Chief safety officer is a title that is rarely seen — and this has to change, according to a speaker at the annual Canadian Society of Safety Engineering’s professional development conference. There may be executive vice-presidents of environment, health and safety, but it’s just not the same, said Regina McMichael, president of The Learning Factory, speaking at the conference in Halifax on Sept. 20.
“As an industry, we have not been able to gather as an organization and say, ‘Wait a minute, we should have a ‘C’ just like the rest of them,’ even if it’s just symbolic,” she said. “We do not have people who are sitting at the table right up front automatically as an assumption in the corporate world... We have not demanded that place.”
Safety is not at the C-suite because safety professionals don’t think like executives — but this isn’t their fault, said McMichael, who is based in Clemson, S.C. It’s only in the last few years that management skills and executive-level concepts have been a part of the vision for the future of the safety professional. In the past, most individuals would have said that technical knowledge is what makes a great safety professional — which is true, but they need much more than that, McMichael said.
Safety professionals also don’t act like leaders, she added. Part of the reason for this is because no one has taught them how.
“If no one has coached you on that, we can’t just roll into the room and plop down on the seat and say, ‘You need to be safe and do it my way because I said so because I have the technical knowledge.’ They will boot us out of the room,” she said. “Before we can get to the table, we need to learn how to behave like the rest of the people at the table.”
As a whole, safety professionals don’t understand the business goals of the company. If they work for a public company, a great first step is to read the annual report, McMichael said.
Additionally, safety professionals are too compliance-driven. Many have been mentored to be “safety cops” and have “auditor” or “compliance” in their titles.
“How do we get out of being looked at like someone who checks off a list or shakes their finger at you when you do something wrong? How do we get away from that reputation when it’s in our title?” McMichael asked.
Safety managers also do not leverage influencing techniques. In order to have influence in an organization, you need to understand what power dynamics exist and how to talk to people in different ways, McMichael said.
First, identify the right target — you might be going after the wrong one. For example, if every time you go to your boss with a new idea and he asks, “What does Larry think of this?” Then you know you have to get Larry’s buy-in before taking the idea to your boss.
The second step is to learn people’s motivators and styles. For example, the CFO might be the person who ultimately decides whether or not new safety programs are given the green light. She is the number cruncher and might not respond to the moral imperative, McMichael said. Now, the safety professional needs to figure out how to communicate effectively with her. Showing her the numbers and the return on investment is likely a good place to start.
If safety professionals want a seat at the C-suite, they have to look within and be adaptable.
“You’re not going to be able to change other people. The only person you have power over is yourself, so you have to change you if you want to move forward in your career,” McMichael said. “They’re not just going to say, ‘Here’s a hand; let me pull you up to the executive level because you’re awesome.’ You need to make that change.”
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2018 issue of COS.