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Leadership Lessons from a CEO that Gets Safety with Brian Fielkow

Leadership lessons from a CEO that gets safety

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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. 

Exactly. 

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.  

Great. 

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. 

Exactly. 

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. 

Yeah. 

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. 

This episode of The Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us www.propolo.com. 

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. 

I agree. 

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. 

The Safety Guru with 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.”

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Leaders often claim that safety is their #1 priority, but this statement is insignificant if no one is convinced. In this episode, Dr. Mark Fleming, an applied psychologist specialized in safety culture, outlines how senior leaders can maximize the impact of work-side visits. Learn how to use strong signals and the power of stories to send the right message to front-line workers and cooperatively improve overall safety.

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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 well-being 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 and The 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, Dr. Mark Fleming. He’s a professor in industrial-organizational psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada. With well over 20 years of applied experience in industrial health and safety management in high-hazard industries. Some of the areas of focus in his current research are around measuring and improving safety, culture, safety, motivation, and safety leadership. An incredible thought leader in this space. Mark, really happy to have you with me today on the show.

Great, Eric, thanks for inviting me. Really excited to have a chat.

Excellent. Well, first, maybe to start off, you’ve dedicated most of your life to research. And what I really love is around practical tools to improve safety in organizations. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started and where your passion for this space came from?

Yeah, well, I’m originally actually from Ireland, but really in Aberdeen in Scotland. And as an undergrad in Aberdeen in the late 80s, Piper Alpha loomed large impact on the city. Hundred sixty-seven people killed, many of them oriels at events and you couldn’t, but you sort of touched by it, although I didn’t know anybody was lost in the tragedy. But you had that sort of sense of that. This was there, that it was present maybe in the back of your mind.

And that’s I lived in Aberdeen for a number of years, got to know people who had been involved. And then when I finished my undergrad in Psych, I went on and did a masters in, ah, economics, human factors. And then that’s really when I started to sort of build my passion for occupational health and safety. And I listened to a presentation about the causes of Piper Alpha from your perspective. And that really got me hooked. And I then took up a job working in as a research assistant on an offshore oil and gas research project to sort of address some of the issues that were identified in paper around risk and around safety culture. And that was in nineteen ninety-three. And I’ve been working on safety culture ever since.

Phenomenal. And thank you for all your work in improving workplaces and so many different sectors. When we talk there’s a there’s a piece of research, you’re doing around information asymmetry as it pertains to safety. I think it’s an incredibly important topic, particularly for a lot of executives that struggle with this balancing act. Can you share a little bit about what this information is? Symmetry is and some background and some of the learnings from it?

Yeah, what are the things? So, there’s been a fair amount of research done on safety leadership in organizations. But when you actually look into that literature, what you find is really what it’s about is about safety, supervision. It’s all the really or the vast majority has been focused on the leadership behaviors of frontline supervisors, those who direct the work and very little research on how senior leaders demonstrate commitment and how they’re involved in the safety of opportunities they should display.

And a number of years ago started to sort of look at this issue. And one of the theories that we chose to investigate was the signal theory, which is when the Nobel Prize for economics a number of years ago. And the basic theory is that in many situations in life and in business, there is what we call information asymmetry. So, one person knows more than the other person in the environment. It can be quite difficult to sort of interact, to make judgments.

And the sort of classic example that’s given is purchasing a second-hand car. When you’re buying it off someone, that person who’s owned the car knows a lot more information about the car than you do. And therefore, how do you make a judgment as to whether it’s a good thing to buy or a bad thing to buy? And that person selling the car has a vested interest in being honest. So, what we look for or what we call signals and signals that are important are those that are maybe cheap for someone who is being very honest or is in the context to sit to provide what would be expensive for people to lie about.

And in the case of a second-hand car, if you offer a warranty to the person who’s purchasing your car, then that if it’s a good car and you have confidence in it, then that’s relatively cheap for you to offer. But if you know it’s a lemon, then it’s quite expensive for you to offer and therefore that would be seen as a very good or strong signal. So, we look for these signals in particularly in situations where there’s what we call the information asymmetry and we make our judgments based on those signals that would be expensive for someone to say.

And if it’s false, but not very expensive, if it’s true. And we decided to then look at that from the perspective of safety leadership, because one of the problems that employees have, senior leaders within an organization turn up and say safety is our number one priority. Safety is really important to us. We want you to do all these things. And then as an employee, well, they don’t know whether that signal is true or not.

So, we tend to have senior managers turning up and saying, I don’t care about safety. All right. So, in general, then it becomes quite difficult for us, for frontline member of staff to make that judgment as to how do I decide whether or not this leader is credible or not. Given that I can’t read that person’s mind, I need to be able to make that judgment based on other information, so what they say is not usually just enough.

So, the study that we that we did was to interview frontline employees and ask them how they made the judgments around their senior leaders’ commitment to safety. So always struck me as odd was that when you go and survey frontline employees, they all have opinions about their leaders, give you commitment to safety. Yet the vast majority, particularly large companies, will never have met the senior CEOs of the organizations where you have ten thousand employees. How many of them realistically would ever met you?

So how could they form these perceptions? So, we were quite curious about that as a phenomenon. And so, we set about doing that a really neat sort of project using signal theory to ask employees how they found those perceptions. And from that, we were able to identify three things that that really employees focus on. What is the status of safety in their environment, which is pretty obvious? So sure, if the safety is how we manage well in the place where they work, they infer well by senior leader doesn’t care about safety.

Right. The behavior of that person’s direct supervisor also is another factor. So, if a supervisor isn’t very good, then they judge the leaders as a reflection of that person. And then and then finally, it was about interactions that had happened between senior leaders and some front-line employees. So those interactions, even though they didn’t interact with them personally, the interactions with other frontline employees actually had a really important role. And that was quite surprising to us. 

And were there any hypotheses as to how many interactions were needed or to permit if there’s a change in leadership to really send a message around that safety leadership commitment?

Yeah, it wasn’t so much necessarily the volume that we were able to sort of pick up on, but that those interactions needed to have sort of an impact in that sort of sense so that, you know, that there was a there was often a really good sort of story. So, in this particular study, you know, we heard over and over again a particular example of the CEO interacting with employees in canteens and giving out his business card.

And if they need to contact him, how to contact him. And, you know, this story was told to us many more times than it was possible for the CEO to assure. OK, so there was it. There is a sort of amplification effect that happens. And if you sort of if you think about it, you know, most of our lives in day-to-day work is pretty dull. And we have colleagues who we talk to, but we tend to talk to them about work or maybe sport or other things.

But often work will take up a main part of that focus. And if you were a frontline member of staff and you’re spending your day and then you’re at lunch and the CEO of your company comes and sits and have lunch with you and talks to you about safety, that that’s a story, right? That’s a story that you’re going to tell not just today, but for quite a number of years in the future, potentially. So that has a huge impact on people’s perception of the commitment to safety.

So, when senior leaders, I think, are going to visit the worksite, they need to talk to as many people as possible because they but also, they need to think about it in terms of, well, what am I being remembered for here? What’s the message that I’m sending to this individual I’m talking to; this one person is representative of a wide number of people who I work with. And how I interact with that person sends a very strong signal about commitment.

So I can say I’m committed to safety, but it’s a much bigger impact if the front line employee is telling other front line employees, hey, I met Bob and, you know, he’s a great guy and he’s actually a regular person, just like you and me. And, you know, the thing we spent most of on talking about was safety. Right. He was entrenched in that. It was interesting in what my concerns were.

He was really focused on that as an issue and he was really knowledgeable about it. And I think while many companies have programs to promote leader worksite visits and, you know, most high hazard safety critical industries will have some form of program. You know, when I look at those programs, if I was a CEO, I would be annoyed. Right. I think that we don’t. Cost them in terms of how expensive they are, they are probably the most expensive safety initiative that most companies have.

If you cost in terms of the opportunity lost and the cost of a senior executive’s time to travel around work sites now, I think it’s very valuable there. I just sometimes feel the programs don’t put enough value on them. Interesting. And I think that if I was a senior leader and when I provide input to organizations and design of these programs, there needs to be a lot more effort put in place to ensure that those worksite visits have a maximal impact and set certainly Europe for success.

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense in how. What are some of the variables that do you think bring the most value when you’re trying to set up a program or visit that has an impact is in some cases is even a need to balance competing messages around. We got to get this shipment out the door, some productivity pressure. And the flip side, this element around safety is our number one priority.

I think in general, companies have done a better job in recent history of training the safety leaders to be able to have those conversations because it’s not something that people, all people don’t actually good at. So, I think there have been some programs in that space that have been helpful. But I think assuming that they’ve got some input on that, then it becomes prepping the senior leader for the meeting so that when they turn up at the site, they know about this site.

They know things like what have been the recent accident rates, what have been there and the high-profile events that have happened. What are the safety challenges that are experienced here? Also, are there individuals who recently made a contribution and made a good safety suggestion or as a good catch that should be recognized? Right. So, they should be should be sort of familiar and ready for that meeting in the same way that they would be prepped for a business meeting.

They need to see this as these from my staff or their customers. And there are people who they’re trying to influence. Right. So, they should come with that as a have information. And most of the companies will have some app-based process to facilitate these visits. And local safety staff could easily provide that information, background information for the leaders that they turn up and seem knowledgeable to the staff when they talk to them. They know about what’s going on in their workplace, that they can talk about it.

So, they should be prepped. They all should see the orientation as two parts. One part is I’m going there to meet with people to demonstrate to those people that I am concerned about safety. And it’s for me, OK. And when I meet with them, I’m going to talk to them about it. So, I’m going to ask them questions about how they’re finding things, what’s happening, what the challenges are. They are not going there as a safety auditor and with a checklist and find things that are problem or how that stuff is super unhelpful.

Yet you’d be surprised at how many leaders are set up in that sort of context where they really know what they should be doing, particularly if you’re you know if you’re a VP of finance. Right. And you’re turning up at, you know, a pipeline installation project. Well, what do you know about it? Right. Very. So, in those contexts, you can you need to set that someone should be responsible for setting that person up for success and providing some guidance.

So, if you’re very unfamiliar with workplace hazards, you need to have someone who’s going to be your buddy, who’s going to take ideally frontline member of staff, maybe at Occupational Health or Safety Committee member who’s going to look out for you, make sure that you’re not going to get injured or hurt, but also be able to provide you with some interaction and some chat. And your role is to be there to talk to people and understand what’s going on.

And then you have a secondary role, which is to be able to step back and say, how are things functioning as an external leader here? What’s the relationship going on here? What’s the culture in this environment? Because they write you as an external person to that work. So, we’re talking about larger organizations. You can get a really good feeling for what’s the relationship between employees and managers, and is that a concern for me? So, there’s a communication piece, but there’s also a data collection piece that that leader is doing to say, you know, how are we working here as an organization?

Do I have any concerns about the operation here? How are they managing those conflicts between production and safety which are going to exist? So, it’s not to say they don’t exist, it’s just how we manage them that’s important. And one of the key priorities I’m taking away from this is to go back and share my colleagues. So, I think that it’s viewing it in a slightly different way. But more importantly, I think organizations should be valuing that activity much more than they often do.

And they should be putting much. More resourcing to make making sure that that that’s valuable piece of time, right? If you see that manager, senior manager, worksite visit as a piece of gold, how are you going to maximize the impact of that goal? Sure. Just saying, oh, well, we do a worksite visit program and they have to do so many years, let them off and do it. And they’re rubbish at it, but I suppose they have to do it.

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So, in your used car example that you had shared, is there something as well that the leaders can leverage a bit as a proof point, a bit like your scenario about a warranty, something that demonstrates that this is a genuine commitment to it? Because everybody, as you said, says I’m committed to safety, that I’ve talked to front line workers, and it’s the same thing. Some bite and some don’t, depending on how that person shows up.

So, I mean, I think there’s a couple of different sorts of layers to it. I mean, I think it’s very difficult to believe a leader that safety is number one when there’s no evidence of it. So, fixing things and getting things resolved I think is important. I think also being sort of somewhat realistic about what’s going to happen. So sometimes, I think organizations have talked themselves into a difficult sort of corner when they say safety is our number one priority, which is not exactly true.

Right. And it’s not that that I think everybody that all the senior leaders I’ve worked with, they absolutely do not want anyone to be killed or sure. For right. That caused that question. And I think that’s what we would say is a core value that we want to do the work that we do when we want to do it as safely as we can. Right. But sometimes the message that’s heard of which is safety is our top priority or our number one priority, is that, you know, it doesn’t matter what safety, what it costs, we’re going to have to do it.

And there can be no compromise that we call a zero-risk approach, which is not financially sustainable, not a wise approach. So, because really in that if you take it along that road, really the solution is just to shut the business and there will be no risk. So, there is a risk. We need to manage that risk. And our commitment is to manage that as effectively as we can. But sometimes that sort of message, simply simple messages that, you know, after people come out with causes, then this sort of conflict whereby an employee comes up with an issue and they only sort of solution that they’re sort of expecting as safety is the number one priority is, you know, this thing gets done or doesn’t get done, that we don’t do this work anymore.

And, you know, I think that’s a challenge whereby you have to be able to navigate that sort of conversation. So, you meet with employee and say you have this safety concern, OK, you’re going to ask them what you think the solution is. OK, that seems reasonable or doesn’t. OK, well, here’s how I want you employee to solve this problem. And if you go through those steps and it doesn’t work, then come back to me.

So rather than taking it away, I say I’m going to fix that for you. It’s saying, OK, well, that’s really interesting. Here’s my understanding of how the process works. Have you done all those things? And if they say, yes, I’ve talked to this person, this person, this one. OK, well, and again, that comes back to being prepped. You need to know what the process is. But then if they say, well, you know, well, they’re never going to do it, won’t you say, well, you do those things and then if there’s a problem and then come back to me.

So, you need they need to take some ownership for it. And then also if there has been a situation and you said, OK, well, OK, I’ll look into that, I’ll get back to you then, then you need to be able to do that to say, OK, I’m going to look into what you said to me, you’re going to do that and then you’re going to get back to that. Right. Or get someone else to get back to you.

Right. So, I think that’s the way to demonstrate that you’re setting that clear signal is to have what we call a do say ratio as close as one as you can, as you can have it as possible. Right. Where you if you say you’re going to do something, then you need to do it right. And it could be super tempting for a leader when they’re in that environment talking to that. Oh, I’ll fix that.

We probably know they can. So, they need to be able to be willing to say this is what I can do. Right. These are the limits of it and this is what I can. So, we don’t want to jump over existing processes or you don’t want to fob them off either. So, it would be clear about that. If I’m going to say I’m going to do something, I’m going to have to do it. So have a say do ratio of one.

And then the other tip I give to senior leaders is to use your ears and your mouth in the same ratio where you twice as much as you’re told.

Right. And I love that element also of the point you made around not taking away all the problems away but also helping people solve their own issues because then it becomes more sustainable versus, I show up parachute into a location, then walk away solving everything. It’s not a sustainable solution either. No. You know, and so one of the themes that I often hear is, is this the sense of organizational memory lasting a very long time. I’ve been in some workplaces where people recount, oh, somebody got fired because they made a mistake.

And when you. Try to track down when the last event took place, in some cases, it’s twenty, twenty-five years ago, many CEOs prior and no one at that site was even present. What advice would you give to a leader where there’s an element of, I need to rebuild or shift the trust that’s built-in leadership because maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago, the CEO had a very different stance on safety.

Yeah, so again, the thing about sort of culture and about sort of safety is that it’s really held in the stories that we tell and stories fulfill lots of different roles, particularly in terms of, you know, persuasion and being able to sort of make some sort of point. And so, the problem with old stories and that continue to be told often, they’re not really necessarily true. So, one of the strategies is, is to try and create new stories, will replace the old ones by having some new ones.

Right. And being able to sort of address them that way and having some sort of also having sort of patience that it will take time for the news stories to replace the old ones and being willing to address them. In some ways, I think companies make mistakes by not directly addressing the sort of the past like to say, hey, that never happened. Right. Or it was slightly different. And sometimes the some of the sort of technical details of the story are incorrect.

And people sort of focus on that rather than just saying, well, what’s going on here? Sure. Why are people saying that story and telling that story? Because they’re not really sure. Should they believe you? Right. Right. And, you know, based on past history, maybe they’re right. So, I think it. What of what? Leaders who’ve done a good job in this space is that they have directly addressed the past and said, yeah, what we did was wrong.

It wasn’t me, but it was people like me. And I accept that it’s going to take a while before you’re going to believe me. But again, let’s be clear. Here’s my commitment. Judge me on my actions and let’s hear those stories and say we’re not going to hear them again. That’s true. Those people were what would it take for me to for you to be convinced that I’m serious this time? So often, you know, leaders seem to want to have all the answers or the senior leadership rather than saying, well, actually, what you’re trying to do is persuade someone of those things are changing and moving forward.

And one of the best ways to persuade them is to ask them what would convince you. Right. And then once you’ve done that, then there’s a much more likelihood that they’re going to believe you. Right. So, they may dream up something, anything less. But you go with that. OK, let’s be sure and let’s work in that sort of process. But let’s keep the focus on it. Right. Right. And also, at the same time, think of, well, what are the new stories we’re going to be able to tell?

And an organization that I worked with a number of years ago, they were designing a new truck for their maintenance staff. And this was an important piece of equipment. It was basically your office. And, you know, the one of the senior leaders in the organization when I was meeting with people, you know, everyone in the central office was super excited about this. They purchased a new series of trucks for a number of years and so went and that’s part of the works I visit.

This city was talking to some staff and they were like, yeah, but that that is just rubbish. We’re getting these new trucks, but they’re just not fit for purpose. This is wrong and that is wrong. The order had already been made, Colonel. So, this was like, oh, no, what we’re going to do. So, the senior leader, because this was an organization where there was not a lot of trust, they cancel the order, calls the order and said, look, we’re not doing this until you guys are happy.

Right. So, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to redesign this process. We’re going to get your input. It should have been done before, but it wasn’t done properly. And you are going this is your office. This is where you work every day. And we’re going to have these four for twenty years. So, let’s see if we can get it right. And, you know, they made changes. They redesigned it.

They tendered you know; they were able to make that process work. And it was one big step to making that sort of change within the organization. And it became a story of the new culture that was it was going to be in this organization. Yeah, we have all our old stories for now, the new one where you need to listen to us to expression. And every time someone got in that new truck, they could say, I designed that truck and story now live.

So, sometimes it does take a bit of cost. And obviously the horrible idea to save people is the back-end cost of that and just flushed down the toilet. But they were able to send a very strong signal and they took the opportunity. So, if you get the opportunity to send a strong signal, take it right. You, my advice?

Yeah, I think that’s a very good example of sending a very strong signal. And there are always opportunities. It’s really a finding, finding them, cultivating them and then making sure you share those stories. So, love your examples around it. I think it’s a really important topic that a lot of executives. I struggle with is really how do I have the greatest impact? How do I send those messages in an hour of my commitment across the organization?

Probably an entirely different topic. And I don’t want to start at all here and not end it. But very briefly, tied to this topic we just talked about a site visit. How does a leader know? How does an executive know how safe their businesses? Because a lot of lagging indicators are horrible indicators of that sense of safety.

Yeah, yeah. And again, I think this actually does sort of tie with the sort of sending the signal is that, you know, leaders, I think, need the better services from their safety professionals. And I say this about, you know, at the moment they’ve sort of, you know, convinced leaders that the way that they should know that they’re safe is that they have low interest rates and that I don’t believe that was ever true. But I think most people now accept that it’s not true.

And the problem is we haven’t spent the time building those indicators within organizations. And I think what senior leaders should be doing is asking their safety specialist to say, tell me how you how we know how safe we are. Sure. And if they say it’s not a major risk, the answer is that’s wrong. And that tells you how unsafe you are in one particular way in the past. It doesn’t tell you anything about how safe you are.

Correct about the types of things that are there now. So, let’s be clear that most organizations do not have good measures, just not present. Now, some organizations, I think, are starting to build this data and they’re using it through what I would call micro audits. Right where they do these frequent site-based observations to specific high hazard tasks, not just every sort of single safety thing we do, but here is a high potential activity that could result in a fatality or major event.

OK, let’s go and have a plan where over our organization. We’re going to audit this a number of times and we’re going to not just look at the extent to which we followed all the procedures that we were supposed to follow. But also, did the people performing the task understand those things and how they deal with offsets that may have happened in terms of the planning and execution of that activity? So, what you’re trying to look at are the controls that we believe are in place, in place and to what degree are they right?

And if you can 100 percent all the time, you and I think you’d probably be suspicious of that working well. But it should give you an indication, because that’s really what we’re trying to show when we talk about how safe we are. What we really mean is to what extent are the controls that are in place and are they working as intended, the one that tells us how safe we are. So that would be the expectation. Some organizations, I believe, are building this, although we don’t have good data, but that as a methodology, I think is very doable, although it is it does take resources, and organizations would have to start small with one particular event and then move forward.

But I think all of the other stuff which is leading, lagging, all of that is failure based. And it provides very little reliable insight from what I could be able to see into how an organization could understand how safe they are. But I would start if I was a senior leader in a safety critical business of asking my safety specialist, my most senior safety person, how do we know how safe we are and not be happy or satisfied with the answer.

We have industry lost-time injury rates. Right. That’s not the answer. But that will be a warning sign for me.

Right. And I would propose that some of the listening tours that you talked about before were the executives are at the front line interacting. Also give you a bit of a pulse as to what’s the environment and what’s the risk that we’re playing with here and how aware people of are of those risks and how well controls are in place and how well people understand them and that sort of interaction. But I think to be able to get a sort of systematic practice that that would be would rival what we currently have in terms of injury rates, I think is that is a little bit, you know, for than most organizations.

And presently, what organizations are trying to do is, well, based on what information we currently have, what does it tell us? And that’s not a bad approach. But the problem is we don’t we’re not asking the right questions currently. So, we need to collect new data. And if we look at other parts of our business when played, when we’ve needed new data, we come up with new collection methods. So, it is possible. It’s just not straightforward.

You wouldn’t report. To Wall Street or to the city and say, I don’t have this type of financial information exactly. Or, you know, a company currently, if we use that sort of corporate perspective on safety, all we’re saying often is, you know, if our, if our reports from a conglomerate was none of our businesses, lost money last year, I don’t think as an investor, I’d be too convinced by that. Right. Yeah, that’s often what the safety report to senior leaders is. None of our employees got injured last year. OK, well, that’s good, right?

I mean, it’s like we’re suggesting we should be losing money, right? Does it mean we’re going to be successful in the current? No, doesn’t mean that. All right. Sort of good. But I wouldn’t give me any confidence.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, Mark, thank you so much for joining me today. I think you’ve provided some really amazing insights, really, in terms of how leaders can show up, how executives can show up and show the commitment to safety, how they can start changing the story, the narrative within the business around commitment to safety as such a powerful and important topic and really appreciate all your work and research in this space.

Great, but thanks for the opportunity to have a chat and to be part of this excellent.

Thank you. 

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Dr. Fleming is a Professor in the department of psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax Nova Scotia. He has just completed a five year term as the CN professor of Safety Culture. Dr. Fleming is an applied psychologist with over 25 years of experience in industrial health and safety management in high hazard industries including the offshore oil and gas, nuclear power, petrochemical, power generation and construction. He is dedicated to developing practical and valid tools to assist organizations to prevent harm. He holds degrees from the University of Aberdeen, and The Robert Gordon University in Scotland.

http://www.safety-culture.ca/

https://www.smu.ca/research/dr-mark-fleming.html

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