Columns / Editorial Comments

G.M.’s CEO is the latest executive to see the light

July 9, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014, at the bottom right-hand corner of the section “Business Day” in The New York Times, is a boxed photograph of General Motors’ chief executive Mary T. Barra. The headline: “G.M. Chief Pledges A Commitment to Safety.”

Nothing against Ms. Barra. I’m sure she is sincere and determined in making her pledge. But I just shook my head when I saw this little “sidebar” box and the headline. Once again, we are treated to a CEO committing to safety after disaster strikes, innocent people are killed (so far G.M. has tied 13 deaths and 54 accidents to the defective ignition switch), and a corporation’s reputation is dragged through the media mud. The caption of Ms. Barra’s pic says it all: “…Mary T. Barra told shareholders that the company was making major changes after an investigation of its recall of defective small cars.”

Why do the commitments, the pledges and the changes come down from on high almost invariably after the fact?

You can talk all you want about the need to be proactive about safety, and safety experts have done just that for 20 or 30 or more years. Where has it gotten us, or more precisely, what impact has it had on the corporate world?

Talk all you want

Talk all you want about senior leaders of corporations needing to take an active leadership role in safety. Again, safety experts have lectured and written articles and books about safety leadership for decades. Sorry, but I can’t conjure the picture of most execs reading safety periodical articles and books. I know top organization leaders have stressful jobs with all sorts of pressures and competing demands. But I have a hard time picturing a CEO carving out reading time for a safety book in the evening. Indeed a few exist; former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill is the shining example. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The National Safety Council’s Campbell Institute of world class safety organizations and CEOs who “get it” are the exceptions, too, I’d assert.

And what is the rule? As a rule, proven again and again ad nauseam, top leaders of large corporations only really get into safety when they’re forced into a reactive mode. For the sake of share price and investor confidence, they speak out to clean up a reputational mess brought about by a widely publicized safety tragedy. Two space shuttles explode. Refineries blow up. Mines cave in. The incident doesn’t have to involve multiple fatalities and damning press coverage. I’ve talked with and listen to more than one plant manager or senior organization leader forced to make that terrible phone call to the family of a worker killed on the job, and who attended the funeral. The same declaration is stressed time and again: “Never again. Never again am I going to be put in the position of going through that emotional trauma. Business school never prepared me for that.”

“In her speech to shareholders, Ms. Barra apologized again to accident victims and their families, and vowed to improve the company’s commitment to safety,” reported The New York Times. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers,” she said. “Absolutely nothing.”

Oh really? What about the safety of G.M.’s workers? Oh yes, it’s customers who drive sales and profits, not line workers. This is cold business reality. Who did G.M.’s CEO want to get her safety message across to? She spoke at G.M.’s annual shareholder meeting in Detroit. Shareholders’ confidence needed shoring up. So you have the tough talk, the very infrequent public talk, about safety.

Preaching to the choir

I’ve just returned from the American Society of Safety Engineers annual professional development conference in Orlando. There was a raft of talks on safety leadership, what senior leaders can and should do to get actively involved in safety. There were presentations on the competitive edge safety can give companies. If an operation is run safely, there are fewer absences, better morale, good teamwork, workers watching out for each other, cohesiveness, strong productivity and quality and brand reputations. The classic counter-argument to the business case was also made: safety is an ethical and moral imperative, pure and simple.

But who’s listening to this sound advice and so-called thought leadership? As NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard pointed out in his talk, the ASSE audience, as with any safety conference audience, consists of the true believers who need no convincing.  How many MBAs are in the audience?

Too often the moral high ground is swamped by the short-term, quarter-by-quarter financials that CEOs live or die by. Chalk it up to human nature, perhaps. Superior safety performance, as BST’s CEO Colin Duncan said at ASSE, results in nil outcomes. Nothing happens. CEOs are not educated to give thought and energy to outcomes that amount to nothing. So safety is invisible on corner office radar screens until a shock outcome does surface. Then come the regrets, the “if only I had known,” the internal investigation, the blunt, critical findings, the mea culpas, the “never again,” the pledge, the commitment, the vow, the tough talk.

There’s that saying, “Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.” Sadly, and to me infuriatingly, a long history of safety tragedies has not proven to be much of a learning experience for many corporate leaders. “Ah, that won’t happen to us. Our (injury) numbers are far above average.” Still, you won’t have to wait long for the next safety apology to come out of mahogany row. It’s a pathetic ritual endlessly recycled.

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