In 1992, I was pretty content to be a front-line supervisor in the airline industry. I enjoyed the job and working in an exciting industry. I certainly did not have any career ambitions to pursue a career in safety and health. That is until safety chose me. Like many others in the safety and health profession, I joined the ranks after a serious incident. I joined, knowing very little about safety. Today, 27 years later, I can’t say I’m an expert, but I have learned a great deal.
As I reflect on my entire work career, I recognize the importance of establishing a knowledge base. That base of knowledge comes mainly from knowing your stuff, the technical stuff. Adding certifications shows the world that you have attained a level of technical expertise. That expertise establishes credibility, which in turn opens doors to conversations and opportunities. However, to make a difference, to have an impact, we need soft skills and technical skills. In short, we need to be able to “sell safety.” To sell our abilities, to sell safety’s attributes and contributions to the success of the company.
To many people, the term “selling” or “sales” has a negative connotation, much like the word “safety.” The used car salesman conjures up a decidedly negative image. You’ve been “taken for a ride” when you “are sold a bill of goods.” The word “safety” conjures up images of the safety officer enforcing regulations, handing out disciplinary action for violations, and mandatory training.
Dale Carnegie said it best in describing selling, “Selling is about influencing someone to do something you want them to do, and the only way to do that is to find out what they want and show them how to get it.” Or in our case, find out what they want most and show them how safety and health can help them get it.
Here are a few things I have learned about soft skills and selling safety. It’s an approach that I have seen work for me and others. I offer no empirical data here, so feel free to comment, disagree or disregard.
For starters, selling safety is about making safety personal. When we make safety personal, we make a connection between safety and what they want most. When we think of making safety personal, we often think of family, friends, pets, etc., it’s the moral aspect of safety, but there is much more to making safety personal. For example, for the Director of Finance, reducing company expenses is personal. Showing the Director of Finance how safety can help reduce costs is making safety personal to the Director. Making safety personal will look different with every person in the organization and at every level.
There are three critical components to making safety personal:
- Vision; where are you going, and will they follow?
- Knowledge; know what they want and show them how to get it.
- Heart; lead with your heart.
These components can build on each other, or they can be standalone. Working on each part simultaneously is ideal but not necessary.
Vision – Where are you going and will they follow? When we think of characteristics of successful leaders, they lead with empathy, humility, and determination. They are passionate, persistent, and decisive. The most successful leaders have one more characteristic that sets them apart; they have a vision. They know where they are going. They know the key to managing a group of people is articulating a shared vision or goal that inspires their team to take action and work hard together.
Too often, we come up with cool-sounding slogans that we put on a banner and hang on a wall or emblazon on a tee shirt or our vehicles. We consider these slogans our vision, and we feel good about it because we have done something tangible. In reality, those banners begin to collect dust, the tee shirts fade, and soon the slogan becomes obsolete and eventually invisible. The slogans are not the problem. It’s our ability (or inability) to bring them to life. A sound vision that we bring to life connects with people emotionally, and emotionally connected teams will contribute.
Here are some thoughts on bringing your slogan or vision to life.
- Never, ever miss an opportunity to talk about your vision. Have an elevator pitch ready for those impromptu opportunities.
- Be able to explain how your vision contributes to the organization’s overall vision, mission, and strategy.
- Tell them ten times, ten different ways. I call it the 10×10 communication rule. Telling them with banners, emails, and in the safety meeting is not enough.
- Get someone else to talk about your vision. Your vision or message coming from a formal or informal leader is more powerful than your message coming from you.
If your banner with a slogan has been hanging on the shop wall for more than a few months, take it down or bring it to life.
So, you say you don’t have a vision. That’s ok. Start a vision ledger and document your thoughts and conversations with employees, managers, and leaders. Spend 10-15 minutes a week to review and jot down ideas or general thoughts. I bet that eventually, you will notice a common theme that you can build on.
Knowledge – Know what they want most. The only way to know what they want is to ask. That means we must be good conversationalists. To be a good conversationalist, we must be more interested than interesting. We must ask questions they enjoy answering. These questions will vary depending on who you are engaging. For example, you might ask an operations manager what they are held accountable for. If you are speaking with a front-line employee, you might ask what they are most proud of. Answers to these questions allow you to connect safety to something they want most.
Everyone at every level of the organization wants something specific to them. For example, the Director of Human Resources may want to increase employee engagement. The Brand Manager is likely to be keenly interested in protecting the brand. Knowing what they want most allows you to explain how safety and health can help them get it.
There are some “wants” that are universal. For example, we all want to be acknowledged or recognized for our contributions. Dale Carnegie spoke of the importance of recognition when he said, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Abilities wither under criticism; they blossom under encouragement.” Never miss an opportunity to recognize the smallest wins and the biggest wins. We often focus our recognition efforts on front-line employees, but the same holds for managers and leaders. If you have a leader who is a powerful ally, then recognize them as the “Safety Executive Leader” of the year.
Heart – Lead with your heart. In my presentations, I often use Mother Teresa as an example. She may not have known anything about management, finance or safety for that matter, but we all knew what was most important to her; the poor and not just the poor, the poorest of the poor. We knew that because she led with her heart. She was passionate, even enthusiastic about serving the poor. We like to be around passionate people. They are more positive and have a brighter view of the world and the future.
As a leader or safety professional, let your passion and enthusiasm for safety and health show. One more thing, smile. Smiling is a leadership characteristic. Safety is inherently negative at times, making it difficult for us to put on a smile. I believe if safety truly comes from your heart, you will smile. Smile because you know you are working in their best interest, working to send more people home safely every day so they can enjoy the things in life they love the best; families, hobbies, pets, etc. Additionally, you are contributing to the success of the organization.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we should smile or be enthusiastic after an incident. I am saying that we should talk about the benefits and contributions of our safety and health program. Talk about the incident as an opportunity to identify a breakdown in the process and make an improvement.
By the way, kindness in a leader creates a happier work environment and more loyal and committed employees who work harder and produce better work.
Continue to grow your technical skills. They help to establish your credibility. Not to mention it reflects positively on you and our profession. To up your level of contribution and make a difference, invest in your soft skills as well. Many organizations foster engagement by emphasizing purpose. You can too, by inspiring others through your vision. Knowing what they want most and showing them how to get it positions you as a value to the organization. Finally, let your passion and enthusiasm come through.