EHS Career Trends/Certification

A Seat for Safety in the C-Suite

Safety professionals know how important their jobs are, but they are also familiar with the frustrations of pursuing management buy-in for their programs. Regina McMichael, CSP, CET, says it’s time for safety pros to take their seats alongside decision makers at the top of their organizations.

Safety executive

NorthernStock / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Some EHS professionals have found their way into the C-suite already, but is it enough? “Probably not,” says McMichael. “It is somewhat difficult to accurately measure the presence of safety pros in the boardroom because the title ‘Chief Safety Officer’ means different responsibilities in different companies and industries. Some of these professionals sit at the table with top executives. I have met others with impressive titles who do not have that level of influence.”

Safety is personal for McMichael, who is president of The Learning Factory and has 28 years of experience as an expert in the field. When she was 20 years old, she received the call that her husband had died after falling from a roof at a jobsite. McMichael says that was the day her safety career started, and she went from planning her husband’s funeral to investigating his accident, then using her workers’ compensation benefit to earn her university degree in safety. McMichael would later participate in the writing of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fall protection guidelines that could have prevented her husband’s death, and she is a strong proponent of safety’s voice being heard at the highest levels of business.

“I do believe there are more EHS professionals being consulted by the C-suite, frequently before making decisions that have a business impact,” says McMichael. “But suffice it to say, there is plenty of room for more of that consultative opportunity.”

Know Who’s Who at Your Company

It would be great if there was a one-size-fits-all approach to determine which executives the safety chiefs should focus their attention on to maximize management buy-in—but there isn’t.

“It’s different in every company,” McMichael says. “I coach EHS professionals to carefully determine where they should exert their influence. We need to evaluate who in the C-suite most supports our efforts. It could be the CEO [chief executive officer], CFO [chief financial officer], or someone else.”

This makes it very important for safety managers and directors to take the time to learn their company’s business inside and out, including a knowledge of how its particular C-suite culture functions. McMichael says that with this knowledge, safety leaders can best decide whom (and how) they should influence to promote safety and health to the fullest.

“I caution our industry to not make assumptions on who they should influence,” warns McMichael. “If you can connect financial savings to a safety initiative, the CFO might become your biggest supporter. If you can connect safety to product quality or production, you may have found support with the head of operations!”

Talking the Talk

Just as it is with safety itself, communication is key to success when navigating the C-suite as a safety pro. “We must be able to talk about business the way the C-suite does,” McMichael emphasizes. “We need to speak their language—not try to teach them ours. The moral imperative of protecting the health and safety of all workers is always our goal, but if we don’t tie that to an improved business outcome, we are just making it harder for our industry to be successful.”

Some of the concepts that safety pros should be prepared to talk about when they find their seat at the boardroom table include cost benefit analysis and return on investment (ROI) in order to properly make financial proposals to executives. Basic business courses can help, as can mentoring from fellow leaders.

“I recommend asking the CFO for coaching (if the C-suite culture supports that concept),” says McMichael. “We also must be able to write and speak the corporate language. If you are not sure what that means in the company, again, seek out a mentor at the executive level who can help you.”

Tips for the C-Suite Safety Pro

Safety professionals must adapt quickly once they have gained a spot in the C-suite and earned the attention of their company’s executives and decision makers. McMichael describes three strategies that can be particularly helpful.

  • Once you get there, act like you belong there. Pick up on the corporate culture, and use it to your advantage. “Use their language and learn how they want to give and receive information at these meetings,” advises McMichael. “Do they have long meetings with long presentations and lots of data, or are they succinct where reports and discussions are brief and to the point? Do they want just big picture updates, or do they want to hear about your specific plan for improvement?”
  • Look the part. McMichael admits that this recommendation rankles some EHS professionals since it may be a very different work environment for them. “Even if an EHS professional is doing a great job on the factory floor or in the field, the executive team might not appreciate your work boots tracking in mud or chemical residue to the corporate office,” McMichael says. “Proving you can get dirty on the job doesn’t get you that seat, so if the corporate way is suits and dress shoes, then you may need to invest in those for the times you are sitting at the table.” Even if it seems a bit superficial or perhaps ingenuine, McMichael urges safety pros to keep their eyes on the prize. “Keep the end game in mind and acknowledge that sometimes we must play by a different set of rules than we are used to if we want to influence change.”
  • Actively demonstrate how you are part of the team. “In some organizations or industries safety is seen as a separate silo that costs money, time, and energy to comply,” McMichael points out. “Be prepared to show that safety can be profitable, lead to efficiencies, and can actually save the company from huge financial, public relations, or quality failures.”

The final point above reminds McMichael of a safety colleague of hers who had a seat in his company’s C-suite and was able to prove both his worth to the executive team as well as highlight safety’s importance to the overall success of the company.

“The executives came to him for his perspective on buying another company as part of their business expansion plan,” explains McMichael. “This company looked like a great buy in many ways. But after a careful review, the EHS professional pointed out that the potential acquisition’s EMR [experience modification rate] was just high enough that when averaged with their organization’s current EMR, it would limit their opportunity to bid on projects within the company’s current appetite for work. Obviously, they did not buy that company—but it was the business-savvy safety professional who derived that critical piece of information!”

Safety on the Rise

When it comes to EHS making an impact on decision making at the highest levels of business, McMichael is optimistic for the future. “It is definitely getting better every day!” she says. “Many EHS professionals go back to school for advanced courses in business to make them better at communicating with the C-suite.” Many university programs in safety are also offering business courses, sometimes requiring them for graduation.

“But most importantly, I see this topic of discussion on the agenda for many of my clients and the profession as a whole,” notes McMichael. “Both the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) certifications and International Network of Safety & Health Practitioner Organisations’ (INSHPO) OHS Professional Capability Framework recognize the need for business acumen in our industry if we wish to grow as a profession and as a part of the business decision-making process.”

Regina McMichaelJoin Regina McMichael for her general session Getting a Seat at the C-Suite: What Every Safety Pro Should Know at the EHS Daily Advisor’s Safety Summit 2018, taking place April 16–18 at SeaWorld Orlando, Florida!

Register Now