Developing Home-Grown Safety Leaders

How to cultivate the next generation of HSE experts

Companies that have relied on the expertise of foreign nationals to provide leadership, especially around safety, are looking increasingly to their own citizens to fill these positions. Finding experienced, qualified candidates presents challenges where safety legislation is weak, educational opportunities are insufficient and organisational culture deemphasises HSE. There are paths to success, however, that emerge when safety becomes a value.

A changing landscape for safety professionals

For many years, ex-pats educated and trained in industrialised nations have filled the leadership ranks of companies throughout the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. As these organisations increasingly strive to employ their own nationals in top management positions, including as safety leaders and HSE managers, there are important factors to consider and challenges to address. Some of these issues are particular to specific regions or industries, while others are more broadly applicable to HSE leadership everywhere.
One way to prepare future safety specialists, of course, is to ensure they have access to a well-designed educational curriculum and plenty of relevant technical experience in the field. First, however, is the question of how to attract young people to careers in safety in the first place when other choices seem more glamorous, comfortable or well-compensated. A robust legislative framework that sets the standard for safe practices certainly heightens the visibility and value of these careers, but in the absence of such legal incentives companies themselves have a decisive role to play.

Companies as agents of change

There is plenty of evidence, going back at least as far as Paul O’Neill’s legendary success at Alcoa, that investing time, effort and resources in safety yields impressive returns in productivity, performance and even stock value. This is not surprising to those who understand the reach and impact of successful safety initiatives, which require powerful leadership, unflinchingly honest assessments of the status quo, a company culture based on trust and respect and reliable systems and processes for data collection, metrics analysis and communication. The first step, however, is committing to safety as a value. From that commitment, all manner of benefits arises, including increasingly talented safety leaders.
When an organisation values safety, there is a ripple effect. The prominence and importance of HSE gets a boost as the department is seen as paramount to the company’s success, rather than as an afterthought. Resources flow into health, safety and environmental initiatives and possibly recruiting or professional development for existing staff. In short, safety specialists begin to enjoy a higher profile within the company, which eventually translates to more visibility and status on the job market.
Companies can extend their reach to influence their sector in other ways as well. Even when no national guidelines regulate industrial safety measures, a company may opt to comply with international norms voluntarily. Such a decision sets it apart from and applies pressure to competitors as well as potentially attracting more qualified safety specialists. Another avenue of influence available to companies that can stimulate interest among young people in safety as a career is partnering with universities to shape curricula and provide internships related to industrial safety.

Educating transformative safety leaders

In regions where educational infrastructure is still developing, universities that offer degrees in industrial safety and related topics may be few and far between. The degree programs that are offered, moreover, might not adequately prepare students for their intended careers in HSE. In any case, truly transformative safety leadership relies on more than academic coursework; meaningful field experience in a cross-section of departments or divisions is indispensable as is the targeted development of leadership attributes.
The most effective academic programs for future safety professionals have a strong practical component. Students are immersed in a range of real-life work scenarios and complete internships as prerequisites to receiving their degree. By the time they enter the workforce, graduates have gained valuable perspectives on how safety is lived in industrial settings. This is an opportunity, as mentioned above, for companies to both benefit from and strengthen educational opportunities in their home countries by establishing partnerships and internship programs and contributing to safety curricula at local colleges and universities.
Organisations can continue to foster professional development among employees in various ways. A joint venture, for example, might provide an opportunity for staff to broaden their experience by working within a different corporate culture or in a foreign country.
Finally, leadership development may start in an academic setting, but is frequently–and most likely more effectively–pursued on the job. Successful leaders inspire, motivate, build meaningful relationships and set an example of integrity and reliability. Leadership coaching can demystify these apparent superpowers by targeting and training the underlying behaviours, such as regularly engaging face-to-face with employees, asking the right questions and providing feedback effectively.

Advocating for legislative support

Rather than viewing regulations as limiting factors, companies committed to safety come to regard them as protections. For these organisations, safety legislation reinforces their own efforts, evens the playing field among competitors and promotes HSE values within society. A solid regulatory framework can legitimise industrial safety as a valid career option and thus contribute to the creation of better degree programs, stronger HSE departments, safer companies and even better compensated safety professionals. It can also drive safety across industries by standardizing certifications, introducing useful metrics to indicate progress and demanding reliable documentation and data collection.

Safety as synergy

In order for capable safety professionals and competent leaders in the field to emerge and successfully guide industry in their home countries, it will take a concerted effort on the part of domestic companies, education providers and government agencies. Rather than a step-by-step process, however, the key is to create synergy among these entities to feed the cycle of progress. The result will be home grown leadership and an appreciation for the expertise that protects workers on the job and sends them home safe and sound at the end of the day.
Author: Daryl Wake, Senior Consultant
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