Here are five key attributes that every EHS professional needs to possess to have sustainable success in their organization and career.
In an article published in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?,” the author explores the difference between “leadership” and “management.” “It takes neither genius nor heroism to be a manager,” he wrote, “but rather persistence, tough-mindedness, hard work, intelligence, analytical ability and perhaps most important, tolerance and goodwill.” Granted, one would be hard pressed to deny that these are not admirable qualities, but it is doubtful that these qualities would ever deliver sustainable EHS performance in a complex and dynamic organization.
Over the past 25 years of my career, I've spent most of my time working in local and corporate level positions striving to improve EHS process and performance. Over the years, I discovered that organizations best optimize their efforts when they provide strong well-balanced leadership. Strong and well-balanced meaning that it does not lie strictly on a regulatory focus, but considers employee capability and capacity, the management team, employee behavior and supportive system tools. Better said, it’s our ability as EHS professionals to extend leadership out into the organization to drive positive and sustainable compliance, handle crisis, develop strategy, influence management and change culture. The dividing line between managing these things and leading them is literally measured by the ability to affect others with a sense of purpose and urgency.
How many attributes does a leader need to have to be successful? A fair assumption is that a successful leader will have many attributes in varying degrees of understanding and execution. Often, leadership is developed over time and in many cases, it is due to the complexity of the circumstance at hand. We have all heard that “leaders are not born, they are made.” That is not to say we are to wait until crisis to learn a specific leadership skill, but to be prudent in mapping out expected encounters and developing from there.
Looking at the role of a EHS professional, I believe there are five key attributes that every EHS professional needs to possess to have sustainable success in their organization and career.
The Visionary Leader is transformational. There is a difference between a visionary, a vision and a visionary leader. A visionary is someone who sees the future and can articulate it with great inspiration. A vision is taking what one sees and using those ideas, crafts a message into simple language that gives direction. A visionary leader, on the other hand, is a combination of both. It is easy to understand the role of a visionary and a vision, but to be successful the visionary leader brings vision to fruition with specific strategies, achievable goals and actions that extend far into the organization through wide participation. Maybe the best way to describe it is that for the EHS professional, success is best experienced as a visionary leader when we can move organizational energy to a higher level by setting a clear vision of what is possible, and then transmitting that energy to the people who work in our organizations to deliver it.
The Supportive Leader is usually discussed as leading within a situational model. The model focuses on the idea that when there are differing levels of organizational competency and capacity, some people will have a level of unwillingness to connect with the process, thus requiring our reaction. The ability of a leader to pull them back into process is critical to success. Early in my career when I was a facility-level EHS leader, I noticed that my facility usually could meet EHS performance expectations year-after-year, but always seemed to fall short of having step-change improvement that would take us from good to great.
My conclusion was that while I had much of the employee population involved and participating, there was a small minority of those that remained outside of active EHS engagement. These were simply outliers. Author Malcolm Gladwell defined an outlier as “one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs.” Applying this thinking, there’s a great probability that many of us have outliers residing in our organizations in two distinct groups, both positive and negative. A positive outlier is an employee that produces and goes above the expectations of what is required. The best way to sustain a positive outlier is to simply recognize and appreciate them. A negative outlier on the other hand, is an organizational challenge. They are usually the small group of employees that work to disrupt collaboration and pay little attention to the organizations values, its vision, or its goals for success.
The danger of allowing such negative outliers to reside in the work system is that it fosters acceptance within the organization and over time, it will grow as much as the organization enables the behavior. In my time as the facility EHS leader, I took initiative quickly to support and leverage involvement from everyone. I established an EHS management process that required every employee to own part of the EHS process. Simply, supportive leadership is the ability to gain active involvement and participation from all members within the work system.
The Affiliative Leader is another attribute closely related to supportive leadership. It is the ability of the EHS professional to bring together groups of people when team building is important. While I do not believe this style can be used alone, there is plenty of evidence to support that our ability to leverage collaboration and teamwork is a pivotal leadership attribute to a well-balanced and sustainable EHS process. It's the ability to take a management dependent or independent workforce to one of interdependence; where employees and leaders work together to both implement and promote a “values” based system that is built on the premise that ‘no-one gets hurt’ and that ‘injuries and incidents can be prevented’. When an interdependent culture is created, employees view EHS as a critical part of their role, not an adjunct to it, and they see themselves as the driving force behind the EHS process. A critical skill for the EHS professional is his or her ability to bring people together. We win or we lose, but we will do it together.
The Command Leader is a leadership style that over the years has fallen further and further out of favor within most organizational norms. Command leadership comes from an old military model and assumes that people need to be told what to do, and if you don’t tell them exactly how to do it, you’ll be disappointed in the results. Granted, most of us simply don't like this style of leadership, until, as most of us also know, crisis hits the organization. A large chemical spill, a fire, a serious injury or some other impending crisis and the EHS professional is suddenly thrust in the position of commander, regardless of the incident management structure. With that said, I believe there is reason to practice this leadership attribute outside of crisis. In my own career and I would venture a guess in many of yours, we’ve spent many hours owning our EHS process and its strategies in front of senior leaders responsible for making correct decisions. If you are like me, simply giving away the organizations EHS process was never an option because of my knowledge, skill and experience. Though more restrained than the military view of command and control, owning and effectively communicating with confidence an effective EHS management plan is paramount to long-term success.
The Competent Leader is the foundation to the success you desire. Competence alone cannot make a leader, but it can undo one. Competence doesn’t mean that a leader knows how to do everything, but rather knows what to do and how to get it done. A competent leader will know where their strengths and weaknesses lie and will then drive forward to fill the gaps. Socrates said the “one who clearly knows best what ought to be done will most easily gain the obedience of others.” In view of how I think of a EHS professional, I can’t agree more.
Throughout my career and on numerous occasions, I’ve been asked “how many people does it take to lead EHS?” My answer is always the same; “it is exactly the number of people that show up for work every day.” It’s the management team, production colleagues, the maintenance department, and every other person that impacts the organizations EHS process.
Business organizations are starving for effective and genuine leadership. Regardless of the organizational position of the EHS professional, we are all leaders, or at least should be. For some, the EHS professional has position power with great authority because of his or her knowledge and experience on the job. However, regardless to where we are in position or responsibility, we have a tremendous opportunity to influence the organization through effective EHS leadership.
As I mentioned, there are so many attributes of EHS leadership that should be considered purely from the understanding that every organization is different and has specific needs. However, after many years of working as a EHS and health practitioner, I cannot imagine not having these five attributes in my wheelhouse. For the EHS professional, it is not merely the doing that defines our worth, but it is that combined with thinking, aligning, developing and inspiring. It is leadership in action.
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Please click on these links to read some of Scott’s articles:
What you need to know about EHS auditing best practice
Laser-Focused Safety Vision
The 5 Basic Principles of HOP (Human and Organizational Performance)
Hear Scott’s thoughts about demonstrating the commitment to EHSQ here:
Top Management: Demonstrating Your Commitment to Safety
Scott Gaddis: A Leader Cares for Employee Health & Safety and the Protection of our Natural Resources
About the Author: Scott Gaddis, Vice President, Global Practice Leader, Safety and Health
Scott Gaddis, Vice President, Global Practice Leader, Safety and Health at Intelex Technologies. He has over 25 years in EHS leadership experience in heavy manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and packaging industries. Before joining Intelex, Scott served as Vice President of EHS for Coveris High Performance Packaging, was Executive Director of EHS at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and was Global Leader for Occupational Safety and Health at Kimberly-Clark Corp.
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