Stand up and be counted: how to develop as a health & safety pro
A panel on skills, diversity and leadership in health and safety kicked off day two of Safety & Health Expo 2018 in the Professional Development Theatre.
The overarching theme of the session, Chaired by Chris Rowlands, Director of the HSE Recruitment Network, was how to build the ideal skillset for a health & safety professional, though the four-person panel of recruitment experts and health & safety leaders were of the clear opinion that there is no one way to classify an ideal health & safety leader.
In today’s health & safety market, suggested Eloise Francis, Director of Property Risk, Compliance and Assurance at the Royal Mail, “softer skills are becoming more and more important”.
While there does have to be a certain level of technical knowledge in a candidate (depending on the business you work for and role you are talking about), more general skills based around interaction are an essential part of a health & safety professional’s skillset.
“A key soft skill is clarity of expression,” explained Francis. “You’ve got to get your point across, you’ve got to understand audience you’re talking to. Being interpersonal is essential.
“You’re not going to get on with everybody and you aren’t there to make friends, but you need to understand people’s drivers and where they are coming from. You might need money to resolve an issue, or maybe a change of system or process: you will need to understand what other people’s drivers are to get your message across.”
Paul French, Head of SHEA at Kier Group, acknowledged that when he started out in the industry it took him a while to understand the importance of interacting with other people, focusing his development on technical skills. But as you progress, being able to understand those you’re dealing with becomes essential: “There’s a big difference between dealing with directors and the people fixing water mains.”
He even suggested that moving forward this added focus on interpersonal skills and could take priority when looking at candidates for a role: “From a recruitment side we need to start looking at people who can deal with other people and then work on their technical expertise.”
Liam Tiddy, Head of Practice at recruitment firm Shirley Parsons, agreed: “In the current market the technical side is almost a given. Most hiring managers still say to me, ‘I’m looking to avoid a health & safety police officer’.”
“It’s important to get across the softer skills: the ability to lead and engage others, influence them and understanding the pressures that others are under. Those are the things that help you stand out and get to the next level.”
Rowlands suggested that there needs to be a commitment from organisations to develop this element within their staff, and Francis described her extra-curricular progression as a leader at the Royal Mail. As soon as she joined she was put on a management acceleration programme – “a mini MBA at Oxford” – that took her out of the business for four weeks.
Of course, technical skills are still vitally important for health & safety professionals, and there are areas of growing importance that require development: for example, wellbeing and mental health, security, logistic management.
Francis highlighted the need to develop business skills like risk management. “I haven’t managed to put a business case forward without looking at the business risks. Not just health & safety, but what are the risks of us not doing this? When cost and efficiency is at the forefront of everyone’s mind its harder and harder to put forward business cases asking for money, so it’s important to have this skill.”
Equally important is knowing the limits of your knowledge and knowing where to find help. “You’re never going to be an expert in every area,” said French. “I believe we need experts around us, knowing when to ask for help is a massive part of it.”
Tiddy added: “A lot of companies don’t realise the untapped potential of the unused expertise within the company. What experiences do people have that they can bring to the organisation? And health & safety isn’t a silo. You can go out and share ideas and bring value back to your organisation.”
On the topic of different experience and expertises, Rowlands asks the panel if they had noticed a change in the unconscious biases within the recruitment process that have led to a relatively un-diverse workforce.
“Yes and no,” replied Tiddy. “Some sectors are working hard to increase diversity, both in terms of the male/female ration but also different demographics like age and background”.
But sometimes organisations that express a desire to extend their diversity through a hire go through the interview process and opt for the “safe option”. It’s not easy to take a chance, says Tiddy, but sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith.
He pointed to the Rooney Rule, a law in the NFL in America that requires all teams making a coaching hire to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate. There’s an argument, he says, that organisations could follow suit.
French emphasised that a diverse health & safety team can be a big boost to an organisation: “We’re problem solvers and to solve problems you need people from different backgrounds, different experiences. I’m a big believer in a diverse team to get the problem-solving side of things better. You get a lot of different opinions, and get to a lot of different solutions.”
Part of reaching a more diverse workforce is in the phrasing and placing of job adverts, suggests Rowlands. If you advertise in the Sunday Times, you are only reaching a particular demographic, and if the job spec is “same old, same old” you’ll reach the same people. If, however, it appeals for particular competencies, you will get new applicants.
Calling on her experience at the Royal Mail, Francis noted: “I focused my adverts on keywords like flexible working, flexible location, part-time opportunities. And then started interviewing more people that you normally would.
“When creating a shortlist, it’s often very easy to draw a line under applicants and take the ones you know can do the job. But sometimes it’s not until you have the interview that you realise that some people don’t sell themselves on CV. We have found some fantastic individuals that way.”
To round off the session, Rowlands asked the panel what it means to be an HSE leader, and how health & safety professionals can progress to leadership positions within an organisation.
Tiddy responded: “You can take out the HSE. Being an HSE leader is just about being a leader. The principles remain the same whether it’s HSE, finance or whatever. You have to lead by example.
“The common approach of successful leaders is that people can speak to them, they seem to know everyone in the organisations. I’m always concerned when people struggle to come up with answers to what are your weaknesses, as it suggests they can’t self-analyse their approach. You have to continually improve.”
Returning to the need for soft skills, Francis added: “You can’t do it on your own. You can’t be a single leader, it just doesn’t work. You need key individuals and a strong team. That network will help you make change in your organisation, and you can’t be an effective leader without it.”
In terms of moving into leadership roles, French suggested that there is “a stigma attached to our profession – people think we’re boring”.
“But the skills we have are very transferable. We are willing to speak out and challenge. And from sitting on boards I’ve seen that the only time you get better is from people challenging you.
That, said Rowlands, was the key message of the panel: to progress in health & safety and become as effective as possible, you need to stand up and be counted.