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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Just what is "the right stuff"?

April 8, 2006
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Jim is a safety professional with 12 years of experience. He’s technically very competent, probably the best in the whole corporation. Jim tends to be low-key, private and introverted, a bit hard to “read.” He doesn’t initiate a lot of contact with the folks in the plant unless he is doing a safety audit, and spends a lot of time in his office alone.

Jim is prone to challenge workers and supervisors around issues of safe work. The guys assume that he means well, and they know that he knows his stuff. But they really don’t appreciate being called down in front of their peers or bosses. Some say they learn more from him after there is a problem than before one occurs. Tim has two years of experience. He’s still learning, and technically is not in Jim’s league. But he’s a quick study, and gets answers when he doesn’t know something. Tim spends a lot of time engaging the guys in the plant, and learning from them.

Tim has created and communicated a vision of a world-class people-based safety system in the plant. He helps workers deal with the new system practices without starting a confrontation and without letting people slide. Tim asks questions and seems to genuinely care about employees. In his absence, employees tend to work safely — in part because they appreciate Tim and his concern for them.

Jim or Tim — you make the call. Who is the better fit in a Positive Safety Culture? Who would you rather have on your team? Who has the right stuff?

Defining qualities

What is this “right stuff”? Put another way, leadership author Jim Collins wrote of the need to get “the right people on the bus” in his book, “Good to Great.” To Collins, what matters is finding the right folks — the right stuff. Don’t worry about what seat they occupy, he says. You can figure out how to best utilize their talents later.

What qualities define the true high-potential folks we want on the bus? Folks in my business spend a lot of time these days conducting “competency studies” to find the critical skills you want to build around. After conducting many studies myself, I’m impressed by how the same basic competencies surface in many pivotal roles in the workplace — manager, internal consultant, sales rep, or safety pro.

Make no mistake, technical job-skills/job-knowledge is important. But nearly 100 percent of the many, many folks I have interviewed in this context say that given a threshold level of technical know-how and experience, more of the same does not make you a better manager, or even a better individual contributor. Beyond that threshold, it is other skills, largely the “people skills,” that make the difference.

Based on the extensive literature on leadership and organizational effectiveness, and from my own research and practice, three broad classes of skills appear to define the right stuff.



1) People skills: As I noted in an earlier column, when executives “de-rail,” it is rarely for lack of technical know-how or job experience. Most often people skills are lacking — the interpersonal part of the right stuff. Even in the case of technical professionals, interpersonal, relationship-building skills are increasingly mission-critical in today’s team-based, interdependent and collaborative model of business common in many organizations.

2) Self-management skills: An important set of intrapersonal skills have to do with ability to learn quickly, to focus on relevant details (and filter out the rest), to engage in effective planning and prioritizing, to connect the dots, to be decisive and solve problems well. These general cognitive and self-management skills comprise a second major chunk of the right stuff, especially powerful when combined with the interpersonal skills.

3) Big picture skills: Third, and especially critical in leadership roles, is a set of competencies having to do less with day-to-day performance — and more with the ability to create an inspiring vision, to think strategically and long-term. Also, increasingly important in today’s environment of constant change is a characteristic known as “adaptive performance” — the ability to be flexible and adaptable in dealing with change, to get “outside the box,” and to help others embrace change as well.

But across many roles, the ability to build and maintain good working relationships at multi-levels appears to be the foundation of the right stuff. It is the great multiplier of an individual’s cognitive and leadership skills, and ultimately his/her overall effectiveness. It is the skill set that I see on virtually every list of the right stuff, and usually at or near the top.

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