The keys to influencing in health and safety
The world of health and safety is undeniably changing, particularly regarding how the purpose behind H&S professionals’ roles in a business are perceived. This movement has created a call to action for professionals to improve their non-technical competence to become business leaders, rather than just technical specialists executing health and safety specific objectives.
So, what skills do H&S professionals need moving forward to be successful, and how can they develop them? We talk about this every day at Acre Frameworks and are fortunate enough to have the pleasure of collaborating with a community of H&S industry ambassadors working passionately to change the perception of H&S, the Acre Frameworks Advisory Panel.
I’d like to introduce you to one of our advisory panel members, Steve Howells, Group HSSE Director at GVC Holdings (Ladbrokes Coral). Steve shared with me his lived experience and expert insight on how to build influencing skills to have the most impact in an H&S role, which I’ll share with you now!
How to bring leaders on board
We hear a lot of people talk about the importance of getting buy in from senior leaders. As a health and safety professional, what does this look like on the day-to-day, and how do you gauge progress?
“Gone are the days when being just a technically proficient health, safety, and wellbeing (HSW) professional is enough. We now need to be more rounded business leaders, and that involves having the necessary skills to be able to communicate and understand all aspects and requirements of the business from HR to finance to marketing, etc. These skills enable us to effectively influence the C-suite, leaders, and colleagues at all levels, convincing them that HSW is an enablement tool and not a blocker to business performance/improvement. HSW leaders now need to be adept at selling ideas, gaining acceptance for strategic plans, shaping policy and winning buy-in from senior leaders, the board, and colleagues more than ever before.
“I truly believe we’ve spent many years creating an industry for ourselves. One where we held all the expertise, knowledge and competence, and inevitably delivered on everything required for HSW. We now want what this discipline was driving toward all along; ownership of HSW risk by relevant operational leaders and managers.
“Leaders must champion change. Leaders have the power to lead the change or kill it stone dead. It’s important that ‘big’ relationships are built with leaders in the business before you can have ‘big’ conversations; that’s done both formally and informally. There must be a benefit prior to commencing any programme or initiative, which is normally financial; then, there is focusing on the legal requirements and finally (and more importantly because it’s typically in the world in which we operate), moral duties. Understanding what motivates senior leaders will help steer them toward doing what is right for the company.”
Five ideas to bring leaders on board
- Communicate my vision and objectives – In as many formats (after all, leaders are either ‘big chunk’ or ‘small chunk’ people) and as many times as you need, communicate your desired outcome, as well as your objectives. Your communication should leave no room for unclear vision or objectives and be linked to both their personal and company objectives.
- Provide training, coaching and mentoring whenever possible – Leaders usually don’t want to admit that they don’t know what they should know when it comes to HSW because of course they should know. Shouldn’t they? But when they’re growing into leadership roles, there are not many leadership programmes that ‘teach’ HSW. So, HSW leaders will need to dedicate time to address any areas of non-competence. Another good tactic is to engage leaders in professional HSW development to show their support and to help build a common culture and understanding. Spending time coaching and mentoring leaders, in either a covert or overt way, is also a way to allow them to understand some of the issues we regularly encounter; best done in safety tours, inspections, engagement opportunities, reward, and recognition, etc.
- HSW improvement should be tied into business objectives – Many HSW programmes prove difficult in calculating a tangible financial return on investment. So, utilising other functions in building a solution linked to business objectives is always an easier sell, especially when leaders are accountable for that business objective!
- Most leaders don’t like being told what to do – That is all on this subject!
- Hold leaders accountable – Successful change is tied directly to the leader. Leaders need to be onboard with the change, and that inevitably means a benefit to them personally or departmentally. Once a clear objective has been identified, individual leaders need to be held accountable for taking ownership for positively driving the change within their areas of influence. This is, of course, very easy when that objective is on an upward trajectory, but when it’s not so rosy, that becomes a little trickier. The rounded business skills of the HSW professional then come to the fore in coaching them to understand the actions required to reverse that downward turn.
“Of course, traditional lagging indicators are one way of gaining progress. My preferred way is to ask the question of the leader on their perception of progress. Once a relationship is built, it’s easier to have conversations about success, and maybe where progress hasn’t developed as required. I firmly believe a set of pre-agreed, risk based leading indicators is a far more practical measure of progress.
“When influencing leaders on the benefits of leading indicators, I focus on Aubrey Daniels techniques as they:
- Allow you to see small improvements in performance;
- Measure the positive: what people are doing versus failing to do;
- Enable frequent (in the moment) feedback to all stakeholders;
- Are credible;
- Are predictive;
- Increase constructive problem solving around HSW;
- Make it clear what needs to be done to continually improve;
- Track impact versus intention.
“Leading indicators help me identify areas of improvement required to improve safety through awareness and prevention and will show stakeholders the proactive steps being taken”.
Where h&s professionals go wrong when trying to influence
Where do you think HSW professionals typically go wrong when they fail to influence senior leaders? What would you like to see more of in terms of influencing skills?
“‘Being right is not enough!’ We cannot rely on just being right and relying on the persuasion of legislation and moral duty. Some of the key mistakes I’ve seen, and made myself many times, are:
- Not identifying the correct stakeholder to be influenced. Many years ago, I had what I thought was a key stakeholder in the form of the HR Director, so much of my time was spent with him. I also had an HR Business Partner in support of my team but was naïve in thinking this person was ‘just part of my team’ so the need to influence was minimal. I had a shock when I received some feedback which informed me that mostly all of my discussions (some private, some controversial, most not) where the BP was involved, would get back to the HRD, so in fact, the HRBP was probably more of an influential stakeholder than the HRD. Lesson learned.
- Thinking that you are better at influencing than you are, and therefore failing to hone skills. Just ‘telling’ a stakeholder what you’ve got planned and hoping they’re on board doesn’t cut it. Instead, reflect, take some advice, seek out some support and mentoring around this subject, identifying where skills need to be improved. Influencing sounds easy, but it’s not, as the requirements and styles of stakeholders vary greatly.
- Trying too hard. Being too keen tends to put people off quickly.
- Failing to plan well enough to understand the needs of your stakeholders. Nothing comes for free. You can’t ‘wing it’ every time. Your stakeholders will see through you and will think that you value your time more highly than theirs.
- Talking too much. Two ears, one mouth; use them in proportion. Listen to the people you need to persuade. They will undoubtedly have their own views and opinions – value them.
- Providing too much information, specifically technical jargon, which confuses and makes them think you are trying to blind them with science.
- Fear of rejection. This can even stop people from trying to influence.
- Making assumptions about your audience, and not understanding what they require. Some people like big picture (see big chunk) and some like granular detail (see small chunk). Understanding your stakeholder allows you to plan your influencing strategy I and you do need one by the way). You need to engage to influence right from the outset.”
Should leaders call safety the #1 priority?
How would you respond to a board member who said: ‘Safety is our number one priority’?
“‘Safety is not the number one priority, never has been, never will be and never should be!’ So, I would, and do, challenge that suggestion! Of course, the perception at that time may well be the case (and this is usually when something has gone wrong!), but as we all know, in business, priorities changes almost daily. It’s far more important to have health, safety, and wellbeing embedded into an organisation as a core business value rather than a priority. By ensuring this is the case, and of course having leaders role modelling required behaviours, it supports the need for HSW being part of the decision-making process.
“The HSW of our people is, of course, part of the success of a business, as is minimising our impact on the environment. But we must also acknowledge that reducing waste, increasing effectiveness and efficiencies and having proper financial control (turning a profit) have an equally important a role.
“If HSW really was to be the number one priority, that would mean that we would have to assign a disproportionate amount of resource to HSW at the expense of other requirements, and that could put the business at risk.”
How to gain credibility
What enables an HSW function to gain credibility so they are able to influence across the business at all levels as well?
“Quite simply all the above. When I served in the Royal Navy, something said has stayed with me throughout my career. Our Padre (Vicar) said in conversation, seniority is unimportant to me. I’m the rank of the person I’m talking to, whether that be the lowliest of seamen (no women on ships at that time!) or the most senior of officers. Each person is as important as the next.
“And that applies to HSW – whoever you’re talking to or dealing with, treating them with the respect they deserve for the role they play is vital. We’ve ‘done’ safety to people for many years. It’s time all levels of seniority within a business had a part to play in a more collaborative, engaging approach to developing HSW for all.”
Steve Howells is an HSE Professional with many years operational experience within a diverse range of industries, including manufacturing, construction, aviation and retail. He is currently the Group Health, Safety, Security & Environment Director at GVC Holdings, a FTSE 100 company. Steve has a confident, versatile approach to HSE and a passion, natural flair and ambition for continual improvement across the discipline. He is successful in change and performance improvement being a (Lean Sigma Black Belt/PRINCE 2 Practitioner.
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