A Safety Ambassador

“You don’t have to be a ‘person of influence’ to have influence”

~Scott Adams

You can’t go anywhere on the internet these days without running into some influencer. Whenever I see an article with the headline, “Interview With Influencer…” no matter what the subject, I immediately move on, not the least bit interested in reading the story. Their story. I can’t help but think what makes these people influencers in the first place? And what exactly is the job of an influencer?

I know: asking questions like these proves me to be un-influenceable. I have been told worse. The influencers probably suspect as much: don’t waste precious time on people like me.

So, they head elsewhere. Before you allow yourself to be influenced by some influencer, might I suggest you insist on getting good answers to those two questions first. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Normally this is the point where I break out my trusty Webster’s and offer their studied take on the term. But for reasons that are obvious my 1980 edition makes no mention of the noun, “influencer”. As you remember from grade school English, a noun is a person, place, or thing. There once was no such thing…or person. 

The noun “internet” is nowhere to be found, either. That might not be a coincidence.

But times do change, as we must, too.

We are left on our own to figure this influencer thing – and person – out. A starting place would be with the familiar verb, influence. Reminder: verbs are action words. The action word influence is to “affect by indirect or intangible means.” 

Seems right. 

Unlike my Webster’s, the internet will tell you a lot about influencers. For example, this from the Influencing Marketing Hub: “Influencers are social media people who have built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise…and generate large followings of enthusiastic and engaged people who pay close attention to their views.”

Lucky them. 

But the definition doesn’t explain the all-important question of how: how does an influencer get followers to pay close attention and to be influenced? I’m sure there’s a huge number of wanna be influencers on the lookout for the answer. One self-proclaimed influencer revealed the coaching received from their manager: pick an argument on social media with someone more popular than you.

Before being influenced by an influencer, you might want to heed a piece of advice dating back to the Roman Empire: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

Line Management

As you know, influence is an important subject in the NEWS. Our interest is with workplace safety: influencing those doing the work of the business to do their jobs in a way that assures they go home alive and well at the end of the day. That duty falls to management, in particular line management, from the front-line supervisor up through the chain of command to the top executive. 

The origin of the terms “chain of command” and “line manager” can be traced to the military. The defining characteristic of the line manager is command: the power to decide and to have followers follower. The Captain of the ship is the perfect illustration of the line manager: the Captain decides direction, speed and when to engage with the enemy. “Full speed ahead; fire when ready.” 

Aye, Captain. Of course, with the power of command comes the responsibility for the outcome. When the ship goes down, so does the Captain.

But the power of command has its limitations. Case in point: if the line manager could command that every follower work safely, every operation would be injury free. Wouldn’t that be nice. In practice, safety is largely a matter of influence. Influence explains why a few managers are so much better than then the rest of their peers at sending followers home safe.

Upwards of two decades ago, we decided it was time for those stand-out line managers to be recognized for their accomplishments and proficiency at managing safety performance. They deserved it, and by recognizing them, we hoped their best practices would be noticed and followed by their peers. Bruce Garthwaite was the first recognized by our Safety Leadership Award. In the years since, we’ve handed out a few. Lonnie Brannon was the most recent awardee. You can read about Lonnie in our January 2021 NEWS.

Suffice to say, our Safety Leadership award is not given lightly.

The Role of Staff

Found in every organization is the counterpart to the line manager: staff. Those working in the staff role do not have the power of command. Their role is to provide advice and service.

In managing safety performance, staff organizations provide important services such as safety training, incident investigation, record keeping, and providing expertise in safety policies, procedures and legal requirements. Giving advice is a different matter:  there are a few serving in staff roles who are remarkably adept at giving the kind of advice that makes a real difference in performance.

To borrow a term from social media, that makes them influencers.

But unlike those in social media using that title, those serving in a staff capacity don’t become safety influencers by the number of followers on the internet, stirring up controversary or calling themselves an influencer. They earn the title the old-fashioned way: giving darn good advice that is put into practice, and their advice subsequently makes a real difference.

If the best line leaders at leading safety deserve recognition, why shouldn’t those best at giving safety advice be given similar recognition? 

The time has come to do exactly that.

The Safety Ambassador Award

I’m sure there’s recognition to be found in professional safety circles. That kind of peer-to-peer honor is fine, but most likely it’s given for service and contribution to the profession. That’s not our interest or focus: what we care about is the contribution to the bottom line of safety by those in the staff role. 

In a word, that is influence: influence on line managers and safety performance.

True safety influencers are best determined by observation: seeing what they do, in real time and real life, and tracing that to the bottom line. We’re fortunate: that’s something we as consultants and teachers do on a regular basis.

Having followed that process, may I introduce you to our Safety Ambassador Award and our first honoree, Stuart Wittenbach.

Stuart is a forty plus year veteran of the energy industry, having worked as a safety professional for names familiar to many in the industry, including Tenneco, Kerr McGee, Anadarko, Sandridge, Cimarex and most recently Coterra Energy. He’s worked onshore and offshore, domestically and internationally. As you’re reading this, Stuart is but a few days away from well-deserved retirement. 

No better time than this to recognize his influence.

An ambassador is a “diplomatic agent of the highest rank.” Great influence in matters of safety and health requires the combination of great advice and great diplomacy. As a great influencer I first met upwards of fifty years ago, Charlie Hale, explained influence to me, “You can be dead right, but you’ll still be dead.”

Our Peter Robison nominated Stuart for the award. “As a consultant, it’s been my privilege to have worked with Stuart over the last decade, getting to watch him in action. Having spent twenty-nine years in this industry, working for Texaco and Shell, I’ve seen plenty of Stuart’s industrial peers in action. I can tell you that there are a special few who go above and beyond their professional duties: the ones making a real and meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Stuart is one of them. He’s been a wonderful mentor to leaders in the industry. He lives the safety leadership tools we teach, and I am confident he’ll be leaving a legacy for current and future leaders.”

Stuart, left and Coterra Energy CEO Tom Jorden on the right.

I’ve known and worked for Stuart for the better part of two decades and I can’t think of anyone in the profession more deserving of this recognition. When I presented him the award, his colleagues – peers and executives – shared that same sentiment. 
I’ve never heard a better testimonial to the contribution to safety made by a staff member, and can think of no better way to celebrate the end of a career.
Something for the rest of us to strive for.
Paul Balmert
July 2022

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