Can Anyone Here Lead?

December 8, 2003
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Dear Subscriber,

CAN ANYONE HERE LEAD?

"I've worked with over 500 sites during the past 15 years and I can count the ones with true safety leadership on the fingers of one hand."

"We have raised a generation of poor leaders."

"We know nothing about leadership."

"We see so many poor examples."

"Corporate heads have tin ears."

"Many EHS managers feel like a chicken being pulled apart by two foxes. They don't want to be criticized by management and they don't want to antagonize the workers."

What is it about leadership that strikes a nerve? These are responses we received when polling safety and health pros about the topic. People we hadn't heard from in ages chimed in. In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we answer the question: Can anyone around here take the lead?

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SCARY TIMES

Let's hope so. "These are desperate times," says one of our respondents. "Complex, trying times," says another.

Respondents rattle off the reasons: Great global economic pressure. A brutally competitive world with no guarantees, no loyalty. Employees with an emboldened sense of rights.

A public not interested in "buying" any more workplace safety investments. (Exhibit A — Washington voters' recent rejection of the state's ergo standard.) Execs who question the value of EHS with injury rates low, jobs automated or overseas, and OSHA off the radar screen.

For some, nothing less than the future of environmental health and safety hangs in the balance. "We've got to be more active to survive as a profession," says Joy Erdman, a certified industrial hygienist and certified safety professional working for the Navy.

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DON'T BUY THE HYPE

This wailing and banging the drums about leadership is lost on some in EHS circles. You've either got it or you don't, says a business owner we polled.

The secrets of former General Electric CEO and lion of leadership Jack Welch? We should all be so brilliant. Worked harder and more hours than anyone, says a manager who crossed Jack's path back in the 1970s.

It's about guts, the rest is fluff, says a multinational EHS VP. Churchill had it right, "Tell the people the truth." It's not rocket science.

All these books on leadership are being sold by out-of-work executives who need the money, says another EHS pro. Five thousand more will be published in 2004.

"Us management consultants make sure every trend builds on itself until something else comes along," confesses one EHS veteran. "Leadership is what sells today."

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THE OSHA MODEL CHANGES

But the nerve we struck with our leadership poll is about more than marketing departments creating a buzz. EHS consultant Ted Ingalls sees a "yearning for leadership." Why? Perhaps we're just confused. The old ways of leading aren't working anymore, and in the safety and health arena we see an excellent example of how the changes are playing out.

Just look at OSHA, the pacesetter in safety and health for the past 30 years. It created the modern profession. Set the standards. Demanded compliance.

OSHA has employed what's called the "commanding" style of leadership, in the book, "Primal Leadership." (You can find it next to "Liberation Management," "Teaching the Elephant to Dance" and the rest.) Commanding leaders are control freaks. Think Al Haig after Reagan was shot. It's an air of arrogance, an attitude that torpedoed OSHA's credibility with employers, professionals and politicians.

Do it because I said so. Little praise, much criticism. Nitpicking micro-management. Whacks for non-compliance. Explanations? Read the standard.

This is the historical model of leadership in the safety and health ranks. Command and compliance. Many safety and health pros, especially in the early days of the modern era, came out of the military with this mindset. But the style doesn't work for OSHA anymore, and it doesn't serve the profession well.

OSHA, as you've noticed in the past decade, has been forced to change to survive. It has adapted what is described in "Primal Leadership" as the "affiliative" and the "democratic" styles of leadership.

Affiliative leaders are called in when you need to improve communication and rebuild trust. That would be OSHA. The focus is on collaboration and building relationships. So with OSHA, you see the explosion in the Voluntary Protection Program, with agency chief John Henshaw wanting to take it from 800 to 8,000 work sites. You see the de-emphasis on standards, the leveling off of enforcement, and the ratcheting up of training tools and "outreach."

The democratic style works best when the leader doesn't know what to do and needs input. Hello, calling all stakeholders. This is OSHA from the early 1990s on. The agency knows it has trust and credibility "issues." Knows it is politically prohibited from cranking out standards like the regulatory factory it once was. But how does the agency create value for itself now? OSHA chiefs Joe Dear, Charles Jeffress, and John Henshaw have used the democratic approach. Let's talk. What do our customers think?

The danger with the democratic style? Endless meetings. Think Clinton and the healthcare planning summits. Think OSHA and the ergonomics hearings. Talk, nod, mucho listening. When this kind of leadership comes off as staged, it doesn't get results — it polarizes. Leaders are seen as self-serving, frauds and puppeteers.

Unfortunately, this is how many employees perceive business leaders when execs address workplace safety issues.

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ENDANGERED SPECIES

Adding to the confusion and concern, there's another style that doesn't work well anymore in the safety and health field. Once upon a time you could build a sustainable career out of being a technical maven. Today, that's often a ticket to working out of your home. Professionals, especially industrial hygienists, have been thrown a curve. They scrupulously accumulated specialized knowledge, only to be told that's not enough.

The book, "The Tipping Point," describes organizational mavens as the people with the most information. Mavens love to soak up facts, figures, principles and theories. They are, as the book describes, "pathologically helpful." They like to give advice. They're teachers, educators, information brokers. This certainly describes many safety and health pros.

But there's a problem. Mavens are not persuaders. They are socially motivated, without assertive personal agendas — admirable traits that can put you on the endangered species list in today's ultra competitive organizations.

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WHEN PARADIGMS COLLIDE

What happens when an "endangered species" has an audience with a CEO from the Jack Welch school of relentless, suck-the-air-out-of-the room leadership? You know, someone with that overwhelming results focus. Intimidating. Quick, loud and confrontational. Loves numbers and has little tolerance for those who don't. Prone to "stick in the eye" speeches and throwing grenades in stuffy meeting rooms.

The meeting was scheduled ten months ago and will last five minutes.

"Ah, Jack, I wanted to talk to you about the culture of our organization…"

"Don't go warm and fuzzy on me, right?

"Our employees feel there's no procedural justice in the company. It's hurting their self-esteem and feelings of belonging."

"Feelings? Save it for the performance review."

"We need to have more conversations about safety. Employees need more room to roam, more space and freedom to come up with their own solutions to our safety issues."

"I'm the CEO, not the chief executive shrink. I do deals, not therapy. Schmooze, sell, golf, plug holes, put out fires, crunch numbers, make decisions and get results. That's the game."

"But, but… leadership can be operationalized in behavioral terms!"

"Don’t operationalize me! You want leadership? I've got an idea. We'll outsource it. Hire a coach, a retired exec, a consultant, a professor. Bring in a couple of those motivational speakers. Have a rally. That'll tide us over for a while."

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SWIMMING UPSTREAM

EHS pros often face steep odds getting their points across. "I planned all the management retreats and training at (name withheld) and I was continually amazed at the lack of leadership skills senior managers possessed," says one of our respondents. "They could handle money and tactics and competition, but not their own people."

Or put another way: "In large organizations it is not politically safe or correct to focus too much on people," says another industry vet.

Despite what the books may promise, leadership demands a lot. It's like having an out of body experience. You're asking someone to shed their own skin, shake off their ego, drop biases and prejudices, and empathize. Listen closely. Probe. Pay attention to body language. Sense the other person.

In fact, many safety and health pros have a head start when it comes to pulling this off. Along with technical skill, they happen to be naturally interested in people. The best are ambitious but approachable. Serious and savvy, funny and caring. Energetic and reflective. They can put you at ease, or make you sit straight. They have obvious passion, a certain bearing, and most of all, range in how they communicate and connect with people.

John Henshaw at OSHA has this kind of breadth. So does John Howard at NIOSH. Ather Williams at Johnson & Johnson. Frank Renshaw at Rohm & Haas. Skipper Kendrick at Bell Helicopter. AIHA fellows Pat Paulus and Alice Farrar. Dr. Rick Fulwiler, former Procter & Gamble director of worldwide safety and health. Yes, to answer our question, there are people here who can lead.

Sometimes a duo creates the necessary leadership breadth and depth. In the late 1980s and early 1990s at OSHA, Jerry Scannell was the visionary, articulating the big picture, and the coach, listening and counseling. His deputy, Alan McMillan, was the fast-walking, fast-talking make-it-happen pacesetter. Before them, OSHA was led by John Pendergrass, he of booming voice and barrel chest, complemented by the likes of Frank White and his Washington insights.

To be sure, you can lead without this range, if you have the ambition and intelligence. You'll just have a longer list of enemies.

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EVERYDAY LEADERSHIP

Every safety and health pro confronts leadership challenges, often without much of a power base to leverage. Still, complaints, fears, emergencies, resisters, apathy, and ignorance don't go away. Perhaps we can save you time in reading the self-help tomes. Respondents to our leadership poll gave us all sort of tips and opinions. Plus, we researched some of the books and many articles. No matter where you are in the pecking order of an organization, there are lessons you can apply to the most typical of encounters:

Trying to get participation? Tap into people's desire to help. It's there.

Churchill was right of course, be honest. About safety's inconveniences, hassles and risks.

Be realistic. About the resistance you face, the support you can expect, the agendas you compete against, the politics you go up against.

Don't take complaints and frustrations personally. It's not you, it's the scapegoat they're looking for.

Trying to communicate? Nothing beats a good story.

Anticipate what lies ahead. Have Plan B handy.

Put your ego on a tight leash when you're in a crowd.

Find a sponsor. Even an angry one who's upset over the safety performance. They'll make things happen.

Don't be an island. Find allies, advisors, mentors.

Go ahead, show a little vulnerability.

Leave the door open to compromise.

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SOUL FOOD

Since leading people and getting results is an art, it's wide open to interpretation, opinion and publishing possibilities. Here is ours: Leadership is a little like soul music. It moves you, draws you in, stirs agreeable emotions, you're tapping and rocking along though you can't explain exactly why. It's like a vibration.

Not into Marvin Gaye? Feel free to draw your own conclusions. No one has a lock on this leadership thing.

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Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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Books from ASSE

You can order these titles and more from the American Society of Safety Engineers Bookstore on ISHN’s Web site.

Visit — http://www.ishn.com/FILES/HTML/ISHN_ASSE_index/

Among the books you’ll find:

  • “Refresher Guide for the Safety Fundamentals Exam”
  • “The Participation Factor,” by Dr. E. Scott Geller
  • “Safety Training That Delivers”
  • “Building a Better Safety and Health Committee”
  • “Safety Management - A Human Approach,” and “Techniques of Safety Management - A Systems Approach,” both by Dan Petersen.

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For new subscriptions to ISHN, visit www.ishn.com and click on “Subscriptions” beneath the “Services” header on the home page.

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ISHN offers exclusive market research survey reports including White Papers, Online Training Editorial Study, Web-based Training Study, Salary Study, Hygiene Instrument Study, PPE Study, and more... Click on http://www.ishn.com/FILES/HTML/ISHN_market_research_index/0,5680,,00.html to learn more about these studies.

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Direct mail

Look to ISHN's 73,000+ subscribers for your next direct mail campaign. For customized lists, call toll free: 1-800 323-4958; Fax: 1-630-288-8390; E-Mail: directmarkting@dm2lists.com; Web: www.dm2lists.com

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WE NEED YOU!

Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?

Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.

Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.

If any of these topics interest you — or if you have other ideas — e-mail editor Dave Johnson at djsafe@bellatlantic.net

We will also consider articles you’ve already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.

Thanks.

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