For years, safety professionals have whinged about their profession and their skills not receiving the attention of Chief Executive Officers and board members. They take some solace in the occasional missive that executives understand leadership and, by extension, safety leadership but the reality is that OHS professionals do not understand CEOs.
CEOs are Olympian Gods and OHS professionals live amongst the crowd of citizens in the valleys. Occasionally a God will go slumming and have sex with one of us but it does not mean that they respect us or, even that they will remember our name. If we are lucky, they may remember that we were welcoming.
CEO attitudes were discussed in the Australian Financial Review on 21 May 2010, in an article about corporate governance (page 6, not available online). The article lists the “Top 10 characteristics of an exceptional non-executive director” according to Don Argus, the recently departed chairman of BHP Billiton, a company that is not renown as a beacon of safety management. Argus has had a glory run in the media since he announced his departure from BHP Billiton.
Argus’ list includes
- ” Brings a depth of experience to the board with some knowledge of the industry involved.
- Is a team player who leaves their ego at the door.
- Is an industry advisor, able to challenge as well as support.
- Is articulate in communication and a good listener.
- Is committed and prepared.
- Has a sharp mind and good judgement.
- Is visionary, creative and passionate about business.
- Can build strong relationships and act as an ambassador.
- Is self-confident without being dogmatic.
- Is prepared to enrich their contribution through feedback.”
This morning a press statement was released by “CEO succession planning experts TalentInvest“. The statement, designed to sell a new book, identified “8 key characteristics that cause even the most talented company executives to derail in their careers.” Those characteristics are
- “Allowing strengths to become liabilities
- Misjudging people and relationships
- Underestimating the complexity of challenges
- Not facing up to reality
- Recovering too slowly after a setback
- Failing to reflect, learn and adapt
- Ignoring flaws or feedback about those flaws
- Sticking too long with the wrong team”
Combining these two lists of characteristics seems to provide a good checklist for the preparation of a position description for the leader of any organisation. They also provide a good audit list to check the performance of an incumbent.
Safety professionals are rarely, if ever, going to get a legitimate seat at the board table. We will never sit with the Gods. But occasionally we may cause a God to stay and have breakfast with us after their visit. We may even be able to engage them in conversation. This could occur for the lucky few but most Gods will return to Olympus in a post-coital glow, perhaps remembering the pillow talk of the safety professional and such glib marketing phrases as “Zero Harm” or “Safety is our number one priority”.
Will sleeping with a God improve the status of the safety profession? Unlikely. In some ways the safety profession could best be satisfied by facing this reality and achieving whatever it can, when it can. Perhaps the profession should stop looking towards Olympus and start looking around at the citizens it was supposed to be looking after in the first place.