value on safety, as there is no room for error while making direct contact with high-voltage electrical lines.

My concern also extends to the dozens of men and women who travel our highways each day to do routine maintenance, inspect our infrastructure, meet with our customers and numerous other daily activities that we can easily take for granted.

Stressing safety for all of our employees has to be an inclusive process to ensure it’s part of our culture and not just something that is talked about at monthly meetings and forgotten.

I realize our culture starts with me, and I take every opportunity to be a leader of our safety initiatives. I faithfully attend our employee safety meetings and present information when warranted to show support for upcoming campaigns. I personally wear-tested an approved flame-resistant company uniform while performing maintenance activities at my home to assess the comfort of the garment, ensuring the company uniform was not only safe and durable, but also comfortable.

I take pride in the fact that our organization feels like a family, and I truly care about everyone’s well-being.

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.” What experiences or lessons brought you to where you are now?

I came to work at SMECO, and the utility industry, on July 2, 1979. Later that year, on Oct. 10, our organization suffered the tragic loss of two linemen to electrocution during power restoration efforts following a snowstorm. That preventable loss was due to failure to wear PPE and not following established work practices. Those shortcuts cost two men their lives. For me, it was an experience that forged a “never again” promise and mindset. And we have made good on that pledge.

I have been in the electric utility industry now for almost four decades. Safety has and will always be my top priority. Through my former consulting career and as a CEO at two different utilities, I’ve traveled around the country and visited rural electric cooperatives in 38 states, including Hawaii, Alaska and Florida, and almost everywhere in between. Additionally, traveling overseas to India on a USAID-funded project, I provided consultation to several of that country’s state electrical boards. Through these experiences, I learned firsthand from those who were doing it right and doing it wrong.

One of my primary missions when I became CEO of SMECO in 2002 was to give our employees the best training, tools and equipment to do their jobs as safely and efficiently as possible. We upgraded to a state-of-the-art outage management system and robust IT infrastructure that I would be proud to hold up against any system used by another utility. We continuously upgrade fleet vehicles and have launched an automated vehicle location system. We continually invest in ergonomically engineered tools to assist in utility construction and offer industry leading personal protective equipment to ensure worker safety and comfort. I opened a new technical training facility, which exemplifies my belief in the dynamic relationship between effective training, safety and efficient operational performance. Our latest investment was to institute an analytics-based safety platform that helps us better track safety incident data, spot trends, communicate events and respond to be proactive rather than reactive. All of these actions were my commitment, actually my obligation, to our employees to prepare them to be successful.

What is the biggest obstacle to safety at your organization, and how do you work to overcome it?

Driving. In 2016, 24 percent of our total incidents resulted from motor vehicle collisions.

Regardless of our driver preparation, external factors such as other driver inattention, distraction or reckless driving are making our crowded roadways dangerous.

We monitor our vehicle incident rates and I meet personally with all SMECO employees involved in an accident.

I learned long ago that if the CEO pays lip service to a project or cause, then the employees will follow suit. Through my personal commitment and leadership, I provide my fellow co-op employees with the educational materials and other tools to help prevent the preventable.

How do you instill a sense of safety in employees on an ongoing basis?

Attitudes are the manifestation of beliefs, experiences and values. We strive to shape employees’ views of following our safety protocol as something both very important and very true to their personal and professional success. I want it to be part of their DNA. Basic compliance with our rules represents the absolute minimum level of acceptance by our organization; however, as important as it is, it is only the starting point. As employees mature beyond fundamental compliance, we see their attitudes change and they become stewards of our safety program. Achievement of this level of commitment is very motivating to me, as I know of all the good that will come from this “Aha!” moment: It acts as a domino as other employees who work around them will also come to this realization. As you have honored me as a CEO who “gets it,” we like to honor our many employees who “get it.”

The challenge we face is determining effective means to instill this high sense of safety in employees as a routine function but not to the degree in which it becomes stale. The most important tool we use to combat this is communication. At the beginning of every meeting, our employees “Commit a Minute for Safety,” which is a safety initiative in which the first few minutes of each meeting are used to discuss a safety topic. Miniature traffic safety cones have been placed on all meeting tables as a reminder of this expectation. This is also done by our board of directors before their monthly meetings. Our safety team regularly briefs me on current incidents and initiatives they propose to reduce risk. I meet regularly with our employees to stress their value to the organization and that their safety is extremely important to me. We hold a safety stand-down event each year in which employees focus solely on elements of our safety program for the entire day. We introduce as much hands-on and simulation training as possible to ensure the training is both retained and enjoyed. Further, we use a keynote speaker who really touches the hearts and minds of our employees, energizing their continued commitment to safety. Ultimately, safety is just clear, legitimate and constant communication between people. It is a portfolio of creative and impactful measures.

How does your organization measure safety? What are the leading indicators that show you how safe your organization is, and where do you see room for improvement?

We gauge our safety performance on a healthy balance of both leading and lagging indicators. We value the awareness that leading indicators provide us; however, the direct comparisons we can make based upon our lagging indicators are verifiable of our actual safety performance. The leading indicators we currently track are timeliness of injury reporting; attendance at employee safety meetings; safety observations performed, including peer-to-peer; and participation and completion of technical training assignments. Our dynamic metrics allow us to constantly revise and evaluate to get a true measure of our safety performance with a high degree of confidence. Our current weighting balance is 60 percent leading and 40 percent lagging. We also change indicators to match our current corporate culture and initiatives. Our safety metrics are truly in line with the pulse of our organization. One area we would like to improve revolves around information-sharing – we greatly need more leading-indicator data from our industry against which we could benchmark these data points.

What role does off-the-job safety play in your organization’s overall safety program? What types of off-the-job safety and health programs does your organization offer to employees?

Our organization has already adopted off-the-job safety as a key responsibility in being the electric utility for our communities. Employees are educated to become ambassadors of SMECO and share the critical lifesaving actions to take if people or equipment contact our high-voltage distribution system within their communities. Many of the safety tips that we provide daily in meetings and during our monthly awareness meetings are easily transferred to our everyday lives. We know that its successful when we hear stories of employees sharing information with their families and neighbors that they learned while at work.

I also encourage our employees to practice a healthy lifestyle. During my time as CEO, we have implemented a smoke-free policy for company vehicles and worksites, opened a fitness center that is open 24/7, opened a campus family health center to encourage our employees to have regular checkups and physicals to keep a good handle on their health, created an employee wellness magazine that is sent to home addresses, and provide CPR and first aid classes for family members.

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