2019 CEOs Who "Get It"

2019 CEOs Who Get it
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William A. Wulfsohn

Chairman and CEO
Covington, KY


  • Demonstrates the highest commitment to responding to employee ideas and concerns regarding EHS.
  • Created a culture among the executive team, managers, supervisors and individual contributors that EHS may not be in everyone’s job title but is part of every employee’s job.
  • Efforts reflect the drive to ensure every employee goes home in the same or better condition than when he or she arrived at work.
  • Works to engage every discipline in one consistent philosophy: “Zero Incident Culture.”

Ashland is a premier global specialty chemicals company serving customers in a wide range of consumer and industrial markets, including adhesives, architectural coatings, automotive, construction, energy, food and beverage, nutraceuticals, personal care, and pharmaceutical. The company employs 6,000 workers.

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

Early in my career, I was a technical representative selling metal pretreatment chemicals. As I traveled from one customer plant to another, I saw stark contrasts in terms of customer focus on safety. I felt that as part of my role, I needed to educate the operators as to the hazards associated with our chemicals. I found that in customer locations where safety was not a high priority, operators were just as concerned about their safety as in other, more safety-focused operations. To me, the difference in safety culture and results, not surprisingly, came down to leadership. This early experience also made me realize that safety is not a number (e.g., incident rate), but instead about the individuals whose lives were impacted by safety events. I realized that taking a strong role in driving a safe culture was a personal responsibility that would need to be central in my role as a leader.

As my career progressed, I realized that front-line employees often received mixed messages. While in theory safety was the first priority, messages from supervisors and management were sometimes more focused on productivity, quality, etc. As a result, I believe many incidents were the result of risky actions individuals took in an attempt to “help the company” meet its goals. From this realization, it became clear to me that we must make sure that safety truly comes first, above all other objectives for the company. Furthermore, when driving for increased productivity, quality, etc., it is essential to always highlight explicitly that these objectives are only to be achieved if possible in a safe manner.

As my responsibilities grew, it became increasingly clear that, beyond compliance, it was essential to be a responsible and positive force in the communities we operate. Often, industrial and chemical manufacturing sites are located in communities in need. Our role in this context needs to be constructive, engaging and supportive of positive change.

In the end, there is nothing worth doing if it comes at the cost of safety and compliance. We have made safe and responsible operations the core foundation of the Ashland blueprint. Each year, I work with the leadership team to establish three pillar priorities. The first is improving our safety performance. It’s our first objective because it is our most important priority, above all others.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

At Ashland, our goal is to be the premier specialty chemicals company. With that in mind, it is critical that we achieve the highest safety standards and continue to hold safety as a core value and priority each day. We make it clear that safety and responsible operations must come before all other objectives. Our employees take pride in their work and, most importantly, go home to enjoy their family, friends and personal pursuits the way they came in. Ashland employees deserve a safe work environment, our customers want responsible partners and our investors trust us to make our products safely.


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

The biggest obstacle is keeping people engaged and focused on how they control the safety outcome of their work. We have many helpful programs, procedures, processes, training and campaigns to ensure our employees are equipped with the right tools, resources and knowledge to safely execute their work. Creating and sustaining a culture where people choose to make the safest decision every time requires ongoing reinforcement.

Every Ashland team member is a leader, a safety leader. We make zero incidents our goal by teaching every individual in our manufacturing sites, laboratories and offices that safety first is good business. All members of the team are trained to approach every task with a strong focus on risk awareness and commitment to eliminate risk tolerance.


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

By empowering every employee to make decisions and stop any unsafe job, we are creating a culture of safety-focused solvers capable of anticipating errors and preventing incidents. To reinforce this, we celebrate individuals and teams for making safe decisions. Culture is the key to making sure that every member of our team has the same understanding that working safely is another competitive advantage for us.


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 measure and evaluate a lot of leading and lagging indicators through many different lenses. There are global metrics in the traditional balanced scorecard approach, and metrics at the business unit, region and site level. We try to make these measures very transparent to all of our stakeholders and to ensure our team understands how they can contribute to the success of the company. A measure that has been key to us over the past few years is our switch to measuring “good catches.” For years we measured near hits, but there were a lot of limitations and variations in the definitions globally. We moved to the idea that any near hit, substandard condition or behavior, suggestion or idea is simply a good catch. It is an opportunity for us to improve, learn and adjust our actions to be proactive instead of reacting or debating the categorization of an opportunity.

Another key measurement has been the environmental, health and safety strategic and tactical planning process. Every Ashland facility globally creates its own culture improvement road map with a specific focus on our “Zero Incident Culture” cornerstones of leadership, employee engagement, risk reduction and performance measurement. This plan is our culture scorecard used throughout the year to ensure we maintain our focus and stay on track with activities to drive continuous improvement through our “Responsible Care” management system.


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?

We recognize that a culture of safety does not start or end at Ashland’s fence line. Many of our programs and communications directly address safety outside of the workplace, such as our annual focus on Fire Safety Week in October, when our campus locations provide educational materials for employees and their families, as well as replacement batteries for smoke alarms.

Year-round programming includes on-the-job and off-the-job safety tips, videos and communication. For example, our safe driver training program was selected, in part, because every employee also receives a free training license for a family member. From safety communications covering issues affecting employees outside of work to providing safety glasses and gloves for off-the-job projects, we are committed to helping our employees stay safe at work and beyond.

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