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April 18, 2023

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culture and behaviours

Influencing at board level (to achieve the right culture) 

SHP hears from Mike Stevens, CEO of Praxis42 on ways to confidently lead conversations at board level to drive safety culture objectives…

Career progression. It’s something most of us have in mind as we’re going about our jobs.

As a rule we’re not looking to stay on the same rung of the ladder for most of our careers. So it’s no surprise then, that at some point, we’ll find our careers progressed far enough that we’ll be in meetings with members of the board, pitching a business case, reporting progress, and building their trust.

Mike Stevens, Chartered Safety Practitioner and CEO of Praxis42

This can be daunting, especially if you’ve been newly promoted, or are a new face in an organisation. There’s no single right way to approach this (there are probably plenty of wrong ways though, so no Dutch courage!), but there are a number of things you can do to help prepare for these situations.

Remember, fail to prepare, prepare to fail!


The first thing to say is that you should have confidence in yourself and your ability.

It’s very common to have ‘imposter syndrome’ when you first start a new position: thinking that you don’t deserve to be there and that everyone else will see through you. It’s a perfectly reasonable and natural human reaction when you realise that other people in authority are taking what you say seriously.

But remember, you’ve been chosen on merit.

Whether through promotion or joining a new company, you’ve been hand picked to fill that position, based on your past successes. There may well be responsibilities in your new role that you haven’t done before, but that’s been the case on every rung of the ladder. As long as you’re willing to learn, and have that positive mindset, you’ll be able to adapt quickly and will feel more comfortable. We can easily generate self-pressure which can lead to us creating expectations which simply don’t exist.

Expanding knowledge

A key component of being able to influence at board level, is having a wide knowledge of the organisation as a whole. Rather than just being a Health & Safety specialist, it’s important to understand what other functions are looking to achieve, and how they’re intending to do it.

This isn’t something you’re likely to have at first (particularly if you’ve joined a new company), and you shouldn’t be shy about marketing yourself to other departments, letting them know that you’re trying to gain this knowledge and build new relationships. It may even be possible to get hands-on experience of other functions by working on small projects with them, or even gaining basic academic credentials in them – both are perfect ways to gain insights.

Mission, vision and values

A key part of your new role will be to understand the purpose of the organisation, and how you can positively affect that. In virtually every organisation, people are the most important resource, so you should ask yourself where Health & Safety fits into that.

By asking questions across the organisation, you can find out how people feel, whether they feel safe, valued, under pressure etc and can start to plan around the answers. If you can have a plan that not only safeguards the people in your organisation, but has a clear connection to where that organisation is going, it will be much easier to sell and demonstrate that you’re bringing value to the organisation.

A good thing to do here is to use the language from the mission statement, or from current objectives, and use that while presenting your vision for Health & Safety. Again, it’s a way to show that what you’re doing is directly connected to the vision of the organisation as a whole.

For example, if your business is focused on growth, you should consider how H&S can support that strategy and come up with plans of action that show you’re helping to move the business forward. How does the induction process work? How do we adopt an agile working environment to support growth? How do we handle workstation set-up and risk assessments? Everything from the basic level up should be considered.

Planning your approach

Time with the board or executive committee is often short, prepare in advance for what you want to get out of the meeting. If you have many things you want to talk about, put the most important first.

Often these board meetings come down to two situations: you’re either discussing something, or you’re looking for a decision on something.

For a discussion piece, you need to have worked through the possible directions of the discussion beforehand, and considered which other functions may be involved. The more of these functions you can speak to and gain their perspective prior to the meeting, the more prepared you’ll be to lead the discussion, answer questions and influence it.

The decision stage usually comes after the discussion. You’ll have come away from the discussion with some action points which will see you having conversations across the organisation. Once you’re ready to ask the board for a decision, the framing of the decision is very important. One strategy is to present two or three decisions they can make, in an A, B or C format.

Your wide view of the organisation and the personalities you’re presenting to will need to guide exactly how you frame these choices. Maybe they’re best presented in relation to legislation, or to something more moral, financial or even ambitious. Whatever you choose, it’s crucial you’re presenting all the available data needed to make that decision.

Adding value

Begin engaging with people as early and as widely as possible so you can gather a 360-degree view of how Health & Safety is seen. Do people know what it is? Is it something they appreciate? Who are the people who can champion what H&S does to other people? All of that will help you identify where H&S sits on the maturity curve, and the approach you should take.

Health & Safety isn’t generally a department that produces revenue, but it should still add value, by working across all departments. How can H&S help make operations work more efficiently? How can it help the Finance department save money, or Sales generate more? These are the kind of things you should ask yourself, so you can approach the Board with fresh ideas that add value.

Be an enabler

Being an enabler doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to everything that comes your way, but it should mean leaving doors open to things, even if they don’t work right now. That applies to your ideas, which perhaps the board doesn’t connect with immediately, or it could mean ideas from other functions.

Your H&S expertise does mean that occasionally you’ll need to hold your ground though. You have all the specialist knowledge in this area, and although you’re willing to listen to other people, you need to rely on what got you into this position in the first place.

Don’t be quick to shut anything down, but look to build on ideas, or to offer alternative suggestions. Understand the personalities around you and think about the best way to make a point with them: is it highlighting a regulation, the morality of a situation, or even pointing out your past experience. Ultimately though, if something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up – you’re enabling the correct course of action to come to the fore!

Celebrate success

Don’t be afraid to celebrate successes.

Often H&S is present at a meeting because we’re reporting on a worst-case scenario – an accident, or some kind of non-compliance. If this is the only thing the board hears from you, it’s how you’ll be defined.

So don’t be afraid to talk about the successes you’ve had. Something that often gets overlooked is that you can celebrate milestones along the way to success too. The end of a big project is an obvious thing to celebrate, but equally you could flag up the progress of that project, helping to build up momentum and excitement for its conclusion. Leading indicators which describe the positive measures that stop incidents occurring are simply not communicated enough.

But do all of that in a way that has meaning to them as stakeholders, really sell it in. Link your success to something bigger, like a section of the company’s mission, or to this year’s financial ambition, or expansion plans. Any links to wider benchmarks, or tracked data where improvements can be seen will be helpful here. Show that H&S is playing a role in helping the business thrive.

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