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engineer leader

Leadership Development for Safety’s Sake

July 20, 2017
To mitigate the risks associated with operating and maintaining an energized electric system, the organization must be led in a predictable and effective manner.

Leadership is fundamental to having a safe and well-trained, field -based workforce, which is different from having a well-trained general utility workforce.  The difference is that leadership development for the overall utility workforce is focused on improving performance on a clearly identified set of competencies. Leadership development for a field-based workforce should be focused on one objective: preventing the next serious injury or fatality. If it isn’t, it should be and this is why.

Safety is the Developmental Touchstone

First, we’ve all seen the studies where improvements in safety lead to improvements in quality, productivity, reliability and financial performance. This is because the quest for safety improvements drives a detailed examination of nearly every process in the company.  It creates a detailed familiarity with existing methods and then requires thoughtful changes to improve safety, and by extension, the process under examination.

Second, safety is the preeminent value for most companies and thus should receive priority in a manner unambiguous to the workforce. They can doubt the purpose and intent of a lot of corporate initiatives, but they should never doubt the importance of safety.

Two Parts of Leadership Development

After we get our leadership development focus accurately placed, it is important to recognize that there are two parts to leadership development:  the hard part and the easy part.  We usually delegate out the easy part and ignore the hard part.  What comes first?  The hard part.  What is the hard part?

The hard part requires leaders to select a leadership approach, communicate that approach to all line employees, consistently model the approach and then unapologetically enforce the approach. They recognize that to mitigate the risks associated with operating and maintaining an energized electric system, the organization must be led in a predictable and effective manner. 

But some will say, “Wait, that sounds heavy handed,” to which I would respond that it is neither hard nor easy handed, rather it is what is required to drive the individual and collective mindset, the organizational rhythm and the group cohesion necessary to ensure safe performance.

I once had a manager who was tough, but fair.  He set high standards and didn’t apologize for the bar he set. It was clear that he felt the standards were necessary to run the system in a proper and professional manner and to keep our employees and the public safe. He inspired us to become better than we were and his demanding approach prevented aberrant or dysfunctional personal or team behavior. Our focus was fixed on legitimate challenges and clearly defined. This had a binding effect on the team, ensuring our level of cohesion was sufficient for us to work exceptionally well as a team.

Context, Condition and Transformation

This is an example of the hard part of leadership development, for three reasons.  It was context-specific, which means we were responsible for a large part of the utility’s load and that was our developmental focus. It was condition-based, meaning we were closely instructed when appropriate, based on electrical and personnel requirements. Lastly, it was genuinely transformative. We started the job as one type of person and left the job as a different type of person, indelibly changed by working for this one specific manager.

As I get around the country and read industry and trade journals I’ve started noticing a disturbing trend.   Many of us are building our Leadership Development programs by cobbling together a list of third-party courses, hosted by an internal or external LMS system, and then pushing that out to line leaders.   I call this the easy part of leadership development.  Over time we’ve began to think that “technique,” revealed online is an answer.  In reality, it is more like leaving the field and handing the ball to the ticket taker to finish our game – which they’ve never played – on our behalf.

It is easier for us to label leadership development a corporate process, so often we let go.  We simply forfeit our critical and inescapable obligation and privilege to take a stand for safety leadership.  Only the assigned leader can encourage the achievement of an inspired standard, drawing on their internal courage and sense of honor to not disappoint or let down their peers, employees, supervisor or the organization. As mentioned before, heady stuff and raw, emotionally driven words and principles, but nothing less than this will stop our continued rash of severe injuries and fatalities.   

Be Careful

Of course, a leadership approach must be carefully chosen, wisely tested and open to maturation and change. Whimsy and blindness to self-serving bias and filters are an ever-present risk of power, even at the lowest level, and must be identified and corrected quickly.

Online leadership development is the easy part.  It is not context-rich, condition-based or transformative. The hard part of leadership development (about 80% of the development effort) needs to be taught and facilitated first, in the field, while the easy part can then be used to fill in gaps.  Please don’t get them reversed.    

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