This article was previously published in the May 2014 issue of Safety+Health magazine.
Three years ago, the first baby boomers reached retirement age, officially launching the demographic shift that will change the workforce as we know it. But it is not just a shortage of people that is driving change; it is a shortage of skills. In safety, the skills gap is projected to be sizeable – by some estimates, there will be as many as two new positions for every qualified safety professional entering the workforce. While safety professional recruitment, development and retention are high priorities for organizations now, executive education will be especially critical to safety talent strategy.
Executive education typically involves intensive instruction in core business knowledge and skills, such as finance, marketing and organizational change. Education around safety is relatively rare, but that is changing. Among organizations that strive to make safety integral to their culture and identity, it’s no longer enough that executives have good intentions. They must also have the competencies to drive safety strategy effectively.
While senior leaders don’t need to have the expertise of a Certified Safety Professional, they do need to know how to establish and communicate their safety vision. They must know how to engage in-field leaders, model safety leadership, and guarantee consistent actions across the organization. They need to ensure the resources (including selection, promotion and staffing) and support the actions associated with desired safety culture. Currently, few companies have a formal way for operational leaders to develop these and other critical safety leadership competencies.
In addition to supporting safety advancement, there are a number of reasons why executive education will be especially important in today’s environment. Among them:
- Operational leaders are accountable for safety
Safety is no longer just the “safety department’s job” If safety is to be a defining characteristic of an organization’s mission and culture, that expertise must be extended to leaders with strategic oversight. Executives need training that equips them to guide the organization in limiting risks, creating opportunities, and improving safety and organizational functioning. In turn, safety professionals supported by well-educated leaders will be better enabled to focus on running safety processes and programs that roll up to the greater strategy.
- Safety drives high-performance cultures
Safety has long had a natural partnership with healthy culture. Organizations that do better in safety tend to have higher levels of employee commitment, satisfaction, performance, and discretionary effort. They also see lower levels of turnover, absenteeism, and stress—all critical to attracting and retaining talent. By virtue of their position, executives are key to creating the culture change and safety performance that helps achieve and sustain these results even as their organization experiences change.
- Safety can help organizations become more agile
In addition to the talent shortage, organizations are contending with an unprecedented level of change on other areas. Increasingly globalized workforces and supply chains, growing competition for natural resources, heightened public concern over social and environmental impacts, and mounting government and regulatory intervention will all require sophistication in executing change. The change management disciplines that safety has established over the past 30 years are highly transferable to other goals, such as sustainability and operational excellence. Executives with fluency in safety practices and principles will be better able to navigate these challenges and lead their organizations into the future.
Executive education is not a quick fix. Coursework must be rigorous and focused on role-specific disciplines and competencies. At a minimum, executives must be able to demonstrate knowledge in a handful of critical areas, including addressing exposure, behavior analysis, the hierarchy of controls, and safety data analysis. They must also be able to show fluency in competencies such as communication, safety strategy, risk response and directing people in safety.
Smarter talent strategy
Safety leaders today are contending with a shifting safety landscape and intense demand for safety talent. The solution requires more than better recruitment. It will take intentional and intensive action to draw out the talent already within the organization.