Not On My Shift!

You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

     ~Zig Ziglar

It’s a small world, and getting to be an even smaller one every day. Order up a decaf latte for breakfast at a fine hotel in Amsterdam, as I did last week, and my server, Mariano, who hails from Romania and speaks better English than I, starts chatting about Starbucks.

“I’m taking my wife and son to Italy for the holidays. I’m looking forward to seeing their Starbucks.”

I’m thinking what Perry White, Editor of the Daily Planet and Clark Kent’s old boss, would be thinking: Great Caesar’s ghost! 

I managed, “Well that sounds nice. Italy is a beautiful country. I’m headed there this afternoon. And yes, I know Starbucks well. Back in the States, they’re everywhere.” Minutes later, my tall latte was delivered. In a very tall glass, steam rising. Exactly the way coffee was meant to be served. At least in my book.

As he set the drink down, Mariano was apologetic: “Our machine has a problem. The foam is too hot. If you would like, I will bring you some cold milk to add to the drink to cool it down.”

What, and ruin a perfectly good latte? “Thanks, but it’s perfect just the way it is.”

Mariano was insistent: “You must be very careful then, as you put your fingers on the glass. Nobody gets hurt, not on my shift.”

With that, Mariano just earned a special place in my Safety Leadership Hall of Fame. 

In Theory

In theory, managing safety performance should be easy. I’ve yet to meet a leader – and I’ve met more leaders than just about anyone you ever met – who told me it was ok by them if one of their followers went home hurt. I seriously doubt there are any people working for those leaders who think going home hurt would be a good idea either.

Meaning that, in the matter of safety, leaders and followers are in perfect alignment. Which should make managing safety performance easy. As easy as breathing.

Seems like perfect sense. It did to one leader I knew three decades ago: he was a newly appointed CEO of a big chemical company. I was one of the audience packed in a room at his inaugural town hall meeting, where he described his exciting new ideas about business strategy, all designed to make our company great.

But not a single word on safety.

Which did not escape notice. This company was one of the highest profile chemical manufacturers in an industry where leaders are notorious for taking safety seriously.

Somebody raised their hand and asked about it: “No mention of safety in your presentation.”

The new CEO was clearly perturbed: how dare someone ruin a perfectly good presentation on business strategy with some annoying question about safety? “You shouldn’t have to talk about safety. It should just be something you do, without thinking about it. Like breathing.”

So, safety’s as easy as breathing. It’s a great theory.  Too bad we don’t all live – and work – in a theoretical world. The real world has been terribly cruel to those who weren’t thinking about safety.

Something Mariano understood perfectly.

In Practice

In practice, safety demands leadership. If it didn’t, everyone would go home alive and well at the end of every single day.

As to exactly what leaders do to lead and manage safety well, since 1968 I’ve been watching that, up close and personal. That’s when I started my industrial career, working as a General Helper, on midnight shift, in a chemical plant. For a Foreman named Andy Varab. 

You never forget your first boss.

Mr. Varab was tasked with managing production, cost, quality, schedule for his part of the production line, and keeping this over-motivated, but unskilled, eighteen year old for whom safety bore no resemblance to breathing, safe. 

Sound familiar? Of course it does: fifty years later, little’s changed in that regard. 

As to sending followers home alive and well at the end of the day, Mr. Varab did not fare particularly well: I got hurt twice in the first week. Enough to warrant first aid. 

On my behalf, I would like to point out that both events were immediately reported to my supervisor. Of course, you might point out, “Paul, you hadn’t yet learned the lesson about reporting injuries: you’ll probably get in trouble when you do.” You would be right: this turned out to be the very first big lesson in safety leadership I learned. The hard way. 

I got into big trouble, but not with Mr. Varab. He didn’t say much of anything about what I did wrong. It was no less than the Plant Manager who read me the Riot Act: “I read your name on the Weekly Injury Report. Not once, but twice! In your first week working here! If that’s your approach to working safely in this plant, you are not going to be working here long.”

Fifty years removed, I can still hear those words ringing in my ears. 

Compare and Contrast

For some reason, from my first foreman on, I’ve been in the habit of comparing and contrasting leaders; the ones I worked for; the ones I worked around; the ones way above; the ones down in the chain of command. It was always clear to me who were the good ones, and who were the best ones. 

Of course, my measurement criteria wasn’t always in alignment with those running the business: otherwise, the best would always have been properly recognized and rewarded. In practice, it didn’t always work out that way.

When it came to safety, one thing I will note about the leaders best at managing safety performance was that they didn’t just “talk a good game.” There are plenty of people in leadership positions who say all the right things: “Safety is a core value.” “Safety is our top priority.” “We want to be injury-free.”

But what matters most to sending people home safe is what those leaders do to keep people safe. Fixing problems and holding people accountable are two of the most important things leaders can do to see to it that nobody gets hurt.

Not on my shift!

Separated by fifty years, Mariano and my very first Plant Manager both had that figured out.

Time To Say Thanks

I love the holidays! They’re the perfect combination of festivities and good cheer, coupled with the ending of a year. The holidays provide the time and the occasion to look back; to reflect on what’s happened – the good and bad; to say thanks for the good; to learn from bad – and the good. I hope you do that. I always do.

As to things safety, there’s nothing more noble for a leader to do than to send everyone home alive and well at the end of every single working day of the year. As Zig Ziglar noted, that’s “helping people get what they want.” At least out of their work life. What we do to make a living is just that: making a living. What we do with our lives is what matters most.

Everybody knows that. But just because you succeed as a leader in accomplishing that noble goal – “Nobody gets hurt, not on my shift” – doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a big thank you from all those grateful followers at the end of the shift, or the end of the year.

In practice, it just doesn’t work that way. But it could. 

So, let me offer this suggestion. As a follower, if you have the good fortune to work for a leader who really does manage safety well, tell them thanks. Your boss really is helping you get what you want out of your working life. A little positive reinforcement for good behavior is never a bad thing.

And pay attention to exactly what that leader does well: since 1968, that’s what I have been doing. It’s not hard to do, and I promise you will learn some useful things.

And if you’re that leader, you really are helping your followers get what they want most out of their working lives. Yes, they should all appreciate that; no, not everyone does. 

But I do. 

So, I’ll say thanks on their behalf.

And Merry Christmas.

Paul Balmert
December 2018


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