2020 CEOs Who 'Get It'

2020 CEOs Who "Get It"
2019 CEOs Who Get it
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite

54th Chief of Engineers and Commander
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


  • Believes that safety is not a priority, but an imperative, and must be integrated throughout all business lines in the organization.
  • Directed the implementation of safety and occupational health management systems across the enterprise. He made this an action item in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Campaign Plan, making it doctrine.
  • Insists that all incidents be reported and investigated in all categories (military, civilian, contractor, volunteers and public on Corps lands).
  • Conducts a quarterly in-person executive governance meeting with his commanders and senior leaders in which he reviews each district’s and division’s progress in implementing the Corps’ safety and occupational health management system, their challenges and best practices, and reviews mishap data for all Corps Army and contractor mishaps.
  • Led the project to support the State and Defense Departments, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the government of Iraq at the Mosul Dam – infrastructure at risk of catastrophic failure.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a world-class engineering organization. Nearly 36,000 civilians and 750 uniformed personnel engineer solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges.


Why is safety a core value with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

Safety first became a core value in the early 1930s because of the number of fatalities and permanent disabling injuries we were experiencing both among our own workforce and our contractors. It was at that time we began our journey to put safety in the forefront of what we do. We hired safety engineers in all our commands, developed safety policies and procedures, enacted training programs, established comprehensive metrics to measure progress, and many other actions.

The USACE mission is both complex and vast in scope, with the vision to “engineer solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges.” It covers civil works to include water resource development, flood risk management, navigation, recreation, infrastructure, and environmental and emergency response. The military program’s mission provides engineering, construction, real estate, stability operations and environmental management services for the Department of Defense, other U.S. government agencies and foreign governments.

Our work comes with inherent risks and is froth with millions of hours of exposure to those risks. Therefore, safety must be integral to everything we do and is embedded in USACE DNA and culture. Safety is essential to strengthening the foundation while we deliver the program and achieve our vision. Safety is not a priority, but an imperative, and must be integrated throughout all business lines throughout the organization. Without an aggressive and robust safety program, we would not be able to carry out our vital work for the Army and the nation.


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

For my four years at West Point, as well as more than 40 years in the Army, I have strived to be out on the ground and be the person in my command with the “muddiest boots.” I learned early on that the valuable time spent with the workforce provided a truer context and an improved perspective of the mission. I also learned firsthand and am a big believer in the adage, “An organization does best those things the boss checks.”

As the commander of the world’s largest public engineering firm, I know the value of setting a vision, and championing and implementing that vision through both the horizontal and vertical depth of the team. I also understand that a great safety program and a positive safety culture enables the organization to accomplish the tough missions safer. Policy, vision and resources are important to set a world-class safety program. Not having enough money nor time, while challenging, are not the biggest obstacles, but growing and enforcing a safety culture is.

I spend most of my time engaging the workforce down on the ground – talking to our teammates and first-line supervisors to identify weaknesses or strengths in our safety program – and getting buy-in to a world-class safety culture. As a military professional, I rely on a uniformed service that is disciplined and committed to a set of long-standing values. I tell my soldiers and civilians that discipline is “Doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.” Safety discipline and culture are the same way.

We in the Corps have employees and contractors executing a safety plan not because of fear of getting caught for noncompliance, but because they inherently understand the value of a safe workforce and workplace. Our leaders are responsible to set the conditions for a vibrant safety culture to thrive – develop the vision, resource the plan, reward good behavior and inspire their team every day to be world class. And most importantly, limit the PowerPoint briefings and presentations, get out of the office, and be a visible example of what a safety-focused leader should look and sound like. Our employees are empowered commensurate with their responsibilities, and all of us together are making a real difference for the Army and the Nation!


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

The USACE mission requires a highly skilled workforce. Personnel turnover is inherent across the enterprise and Army regiment units. Maintaining a positive safety culture is an ongoing effort. Succession planning, training, sustaining and appropriately resourcing our people mitigates this challenge, but more is required. Additionally, the USACE mission exists across a worldwide span and standardizing the delivery of our programs while keeping our people safe requires a bold and innovative approach.

The USACE mission has grown from $25 billion to $58 billion annually, consequently stretching our workforce and more than doubling our exposure hours to high-risk hazards. An in-depth analysis of our mishap experience reveals common causes:

  1. Taking shortcuts. (Every day we make decisions that we hope will make the job faster and more efficient.)
  2. Being overconfident. (Confidence is a good thing, but overconfidence is not.)
  3. “It’ll never happen to me” is the wrong attitude.
  4. Starting tasks with incomplete training and instruction (How often does this occur? A lot.)
  5. Poor housekeeping (A constant that has to be stressed.)
  6. Ignoring safety procedures (Purposefully failing to observe safety procedure.)
  7. Mental distraction from work (Having a bad day at home and worrying about it at work.)
  8. Complacency (I have seen this many times, not realizing that conditions have changed.)

As commander, I directed the implementation of a USACE Safety and Occupational Health Management System (CE-SOHMS). Mere compliance to standards was not enough – we needed to take bold steps to better protect our most important asset: our people. A systems approach allows us to measure not just what we do, but the processes we use to deliver our programs. The “what” is individual centric, while the “how” can be measured and improved. We inculcated this systems approach into our doctrine through policy letters, engineering regulations, added it to our Campaign Plan, and measure progress at our quarterly governance meetings. The cornerstone of CE-SOHMS requires all leaders to meaningfully engage in the management of our safety program and for all employees to participate in improving our processes. This frees up our safety professionals to gather data, conduct analysis, teach, coach and mentor, thus lending their technical expertise to the entire workforce. This approach has served to promote a culture in which all employees are responsible, empowered, and accountable for ensuring a safe and healthy workplace. Not one of us alone can accomplish as much as all of us together!


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

First and foremost, I lead by example. I walk the walk! One’s video must match their audio. People don’t always hear what you say, but they most certainly always see what you do. We also use some of the proven methods of communicating safety such as quarterly command and employee safety councils, verbal/written communication, new employee orientation, position hazard analysis, activity hazard analysis, and weekly and monthly safety meetings. We ensure our employees know and understand the hazards and risks associated with their jobs, tasks and activities, and are properly trained on their mission requirements. The CE-SOHMS has had the biggest impact by engaging the entire workforce and keeping safety at the forefront of all our operations.

The USACE Safety and Health Manual (EM 385-1-1) has been the gold standard for the United States since it was first published in 1941, a full 30 years prior to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The federal acquisition regulation directs that our manual be used for all military construction. Over the years, it has become the flagship for other federal agencies such as the Navy, NASA and Air Force, to name a few. It is also used by many other countries and translated into many different languages. Our safety manual is a source of pride for our employees who strive every day to set a positive example, accomplish tough missions safely and ensure USACE projects are the safest in the engineering industry. I am very proud of the safety culture within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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

We track both leading and lagging indicators. We certainly appreciate that methods of performance can predict methods of effectiveness. From a strategic perspective, we track the implementation of our Safety and Occupational Health Strategic Plan and our USACE Campaign Plan, and report at our quarterly governance meeting. We not only track their implementation, but also the timeliness of implementation to ensure the momentum of each initiative is maintained. From an operational and execution perspective, we track traditional leading indicators such as inspection rates, training completion, policy documents currency, appropriate resource allocation and timeliness of hazard abatement, among other key performance indicators.

I feel that implementation of our safety management system is the No. 1 leading indicator because of what it brings along with it. Included in this one metric are a number of worksites inspected (safety) and characterized (industrial hygiene), safety embedded into employee performance metrics, at least three meaningful ways employees are directly engaged with safety, near-miss reporting, trend analysis of reported injuries, tracking of employee safety training, SOH councils implemented at all levels for leadership to develop strategic goals and be able to redirect appropriate resources, and a number of other criteria that assists in integrating this into our agency’s culture.

We know that this journey is going to take some time to truly integrate into our organization, which is why we deconstructed the system into three separate stages – each one lasts a minimum of 12 months and models the “plan-do-check-act” framework. I have been impressed with the improvements toward safety within our organization since its implementation.

The area I see with the most opportunity for improvement is our ability to collect safety data for analysis. We currently collect information in separate systems, and aggregating that information can sometimes be a challenge. We are developing one central information technology system for collecting and storing data resulting from the activities inherent in our safety programs. This will facilitate improved root cause analysis and better informed decision-making.


What role does off-the-job safety play in USACE’s overall safety program? What types of off-the-job safety and health programs do you offer?

Off-the-job safety plays a critical part in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ overall safety program because safe employees at home create safe employees at work. We use a critical incident stress management (CISM) program that focuses on resiliency, peer support, family support, and wellness that bridges the gap between crisis and the employee assistance program. This results in employees who are safe and well prepared for success in the workplace. We assign employees at every level of the organization to manage the CISM program.

The Corps of Engineers operates the most robust water recreation safety program in the nation – more Americans visit USACE recreation areas than those of the National Park Service. When families come to recreate at our lake and river projects, our park rangers introduce them to a broad spectrum of program areas that range from the children level through the adult level. It encompasses the full range of day use, overnight (camping), swimming, boating, fishing, etc. The Corps districts have a number of different mascots (costumes worn by park rangers) that become the “brand” for that regional area. We appear at county fairs and parades, put on water safety classes at schools, and become an overall member of the communities where our operating project exist. I am extremely proud of our effort that has paid big dividends. Our strong relationship with the National Water Safety Congress helps spread this message nationwide.


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