Leadership Lessons from a CEO that Gets Safety with Brian Fielkow
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Being a CEO calls for making tough decisions and trade-offs every day. Great CEOs also focus on building safety excellence and understand how to balance safety, quality and productivity without allowing trade-offs. In this episode, we have a conversation with Brian Fielkow a CEO who was recently awarded the Distinguished Service to Safety Award from the National Safety Council. A “CEOs Who Get It!”
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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously, have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops, safety guru, public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.
Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, I’m very excited to have with me Brian Fielkow. He’s President CEO of JETCO Deliveries and also EVP of the GTI Group. So JETCO is part of the GTI Group. So really excited to have you with me, Brian. What’s really cool about what you’ve done is you’ve had a lot of work leading companies but bringing safety first in all of those organizations. And in fact, just recently, just a couple of weeks ago, you were awarded a very prestigious price by the National Safety Council, which is awarded every year of CEOs who get it, basically a handful of CEOs every year that find ways to incorporate safety and everything they do because this is really exciting, Brian. So, tell me a little bit about that prize and then let’s get into how you got into safety and then this passion as an executive.
Thank you so much for having me on this podcast, Eric. I really appreciate it. Well, the National Safety Council recognition is really exciting. Again, they pick, as you said, CEOs, I think, six or eight a year who really have a proven track record of being safe and productive. Safety and productivity. It’s not either, or choice. Both.
I think that the more I’ve gone on, the more I recognize and would encourage other people to recognize that safety is at the foundation of an excellent operation. Safety is at the foundation of a profitable business. Too many people have this idea, Eric, that safety and productivity are in conflict with one another.
When nothing further could be from the truth in my own organization, if I see things getting a little bumpy with safety, it’s my bellwether. I know that we may have deeper issues somewhere in the operation. They’re one and the same.
I completely agree. Tell me about where you got that realization, because it’s rare to get a CEO who has that perspective. Obviously, there’s some great case studies from Alcoa as an example. It’s probably the most celebrated. But where did you get that realization that safety really is a barometer for running a good business?
Well, my career is a little different. I began my career practicing corporate law in Milwaukee and went to go work as a chief operating officer for my favorite client. And they were in the recycling business. So that’s my first exposure to kind of high consequence business because you’re operating recycling plants, trucks and I always look, it was never that I didn’t value safety. Of course, it was always important. But having it be important and knowing how to make it happen are two different things. So, along the way, we sold the recycling company to Waste Management, which is based in Houston. And I got to Waste a couple of years after a new leadership team came in and took, in my opinion, Waste Management on the worst first journey. And I was so lucky to learn from these people.
So, tell me a little bit about that journey because it’s not a journey that is talked about as much. So, tell me a little bit more about Waste Management and what was unique about the leaders that you observed there and the approaches that they took to running the business safely.
The approach at Waste Management was behavior based. It was frontline engagement based. So, there was a lot of focus on safety branding. There’s a lot of focus on keeping rules and regulations. Understandable the idea being that if you have all the rules and regulations you want, if they’re not understandable by the intended audience, you don’t have rules and regulations. You have words on paper.
So, it was a very front-line engagement, behavior-based focus. When you start talking about safety culture, people tend to think, well, it’s a feel-good proposition. No, it’s a hardcore business proposition. So, there was also a focus on those behaviors which are more likely than not to get you a one-way ticket out of the company. So, I really was able to kind of learn at Waste how to engage, how to motivate, but also how to make it clear that we’re not messing around. And if you choose not to behave in alignment with our values, then you’re going to go find somewhere else to work.
Yeah, I think that’s really important. So, tell me, let’s fast forward to your current role. I love the topic of frontline engagement. Tell me some of the strategies that you’re using that are very effective, because a lot of organizations talk about engagement, but it’s really not total engagement. Once here and there, I have a workshop involves a couple of employees. Tell me about your approach to engagement.
Yeah, I mean, you’re right about sometimes people will say, all right, we had the meeting this year. We can check the box and move on. Engagement is not a project. People treat it like a project, or they treat it like an initiative. It’s part and parcel of your company culture. And then your safety culture is also part and parcel of your company culture, where you’ve got an engaged workforce, you’ve got a safe workforce, you got a workforce that is in alignment with your values. So, part of creating an engaged workforce is, first of all, you can’t always be so serious, right. So, we try and have some fun with safety recognition awards. The key thing to do is it’s no longer enough to get into your employees’ hearts and minds. You got to get into the families, too, because we’re just too distracted. We’re a text message Facebook post away from our families at all times. So, one of the things we’re always communicating with families, we want our families to partner with us and getting their loved ones’ home every night. One of my favorite things that we do is we have a kids art contest and everybody wins something, right?
We pick art, and that goes into our calendar. So, we just released our 2022 calendar. And it’s not pictures of trucks and trailers, pictures from the heart.
I love it.
And that’s the key, I think, to engaging people. It makes them understand that safety is about you. It’s about me, it’s about your family. It’s not about big handbooks, and it’s about behavior. It’s about holding yourselves and holding one another accountable. And to create an engaged workforce, employees crave process, because without process, they never know what’s going to happen one day or the next. So, to create engagement, we’ve worked on clear, understandable process. Our employees wrote our best practice manual.
I love it.
Nothing off the shelf.
This part about engaging the families is really interesting because I’ve seen a lot of organizations that are good at engaging, engaging employees and building processes, building practices, which is really good, making it, realizing that safety is really personal. But I think taking it to the family is even more powerful because then you get another ally every day that’s reminding them of why they need to make safe choices. That’s really cool. So, you mentioned a little bit about behaviors. So, most of the work you have, I assume there’s a lot of lone worker, independent workers. How do you make sure that you see the right behaviors on a daily basis? Is it more than an observation program? I’m assuming?
Yeah. Well, an observation program is really just the beginning. We could all take a lesson from the US airline industry and the FAA, where there’s so much encouragement. It’s really not encouragement. It’s an expectation that people self-report and that there’s no retribution. In other words, for reporting near misses, for reporting unsafe conditions. Part of the observation process. There’s the old saying, manage by walking around. Well, okay, I understand manage by walking around. I could go take a walk around, and it is what it is. But what I’m more interested in is having peers peer to peer observations. Their eyes are better than mine. They’re going to see more than me making sure I’ve got a culture where if somebody in good faith makes a mistake or observes an unsafe condition, unsafe behavior, where it’s an honest type situation that we’re focused on continuous improvement. You see, when you’ve got that punitive culture, you’re never going to engage your employees. If everything is right up in the punishment, the game is over for 100% not going to work 100%.
I came from the airline industry and understand what that means. But what’s unique is a lot of people admire that of the airline industry but are scared of taking the leap towards it. How did you take that leap towards it? In a jet code to make sure that people would recognize and feel safe, but also that you weren’t going to create more liability, more risk by opening up the absence of punishment.
Eric, when I speak, I do some keynote speaking. I talk about the three T’s treatment, transparency and trust. And that last one, I could tell you all day long that we’re going to use, quote, unquote punishment only in the most egregious cases. But until you try it, until you test me, it’s just words.
If I allow us to get punitive with somebody that innocently and honestly reports a closed call, I know that’s the last near miss, close call that I’m going to get 100%. It’s up to me to manage my behavior, keep my commitment, define those violations that are life critical and that aren’t going to be met with too kindly. And then the others, we look for improving the system. And if we need to do extra training for our team, that’s an investment in our great people. I’m happy to do it.
That’s cool. So, when you came enroll, how did you start creating the trust? Because it takes a lot of trust to create an environment like this. What signals did you intentionally send in your business to show that you really trusted team members? You wanted their input, and you were going to treat them fairly if something if people made an honest mistake.
Yeah. Trust is so hard to build, so easy to lose. It’s an everyday challenge. But some of the things that we did this isn’t necessarily safety related. But bear with me. In our business, your pay can be variable. It can be based on either your hours worked, or miles run. There’s variability. And with that comes some potential for payroll error. Nothing like payroll errors destroyed us and we weren’t that good or that timely about fixing the errors. So, what we did is we put together a group email for payroll errors. And we promise if you use that email, the issue would be addressed and fixed, either same day or next day at the latest. That completely fixed the problem, that built trust. And that trust then extended to people’s engagement with the organization and to safety. So, it can’t just be narrowly focused on safety. You have to have an organization where there’s trust, where the door is open, where you’re heard one of the ways that we break trust all the time is we listen to somebody, we give them lip service, we say, yeah, good idea, and then we never follow up. I mean, how does the person giving that information feel?
So, there’s a lot of different ways we can break trust and just make sure that you and your leadership team are aligned on that.
I agree, because you talked a little bit about how you brought in just culture. Just culture is a component of it. But for people to understand that safety is a value, that leaders understand it, you have to do a lot of things at the front end, I’m assuming, to create that the environment.
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So, Brian, when you started your role, I’m assuming you didn’t inherit a culture that was already at that level of maturity. You’ve talked about just culture and how you created the environment for it. But it takes more than just culture to get a great safety culture. What are some of the things that you did with your leaders to get them on board with where you wanted to go with the culture you wanted to drive? What did you do with some of the team members to really get them aligned with your vision around safety?
Eric, I’d say that it happened sort of organically. In other words, there was a commitment to safety, but it wasn’t necessarily one that we were delivered about, meaning that other things could compete for safety. That’s why for years I’ve been kind of telling our team, safety is not a priority because priorities shift. If you see a sign that says safety is a priority, tear it down. Safety is a value. So, you got to, first of all, truly be prepared to live that way. Well, production pressure is important. It’s critically important. Production pressure is good. It’s not bad. It means we’re busy. It can never, ever leapfrog safety. Nothing can compete for safety. So, you have to have that nonnegotiable value alignment to start and then to build a healthy company or safety culture. Really? This may sound like I’m oversimplifying it, but I think it is this simple. It’s the convergence of the right people in the right process, working in harmony. And if you don’t have the right people, you might have some choices to make. And I believe that most people are very coachable. But there’s that small handful that’s not. And the real problem comes when you’re trying to build that culture is you got that small handful of un-coachable people who, by the way, are technically good.
They know what they’re doing on their job. So, replacing them is not convenient. But you have to you have to if you really want to walk the walk once coaching has failed. Because if you don’t, Besides the obvious safety risk, you’re telling the rest of your team who are pulling hard in your direction.
Their efforts don’t matter. By allowing un-coachable toxic people to stay in your company, you’re sending the vast majority of your people the exact wrong message, which is we have two sets of rules, one for all of you and one for our select few people here who can get away with what they want. So, it’s having the right people, the right process. And I think I mentioned before in our conversation that the problem with process in my mind for a lot of us, is not that we don’t have enough, we have too much, we’re drowning in it, and none of us understandable by the intended audience. So, the right people in understandable process that there is no excuse for not following.
I completely agree. And I think that’s a theme. I personally struggle with that in the past where you allow somebody who’s maybe not right doesn’t have the right values alignment because they’re high performer and you end up paying for it in the long run. And you do have to make those tough decisions at times when coaching has failed, because the other part is, otherwise you’re sending a message to the frontline team members as well that safety is not necessarily always a value. It is when it’s convenient.
That’s right. It cannot be situational.
Yeah, I think you’ve done phenomenal work. I love that you really take this view that safety and production and quality can coexist at the same time and must coexist at the same time, and that safety is really a barometer for everything else. There’s a handful of leaders that I’ve seen over the years that look at it that way and invest and make decisions that way. So, I think that’s phenomenal.
I think I appreciate it. I’ll be honest. I’ve learned it a lot of times the hard way. But people who say, well, safety is expensive, I’d ask them to consider the opposite. Safety is compared to the cost of crashes and incidents. And the other thing is to ask yourself, what is the real cost of that incident? People will look at their insurance loss run’s and they’ll say, well, it was an injury and I’ve got $10,000 reserved. That’s the cost. And I will call Bull on that right away. The cost of an incident is so much more than that. When you think about not just the injury itself and the insurance claim, but put a price on your eyesight, put a price on your arms, put a price on your life. You can’t put some things on a spreadsheet, but I will tell you some things that you can put on a spreadsheet. You let your experience modifier go. Good luck getting the best customers right. Your safety performance gives you a competitive advantage in the marketplace. I don’t know if that was true 20 years ago in a lot of industries, but I know it’s true today.
So, it is a hardcore business proposition not to mention last year, one of the buzzwords in 2021 was the great resignation, whatever that means. But if you have a culture that doesn’t care about safety, you’re also not investing in your employees and engagement. Why would I want to work for you? If you really are going to put me in harm’s way, you’re not going to help mitigate inherent risk in the job. I’m going to go work for somebody that wants to get me home every night. I’m not going to work for you if you don’t care about me first. So, it’s key to engagement. It’s key to showing your employees you care, putting your employees first. And it’s also key, in this day and age that we live into customer confidence, pretty much any business. You’ve got customers have choices, and the best customers, not all customers, but the best customers are going to vet you for your safety commitment.
Yeah, I think that’s incredibly true. And I think your comment is really key. I remember looking at this was a particular construction project on the Gulf Coast, and they had a significant investment in safety. They truly own safety across the site. But when you looked at on those really hot, muggy days in summer, their absenteeism was next to none versus almost all the other sites. The upside of Tianism was in the ten to 20% range. And then when it came to turnover, they were dealing with turnover of one to 2% versus others in the ten plus percent. Significant differences because people wanted to work there. People talk about engagement, but at the end of the day, what is engagement if you can’t even come home to your home, to your loved ones every day?
Yeah. You can pretty much put the pool tables and foosball tables off to the side.
Right. It doesn’t matter at that point.
Real engagement happens when people know they are cared for.
Exactly. So, I love all the themes you’ve shared. You’ve also written a book, and you’ve had to tell me a little bit about your book and the course that you’ve developed, sharing some of your thoughts in this space.
Sure. Thank you. I wrote a book. We published it, I think, in 2016 called Leading People Safely. We began our conversation talking about waste Management, and I had the privilege to learn from Jim Schultz, who was the senior vice President of safety at Waste Management. We co-wrote Leading People Safely together. So, it’s really a pool of our experiences. In fact, we just did a reprint and paperback. So, it’s sort of, again, the summation of what we know. And it’s not meant to be a handbook like, you must do things this way. You read it, you take the ideas, you make them your own, fit them to your business. But the book is done really well. And then last year, I guess late 2020, I launched a course called Making Safety Happen. And it’s been a lot of fun to do and I’m looking to grow the course this year but it’s an online on demand course, so you watch it at your convenience. There are various tools that you download. Once again, not one size fits all. You download them, make them your own. And then I have two price levels. One price levels for people that want the course and the tools great.
But then another I do six live monthly workshops and I keep the workshops small, so they’re meant to be conversations. It’s called reverse classroom so six workshops and my course online have six modules so workshop one is tied to module one and then we talk about what was in the course and how you apply it, and we get deeper into discussion. So, the workshops are fun because if I can get the right people in them and we’ve had over 300 people go through already. For me, the fun is listening, learning and having conversations.
I love it. Thank you as a CEO for the gift of safety you’re giving to your team’s members every single day and your commitment and Congratulations on the NSC prize that you just recently got. I can definitely say from your story that you’re definitely a CEO that gets it and really appreciate you sharing your journey, you’re learning and how you went from being a lawyer to safety guru and executive.
Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to the safety guru on C-suite radio. Leave a legacy distinguish yourself from the past back grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your teams, fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru, Eric Michrowski.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Brian Fielkow is currently CEO of Houston based Jetco Delivery and EVP of its parent company, The GTI Group. Brian has over 25 years of experience leading safety-sensitive industries. He faces the same daily challenges as his audiences when it comes to leading teams, driving safe outcomes and managing risk. Brian grew his businesses dramatically by focusing on his company’s safety culture. Now he shares what has worked — and what hasn’t — with audiences internationally. Today, Brian teaches company leaders how to develop and anchor a behavior-based safety environment that promotes accountability using low cost, easy to implement tools.
Brian is co-author of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield.
Fielkow is the recipient of the National Safety Council’s most prestigious honor: the Distinguished Service to Safety Award. Fielkow was recognized by the Houston Business Journal as one of Houston’s most admired CEO’s. He was recognized by NSC as a 2022 “CEO Who Gets It.”