Felt Leadership – Are They Feeling It?

SafeConnection Expert Panel Summary by Mackenzie Wilson


Safestart logoIt is difficult to dispute the importance of leadership when it comes to managing health and safety to all the legal and environmental standards. Without resources, these standards cannot be met or maintained, but what about beyond that? Is ‘felt leadership’ or real, genuine leadership enough to achieve world class safety performance or zero harm? One could argue that if felt leadership was enough, then no children would be getting hurt – it’s hard to imagine parents who don’t ‘really’ or ‘genuinely’ want to keep their kids safe. But children still get hurt, and so do employees and contractors. Is this the fault of leadership? Or is leadership just not enough?

Those are the questions that Larry posed at the beginning of another round of SafeConnection Expert Panels, bringing together experts from around the world together once again to discuss Felt Leadership. The consensus was unanimous: Felt Leadership is a necessary yet not sufficient condition for world-class safety performance.

“Leadership is not enough”, says Ahmed Khalil (Director EHS, BABCO) from the Middle East panel explains, “Yes – it starts from there, but the leaders themselves can’t make everything happen on their own, everyone in the organization needs to make it happen.” “Employees do not create culture”, says Ed Stephens (Global HSE/SA Audit, Assurance & Senior Lead Investigator, ABB) from the North American panel, “they are victims of the culture created by managers, supervisors, and senior leaders”. Thus, without leadership engagement, a culture of safety excellence is not likely possible. “Employee engagement is also important”, says Dr. Praveena Dorathi (Head EHS, JLL West Asia) from the Asia panel, “if no one is able to listen to the employees and implement changes then leadership doesn’t matter”. She also adds that in addition to leadership, a communication system is required that ensures the employees are actually able to experience the commitment of top management.

So how does the message get to everyone? It appears as though managers need to be going out there and giving the message themselves. “If you’re not doing it yourself”, says Abdullah Al Marqoozi (HSE Director, ADNOC Group) “by the time it trickles down to the shop floor the message might have been changed”. Arun Subramanian (Associate Vice President & Head HSE, Coronomal International Limited) explains four components of felt leadership – giving direction, walking the talk, running the system, and cascading. He shares that cascading is usually the weakest quadrant. Once you give the message, how do you hold people accountable for cascading it further? That is where leadership at all levels comes in. “Leadership needs to be exhibited at all levels, even the supervisory level – especially when trying to get positive change within an organization”, says Dr. Waddah Ghanem (Senior Director, Fellow Board Directors Institute GCC).

Peter Batrowny (Lead Consultant, Shirley Parsons) explains that once his workplace realized the importance of front-line leadership and the power of consistent messaging, they began spending a lot of time building those leadership capabilities at lower levels of the organization which turned out to be a very valuable initiative.

But what if senior leadership isn’t engaged in the first place? Larry explains that in his experience, sometimes leaders just aren’t comfortable doing site walkarounds or they aren’t effective because they just don’t know the technical aspect of the job. “Giving them some practical tools that they could actually see themselves using, like Rate Your State or Anticipating Error conversations would be a good place to start”, he says. Peter explains that leaders need to be deliberate when going out in the field. “Don’t just go on a nice sunny day close to your favourite restaurant”, he says, “go to the more difficult workplaces or jobs – that will go a long way”.

Ed believes that you need to give the “what’s in it for me” to the leader. In other words, show them the benefits of safety and quality on the bottom line. Or, as Dr. Praveena suggests, explain to them what the worst-case scenario could be in a language that they can understand. Many panelists agreed that using language that leaders are familiar with is important to make sure the message is getting across. Many also suggested that connecting with employees in informal settings, like at the bar, gym, or in the community is another great way to make their commitment felt.

Given that many of the panelist’s companies make use of contractors, Larry asks them if it’s possible to make leadership felt all the way to that level, and if so, how.

Narayan Chaudhari (Vice President – HSE, Pipeline Infrastructure Limited) explains that every company has their vision, strategy, and goals on display, but just displaying is not enough for the kind of felt leadership that is so sought after. He goes on to say that every quarter his company has a town hall meeting with all the employees, including contractors, to discuss objectives, resources, and goals that were stated at the beginning of the year and whether they are achievable or what needs to be done to achieve them. “That is how they feel the leadership”, he says. “In these discussions safety is equally important as production, quality, and cost – that is the message that is going to everyone”

When Larry asked the panellists if they can get the message all the way to the shop floor, and can you extend it to contractors, Ahmed simply replied “it’s not a choice Larry, we have to get it to them. If you want to create a good safety culture in an organization, you have to get it to everyone”. “We don’t differentiate between who is an employee and who is a contractor”, says Salman Abdulla (Executive Vice President, Emirates Global Aluminium). “Their management needs to recognize that safety is a core value of the organization they are working for. It’s a condition of the contract. Leaders need to be meeting with the leaders of the contracting company”

Hector Salazar (General Manager Construction Safety, HPCL-Mittal Energy Limited), whose company works with around 15-20 thousand contractors, agrees. “It’s not just about leadership coming from the main company”, he says, “but also all the other companies partnered on the project.” He explains that when you partner with companies that have great health and safety performance, it pushes the other contract companies to step up too. “Those companies need to understand that safety is a competitive advantage”, he says. “And all of us as H&S managers have a responsibility to help the other guys on their safety journey.” To that end, Teg Matthews (Vice President, SafeStart) explains that a lot of HSE or top managers get a value for safety from an adverse event in the past (like someone dying on your shift). “That’s a hard lesson to learn”, he says, “so there is a responsibility on the rest of us to teach
people that value without having to learn that lesson the hard way”.

So, are they feeling it? It would appear that they are. The panels made clear that leadership can go a very long way in terms of achieving world class safety, but leadership alone is not enough. Strong communication systems and leadership at all levels of the organization are necessary in order for messages to be properly trickled down throughout the company. It is possible for leadership to be felt down at the shop floor, and even felt by the contractors, but it takes a genuine and consistent effort from the whole organization.