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Human resource staffers face the same uphill struggle as many safety and health professionals - securing that elusive seat next to the power brokers at the senior management table.
HR, like safety and health, has been a department known for taking care of the details. Compliance with laws. Administering programs and policies. Training. But these activities haven't added value to companies. HR, like safety and health, is seen as a cost-center, not a profit center, with those costs being resented and grudgingly accepted by operations people.
Now many of HR's detail functions can be outsourced to third-party contractors. And HR is scratching its head, trying to figure out how to get engaged - integrated - in organizations. Too many HR people do not have enough clout. They have not proven themselves as corporate contributors. They are not involved in corporate decisions. So HR is reinventing itself. Defining just what it will do for organizations. It is a confusing, time-consuming and scary exercise, to break with the past.
Now HR's focus is on adding value. Learning the language of operations people to predict the long-term impact of HR programs on profits and shareholder value.
What's HR's new role? Creating, nurturing, and retaining human and intellectual capital. That's a fancy way of saying making your organization smarter. HR wants to orchestrate how knowledge and critical skills are acquired by organizations and shared internally and outside with customers and suppliers. Plus, HR aims to improve productivity by maintaining and improving the health of employees. Fewer sick days, more productive days. Protect those valuable assets - employees.
Makes sense. Andrew Razeghi, the keynote speaker at the American Society of Safety Engineers' 2002 Business of Safety Symposium, says at least 70 percent of an organization's value rests today in human capital - brand creation, patents, intellectual property.
This all sounds familiar to safety and health pros. Breaking with the past. Shifting paradigms. Making the business case. Adding value. Talking operations' language. All to get a shot at the corporate gold medal - a place at senior management's table.
For as safety guru Dan Petersen has said, safety has been marginalized to a series of programs - islands marooned from the operations mainstream.
But something is missing in all the preaching about reinvention, making the case, documenting the ROI, talking the lingo. It's that dirty, messy word - politics. No wonder we don't want to talk about it. Politicians have poll ratings right down there with dinnertime telemarketers, patio enclosure salesmen and infomercial hosts.
In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we're going to take a stroll down from the high ground and offer you tips about politicking, legitimate politicking. You can't make a play for power without it.
LET'S GET REAL
In an article last year, Marjorie Kelly, the editor of the magazine, Business Ethics, ruminated on the failure of the corporate social responsibility movement. CSR has been preoccupied with things "colossally beside the point" she wrote. Things like sustainability reports, codes of conduct, triple bottom line reports, shareholder resolutions, ethics training, environmental stewardship, creating a small army of ethics officers in companies, and enough "green" and "good guy" awards to rival the glitz of the entertainment world.
"We haven't fully addressed the issue of power," wrote Kelly. "Power is what it is all about." What is really going on inside companies is relentless pressure to get the numbers. Fluff and feel-good stuff is not nearly enough to change corporate behavior, corporate cultures - the goal of the CSR movement and the safety and health professions. "The pressure to get the numbers overrides all else," said Kelly.
It's time to talk about power. How to seize it. How to use it. This is what getting a seat at the table, being a player, is about. You can't address power, can't focus on what is really going on inside companies, unless you're ready to take up the touchy topic of politics.
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE. . .
Safety and health pros are not the only managers who hesitate to dive into politics. Many seasoned managers of all stripes are ambivalent or outright resistant to organizational intrigue, write David Butcher and Martin Clarke in their book, "Smart Management: Using Politics in Organizations" (published by Palgrave, New York, 2000).
But like it or not, you should admit that politics plays a central role in all organizations, say the authors. Being a politician is part of the management job. Managers like safety and health pros must accept that many, many organizational decisions are driven by partisan, biased, prejudiced agendas. Don't get beached on an island with your health and safety idealism. To weigh in on decisions, to be part of the power structure, to be relevant, you've got to play the game.
"Realize the inevitability of competing agendas and politics as an organizing principle," write the authors.
To overcome any ambivalence about jumping in, take a second look at the age-old stereotype of politics as a sleazy, slimy game played by phonies, suck-ups, and sharks.
It helps to see that there are two faces to politics: constructive and destructive, positive and negative. Naturally, the goal is to use politics in a positive, constructive way. To do this, you have to acknowledge the constructive value of organizational politics, say Butcher and Clarke.
What distinguishes legitimate politics from sleazeball scandals? One word: Motives.
What's the motive behind the agenda being pushed? Of course there is always going to be self-interest, the personal pursuit of security, recognition and advancement. That's natural. But truly adept politicians strike a balance between pursuing what's best for the organization, and what's best for themselves. They mesh selfless and selfish motives. Politicians who end up in trouble (usually) are the ones who are self-absorbed, with no sense of (or concern for) balance.
By their nature, safety and health pros should be capable politicians. They are in many ways a selfless lot, drawn to their work out of concern for the well-being of others. And let's face it, a destructive politician bent on pushing his or her own agenda would not choose the safety department to launch their assault on corporate power.
Safety and health pros also possess many of the pre-requisites of positive politicking. 1) You control specific information (injury rates, audit results, perception survey responses) that others in the organization don't. 2) You are known for your expertise in a specific niche of the organization. 3) You've likely experienced success - bringing down injury rates, comp costs, and so on. 4) You are a role model. 5) And you are socially competent, in the words of Butcher and Clarke.
In other words, you've got people skills. You persuade, listen, resolve conflicts, negotiate, motivate, develop teams, empathize. Through your walkarounds, investigations, audits, training and contacts at all levels of the operation you are in tune with your organization's climate.
Now how do you use those skills in a political way?
READING THE SIGNS
Paul O'Neill proved to be a better CEO than Treasury Secretary. He survived less than two years in Washington, while spending a dozen years turning Alcoa, Inc., into Wall Street's hottest performer, besting the likes of Microsoft and Intel, by the time he retired in 1999.
Imagine yourself in the safety and health department of Alcoa when O'Neill came aboard in 1987. How would you go about "reading" your new boss, trying to decide the best way to push your safety agenda?
Start by getting the skinny on him. O'Neill was a Washington bureaucrat for 16 years, President Ford's deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. A numbers guy. "He could be asked about shoe imports and he would know the number," said a White House aide.
A quiet guy, too, according to those who knew him. Nothing flashy. Known to forsake short-term profits for long-term goals. Hmm?that kind of thinking would accommodate your safety plans.
O'Neill was also known for asking tough, on target questions, and for not suffering fools lightly. He wanted people who think on their feet and were anchored in hard data. Hmm. . . best know your facts whenever you meet up with him. And keep those answers short.
By doing your homework, you also knew this: O'Neill was hired as the first outsider to head Alcoa in its hundred-year history. So you're dealing with someone with fresh eyes, not bound by baggage. This could be an opportunity. And he was faced with a tremendous turnaround challenge. You knew from your contacts and reading that Alcoa was trying to diversify out of the aluminum business, it's stock was down, and the company's future was uncertain, if it had one. Hmm. . . you should be on the lookout for some radical moves, dramatic changes. How could you work safety and health into the new plan?
You can tell something about an exec by his or her early decisions. O'Neill got rid of the corporate limo. Began to fly commercial class. Turned down membership in an exclusive Pittsburgh golf club because it banned women and blacks. Forbade the use of Alcoa funds for dues at clubs that discriminated. Left his executive suite and camped out in a cubicle like everyone else. Broke up Alcoa's command and control structure and replaced it with autonomous business units.
Hmm. . . this guy seems people-oriented. Grounded. The kind of guy a safety department might be able to work with. You get your hopes up, start sketching out your performance improvement presentation, just in case you get the chance to deliver it.
Then O'Neill starts giving speeches. Every single one begins with a discussion of safety. You've heard plenty of safety lip service so you're skeptical. Then you learn that he does the same thing when visiting investors. One of your contacts tells you: Wall Street could care less about safety and he still goes off for 20 minutes on it. O'Neill tells investors he's trying to move an ocean liner in a new direction. "I'm trying to create a culture change. If I can unify employees on the obvious issue of safety, I can unify them behind return on investment and assets," he says.
Your boss walks the talk. He gives out his home phone number and tells employees call with safety complaints. He tells his accountants they'll be fired if they try to quantify safety benefits in dollars and cents. "I care about safety because it is a direct way to connect with human beings on a non-debatable goal," he explains. He has zero tolerance for any accidents or incidents. Not only out of respect to employees, but out of the belief that any production process so flawed that workers got hurt could not turn out high quality products efficiently and effectively.
You hear all this and shelve your business case for safety. Your agenda will emphasize values and leadership. Stretch goals and straight talk. You roll up your sleeves and get to work. . .
O'Neill's tenure at Alcoa, his use of workplace safety to promote corporate values and unity and to drive business performance, actually became a Harvard Business School case study. By the time O'Neill retired, Alcoa's stock had shot from $5 to $40. Revenues grew from $9.8 billion to $16.3 billion. And the injury rate was cut by 90 percent.
There are also lessons in positive politicking from our little study here:
In general, safety and health pros and management experts also offer these tips in the art of constructive politicking:
"There are three avenues of opportunity: events, trends and conditions.
"When opportunities occur through events but you are unable to respond, you are not smart.
"When opportunities become active through a trend and yet you cannot make plans, you are not wise.
"When opportunities emerge through conditions but you cannot act on them, you are not bold."
Zhuge Liang, "The Way of the General" Chinese warrior, administrator, circa 200 A.D.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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