The More Things Change

“We must acknowledge where we have fallen short and recognize the critical need for change”
     ~Board Chair Michael Wilson
If you are of the mind that the top executive in a company has an unlimited supply of power, you should check out what recently happened at the Canadian oil sands producer Suncor. The company’s safety record was poor; not surprisingly, so was their business performance. Studies conducted in the energy industry have proved a positive correlation between safety excellence and shareholder returns: good safety is indeed good for business. 
Earlier this year, a high-profile activist investor with a significant position in the company was pressing for a change in performance – and top leadership. They notified the board of their dissatisfaction, citing “missed production goals, high costs, and safety failures.” As to those safety failures, the headline would read, “A Dozen Fatalities in Eight Years.”
As compelling a case for performance change as I’ve seen. Three years ago, the current CEO was brought in with the mission to turn things around. Regrettably, nothing much changed for the good. There was a fatality early in the year, and, in late May, another one. The CEO stepped down the next day.
Cases like this one are hardly unprecedented. Last year, at another global mining company, the CEO and two top executives agreed to resign after their company literally blew up the most significant archeological site on the continent of Australia. You can rest assured the three did not want either of those two events to happen. But members of their middle management oversaw the planting of the explosives, and detonation created such a shockwave of public outrage their board had no choice but to ask them to leave.
You might think that a CEO leads with an unlimited supply of power, as if, as the old saying goes, “Your wish is my command.” In reality, every top executive faces the Accountability Dilemma, just as does every manager and supervisor: having a limited supply of control and influence over performance, while being totally accountable for performance.
That is a dilemma.
Still, there is no getting around what I have come to call the Great Paradox of Safety: while every follower wants to be safe, followers work only as safely as their leaders cause them to. No matter what the details of the story at Suncor are, this is a story about a leadership failure. As to the principal victims of this leadership failure, they are the good people working for the company. 
They deserve better.
The Second Edition
In the long hot summer of 2022, no doubt you’ve been preoccupied with supply chain disruptions, soaring costs, staffing shortages, and perhaps even a quiet quit or two. Good luck with that. Leading never gets any easier. As for me, my summer was spent crouched over my laptop, writing a second edition of Alive And Well. Too late to wish me good luck with that. The manuscript is complete and in the publisher’s hands. Well, to be precise, in their computer. If all goes well, the Second Edition of Alive And Well will be on the bookstands soon.
Everybody should write a book, because everybody has an interesting story to tell. The story just needs to be told in an interesting way, which really is the essence of writing a book worth reading. Do not tell me you’re too old to start writing: my father wrote three books after turning eighty-five. Or that you cannot type. One of my best friends forever is good pals with an author you might have heard of: James Patterson. Of course, we knew him back in high school when he was just Jimmy, a teammate on our golf team. Nobody’s written more books than has James: his manuscripts are written in longhand on yellow note pads.
If you decide to try your hand at being an author, do check in with me first. I won’t try to talk you out of it – au contraire, you’ll get an enthusiastic endorsement – but I will give you some advice as to the process: no sense making the same mistakes I have. Writing is tough enough.
As to my second edition, you might wonder why one was needed. Wasn’t the first book good enough, you ask. That was exactly what I asked my editor: full disclosure: this was not my idea of a good idea. She finally convinced me that it was time to revisit and rewrite. 
So I did: a lot of both.
The second edition has the same twenty-two chapters, but they’re not identical; two are renamed. Between the covers are the same safety leadership practices found in the first edition. My view of the fundamentals of safety leadership is that times change but people are, and always will be, people. We people are not naturally inclined to work very safely; hence the critical need for safety leadership: good leaders practicing good safety leadership.
But what I will tell is that, after another decade of teaching, talking, reading, writing and listening to leaders the world over, there is so much more to the second edition. More tools; more great ideas from leaders I’ve gotten to know and have seen in action; a better description of the practices and how they work and why they work. More practical ideas for the front-line leader; more advice for managers and top executives. All three levels are the audience for the book.
In terms of the telling, I will be the first to tell you my writing skills needed improvement. They’ve gotten better; someday they might even be good. On the other hand, there are more safety leadership failures found in headline making events to be examined. It seems the same mistakes are made, over and over. What did Einstein observe about that: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, expecting a different result.”
Which brings us back to where we started: a failure to substantially change safety performance across a large industrial enterprise. 
Not My Problem?
You may well be a front-line leader, who’s reading this story and thinking, “Who cares? I don’t work there, I’m not a CEO, and this is definitely not my problem.” No, you don’t, and, no, you aren’t. More than a few readers of the NEWS are top executives. No, this isn’t your problem. But, no matter who you are, please consider the problem.
A good friend and colleague, Bill Wilson, likes to quote Charles Kettering: “A problem well defined is a problem half solved.” This problem is clearly one of culture and organization power, wrapped together. The problem wasn’t solved; if it had, we’d be reading a press release advertising the financial benefits of a performance turnaround to shareholders. Wouldn’t that be nice.
You might question my definition of their problem: without knowing any of the facts, how can you be sure the problem is one of culture and organization power? 

Fair enough. We know the safety problems must be widespread: otherwise, the problem area would have simply been excised: if not fixed, sold or closed down. It goes without saying the CEO and his management team were highly motivated to make a step change in safety performance, and it is clear there was not one forthcoming. That goes to the heart of organization power: the inability of the CEO to make his will a reality.
What can’t be determined from here is this: did the executives have a brilliantly conceived plan, and simply fail to execute it well? Or did they “round up the usual suspects” thinking the same old same old will do the trick? To find that out, we may have to wait to read the memoirs of the former leader. 
By way of comparison, retired CEO Jeffrey Immelt published his side of the story on what went wrong on his watch at GE. I suspect he blamed the culture….or his lack of power.
About Culture and Power
Fresh from writing – and rewriting – chapters on culture and organization power, this edition of the news could easily run thirty pages. I will spare you that pain and offer two observations about the road to ruin. Both involve misunderstanding.
Almost seventy years ago, Peter Drucker described culture as “the spirit of the organization.” Drucker was a brilliant man – and very practical. Except in this case. Seems like ever since Drucker pointed management in that direction, leaders the world over have been chasing culture as if it were the three ephemeral spirits who showed up in the middle of the night at Ebeneezer Scrooge’s bedside. Good luck chasing them down, because you will need a basketful, and then some, just to find them. 
If you should be so lucky, all you have to do is to change their collective minds.
That misunderstanding is big enough, but the second one is even bigger: thinking culture can be changed from the corner office at world headquarters. Really?
As to how that change might be undertaken and executed: by letters, speeches, posters, videos, change management consultants and meetings. Does anyone really think that’s how an organization culture gets changed?
Apparently, yes.
The Last Word
One last question: If you’re a front-line leader reading this edition of the News, you do understand the safety culture is what’s staring you in the face every single day, and nobody’s in a better position than you to change things for the better, right?
Paul Balmert
August 2022

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