For all the talk about leadership in safety these days, just what are leadership’s core competencies?

Often a leadership coach is contracted to come in and develop promising leaders in an organization. I have done this work for more than two decades. Based on my experience I would say:

 Coachees (the employee being coached) almost never need coaching in the technical aspects of their jobs.

 They almost always need coaching in the interpersonal skills, and broader leadership skills, required for success in their roles. I have never seen an engineering manager fail because he/she was a bad engineer; I have seen some fail because they were “bad” at dealing with people and inspiring followership.  

 I don’t believe everyone everywhere “needs” a leadership expert to shadow them.

 I do think that much of what coaches do can be done by the individual him/herself.

If we accept what the data clearly say— that the skills needed in a leadership role are some combination of the “soft skills” and the strategic business thinking skills (along with some base level of technical experience and know-how) — the message to those of us in leadership roles, EHS or otherwise, is pretty clear. Your skill set should include:

The essentials

1 — Improve your communication skills, especially your listening skills.

 Develop your ability to navigate even tough conversations (as in, confronting it when others are not following “best practice”). Pay attention to your nonverbal communication, and recognize how strongly “body language” can color the message. Recognize that communication skills are the core enabling skills. In a leadership role, they are simply mission-critical.

— Coach and develop those who work with you.

The more you engage and deeply involve others in their work, the more valued they feel, and the better job they can do. Plus, they are positioned to take on higher-level work, which you can delegate to them, in a developmental way.

— Give and receive feedback, and don’t focus only on the negative.

Feedback is crucial to learning. The hardest part of giving positive feedback is remembering to do it (as we rush on to the next problem). The most effective leaders create a positive atmosphere in which deserved positive feedback is given, and in which it is easier for folks to accept the negative feedback in the constructive spirit in which it was intended. Remember to do it.

— Build a team and lead it well.

Give credit when we are winning, and absorb the negative when we are not (oh, and then go out and fix it).

— Really understand the business you are in at a strategic level.

Help others do the same. In an EHS role, that means not only understanding the big picture from a safety perspective; it also means understanding the overall business that your work supports. EHS cannot be divorced from what we do as a company.

— Follow up and follow through.

Work at being personally accountable (as well as expecting that from others). Make commitments and honor them. When you say you will do it… do it.

— Be flexible and adaptable.

Help others do the same. The only constant in business is change. The most successful leaders are able to adjust and adapt. From now on, victory goes to the nimble and the swift.

The more we work on these attributes, the more we seek and learn from others’ feedback, the better we will be poised to lead, regardless of our role.