Who’s the most important leader in your organization?
I’m sure the answer is obvious – to you. It’s your CEO, COO, maybe the CFO. They’re the leaders in the C suite, as the financial analysts like to call the place, who make the big decisions, do the big deals, sign the big checks, move the needle when they make the big speech, and show up on the business channel for the big interview.
Fair enough. That’s why they get paid the big bucks.
Try thinking about the question in the context of safety. When it comes to seeing to it that the good people doing the work of your business go home, alive and well at the end of the day, who really is the most important leader in the company? Is it the leader in the corner office at world HQ, or a different leader working somewhere else in the company?
The answer is obvious – to me. At least it is now. When it comes to managing safety, the most important leader in the company is the one with the corner office – right off the shop floor.
Not only is that leader the most important to safety, that leader has the most power to see to it that everyone actually does go home safe.
If that sounds utterly preposterous to you, you need to invest a few minutes examining the role the front-line supervisor plays leading and managing safety performance. The supporting evidence will convince you otherwise.
It has me.
Leadership Functions of the Front-Line Supervisor
Today, you won’t find a bigger fan of the front-line supervisor than me. But it didn’t start out that way. A couple of weeks into my industrial career – a month removed from high school and two months from heading off to college – as a General Helper on midnight shift in a chemical plant, I was working for one. Lucky supervisor: having to first train and then attempt to manage impetuous me.
Early one Saturday morning, over breakfast, I was complaining about my first boss to my father. “Why are these guys even on the payroll?” That’s when I received my first lesson in industrial management. As my father – who happened to be the Plant Manager at that plant – put it: “Paul, the supervisor has the toughest job in the business.”
It was a huge Moment of High Influence!
Lesson learned, right then, and right there. Every day the front-line supervisor is personally responsible for managing a set of activities that play a direct role in determining the day’s safety outcome. They perform those duties because they have been delegated them by their leaders: it is their job as it relates to managing safety performance.
As to what those duties are, it’s all so obvious. The front-fine supervisor trains and qualifies the members of their crew. The front-line supervisor authorizes the work done by their crew, and decides who performs that work. Aka, “work permitting” and “work assignment.” The front-line supervisor observes the performance of the work by their crew, and is expected to correct unsafe behavior and reinforce safe behavior. The front-line supervisor runs the tool-box safety meeting, communicates the changes in safety procedures, manages safety suggestions. When something goes wrong, the front-line supervisor gets the first report and initiates the response. If the problem is not significant, the front-line supervisor is expected to solve the problem.
Those assigned duties add up to safety execution. How well those leadership duties are performed largely determines safety performance. Don’t take my word for that: get out your list of injuries, read their proximate causes – like “lack of training” and “failed to follow the procedure” – and ask yourself what leader in the company was best positioned to have prevented that from happening. Most cases, it’ll be the front-line supervisor. Yes, the front-line supervisor’s role is that important.
But wait, there’s more.
There is the matter of knowing what’s going on. Think of that as Performance Visibility, which is exactly about knowing what is really going on, for better or worse. Performance Visibility sits at the other end of the spectrum from perception. Confusing perception with realty has proven harmful to careers and fatal to people at work.
Of any member of management, the front-line supervisor is in the best position to know reality for what it is. They see firsthand the condition of tools and equipment; the effectiveness and compliance of methods and procedures; the skill and performance level of those doing the work. The problem that every executive faces – whether they care to admit to it or not – is the farther away they are from the operation, the less likely they are to know what’s really going on in their operation.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Peter Drucker characterized it as “the isolation of the Chief Executive.” In 1954 he wrote, “…everything brought…for information or decision is by necessity predigested, formalized and abstract. It is a distillation rather than the raw stuff of life.” You can see the problem: the things that really matter to safety are the “raw stuff” of real life out in operations.
If information is power, how much power do you think a CEO with limited Performance Visibility really has?
Then there is the matter of influence.
Fair to say an executive has far greater formal power than does a front-line supervisor. As differentiated from formal power, a function of job level and design, influence operates on the basis of relationship factors such as trust, respect and credibility. Influence may be soft power, but don’t think that form of power isn’t……uh….. powerful.
Over the last four decades any number of organization surveys have been conducted on the matter of influence. People are asked, “When it comes time to speak to you on company matters, what level in the company has the most trust, respect, credibility – and influence?”
The findings are remarkably consistent, no matter the company or business: overwhelmingly, the answer is “my supervisor.”
It makes perfect sense: relationships matter to influence; proximity matters to relationships. To those doing the work, the front-line supervisor really is the face of the company.
Power: Theory Versus Practice
Regarding the power to manage safety, there’s one more important thing every leader needs to understand. Whereas the theoretical view of the organization chart suggest that higher ups always have more power than lower downs, in practice, that’s not how power necessarily works.
You already understand one reason: influence – soft power – increases with proximity. Organizationally, the closer the leader is to the follower, the more influence the leader has with the follower. It is not the other way around.
In the case of safety, there is a second reason why power does not follow the organization chart: stopping the job. In my travels, I have yet to meet anyone in the world who has not been told, “If you think the job isn’t safe, you can stop the job.” I’m sure you have, and trust you stop those jobs that you deem unsafe.
When it comes to safety, the ability to stop the job is as pure a form of formal power anyone can have. The power is absolute and the outcome is guaranteed. The job gets stopped and nobody gets hurt. That is power!
Who has the power to stop a job? Anyone. Everyone.
In practice, who is most likely to find themselves in the position to exercise that power? Stop a job that needs to be stopped? The answer is so obvious: the person doing the job and their front-line supervisor.
One more reason to explain why the front-line supervisor is that important – and that powerful – in practice.
Perception Is Not Reality
Organization power serves as the perfect example to debunk the myth, “Perception is reality.” Reality is reality, even when it doesn’t seem that way. While the front-line supervisor may be perceived as lacking authority and be largely invisible to upper management, in reality, the front-line supervisor plays a vitally important and incredibly powerful role in managing safety performance.
If you’re a front-line supervisor, the best thing you can do is to appreciate the power you have and put it to good use to make a difference.
If you’re a senior leader, the best thing you can do is to appreciate the power that is vested by you in your front-line supervisors and take full advantage of their power. The road to safety excellence runs straight through your front-line supervisors.