Faces of EHS, Safety Culture

Faces of EHS: Shawn Galloway on Valuing and Prioritizing Safety

Shawn M. Galloway is CEO of the global consultancy, ProAct Safety. Shawn’s consulting clients include most of the best safety-performing organizations within every major industry. He is a trusted advisor, professional speaker, and author of several bestselling books on safety strategy, culture, leadership, and employee engagement.

ProAct Safety was established in 1993 to help individuals and organizations transform their performance and culture. Their efforts, concentrating on strategy, culture, leadership and employee engagement, have helped their clients to regularly outperform their industry peers, year after year.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Shawn to discuss his journey into EHS, the future of the industry, and how safety should be both a value and a priority.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

I’m one of those “I fell into it” people. I did not set out to become a safety professional; my first career trajectory was toward the intelligence community. After the military, college, and the opportunity to work abroad, I was recruited to help start up a new service offering for Fluor Daniel called Photogrammetry. Working inside client industrial plants and constantly interfacing with OSHA’s PSM standard, which was only a few years old, I found something that interested me.

However, being on the compliance side of safety, I realized that it wasn’t my passion. When I was recruited to oversee the consulting division of ProAct Safety in 2005 (we also had an enterprise software division that we divested in 2009), I indeed found my calling. A series of promotions moved me through Vice President, Consulting Services, and in 2009, promoted to President, COO. With our founder Terry L. Mathis’ retirement in July 2021, I advanced into the position of CEO. I am privileged to serve as a trusted advisor to hundreds of companies across all major industries in their efforts to improve continuously. At 18, feeling bulletproof, trained, and ready for combat, had you told me that I’d be interviewed one day about my contributions to occupational safety, I’d have thought you were crazy!

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

For over 15 years, I’ve been heavily involved in creating and executing strategies to shape both safety performance and safety culture. Before quickly identifying patterns of what leads to success or compromises strategy execution, on one early project, I didn’t push hard enough for several vital senior executives to be involved in setting the strategic framework for this European-based corporation. I allowed myself to be convinced by the safety executive that their involvement wasn’t necessary for this culture. There was complete trust in what the safety leadership decided. Plus, the lower-level operational leaders who participated would have keen insight into areas where the safety strategy might conflict. Lastly, we would have full support because safety was already part of the company’s values. We did come up with a great three-to-five-year strategic roadmap.

Over the following years, acquisitions, some reduction in force events, leadership movement across businesses, new product launches, and what would seem like straightforward decisions to improve production yield and quality all seemed to conflict with the safety vision, priorities, and initiatives. As this conflict became growingly visible, we were able to get back together and recast the strategy. Many of us have heard Peter Drucker’s advice, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I developed a follow-up to that, and business strategy will eat the safety strategy all day long. Safety strategy should never be set solely by safety leadership. Without input and ownership of operational leaders, there will be a point of conflict down the road. The safety and business strategy should complement and support each other, not compete. 

Q: What’s your favorite part about working in the industry?

My favorite part is working with so many diverse global organizations, helping them find breakthrough improvement opportunities, and seeing the light bulb go off when I had successfully challenged their assumptions and helped mature their safety excellence thinking. In 2012, I had the privilege to keynote at the first safety conference in Azerbaijan. Seeing leaders across businesses in this country for the first time and having a purposeful and candid discussion about occupational safety was one of my proudest moments. It led to my mission statement: To continuously challenge the thinking on what is and what isn’t excellence in safety.

My least favorite part is when organizations hire me that, despite having complete confidence in their culture and their safety system capacity to deal with the hazards and risks as work is performed, experience a tragedy. I dive passionately into my role to help determine what led to the event and how to recover. Projects where lives were recently altered or lost take an emotional toll on even the most stoic individual.

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

Well, it first has to become a priority. I still see many people arguing, should safety be a priority or value? It has to be both, but organizations must prioritize safety before it can be part of a standard belief system, a value. When we say things like safety is a value, this is meaningless unless we have determined what beliefs and behaviors make it so. It prompts our day-to-day decisions, including hiring for and, unfortunately, firing for our values.

In many companies where they believe safety is a core value, if you look at operational or production decisions, the workforce sometimes feels safety is more situational than a core value. You can still find these issues in my work advising many of the best safety-performing organizations. It is a constant challenge where some days you gain ground, others you lose ground. To make safety a core value, identify the most critical beliefs and behaviors, hold leaders accountable to their roles and responsibilities to create the necessary employee experiences and resulting storytelling that, over time, makes these desired beliefs and behaviors common throughout the culture. 

Q: Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

In 2015, I wrote a book called, Forecasting Tomorrow: The Future of Safety Excellence. Within it, I made seven predictions that I am seeing all become more common today: How we frame excellence will evolve, more companies will focus on strategy rather than the next program, operational leaders will take on more ownership of safety, the safety profession or safety department will evolve from being perceived as a grunt to a guardian to the guru/subject matter expert within their company, safety consulting will evolve more towards individual needs and away from consulting pre-packaged methodologies, safety programs will change the focus away from viewing employees as the problem to problem solvers and customers and consumers of the safety efforts, and finally, safety metrics will move away from lagging and activity-based to measuring sustainable value.

Suppose I was to add to these trends continuing to become true, I’d offer a visible increase in the use of A.I., robotics, virtual reality, better understanding and utilization of data, greater partnerships between safety and business leaders to improve the overall company, not just safety communication, collaboration, teamwork and trust.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

There will be less talk about safety culture as a standalone concept. Safety culture is only an aspect of occupational or company culture. There have been countless times where I have seen organizations working diligently and intelligently improve safety culture while not maturing company culture. Sometimes these companies are not yet ready for this conversation, as safety culture is still a trendy topic. For real, lasting improvement, don’t just improve safety communication, trust with safety processes and professionals, and perceptions about what management is doing with safety efforts; work to strengthen what would be cultural strengths universally across the business.

Being a realist, I understand this evolution will most likely occur only with mature organizations. Despite all the societal progress made, some companies still have a long way to go. This is why I do what I do, continuing to challenge paradigms around our occupation and nudging leaders to believe in a bold new vision of what would be possible if only we created an alignment of a new future and our efforts to achieve it across the business.

Q: What are you most proud of?

The late coach John Wooden said, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” I’m proud of the accomplishments of our team at ProAct Safety. We have worked hard and pioneered many new strategies, tools, and methodologies. I’m proud that we have positively affected how people think about safety and their role in affecting performance and culture. I’m most proud when I hear stories of employees who have shared at home with their friends and family what they learn about safety at work. To have just played a small role in this is such a reward.

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Be purposeful about what kind of safety professional you would like to be. No one will owe you employment. You have to demonstrate new value every day. As a coach to many safety professionals, here are some questions to reflect on:

1. Why do you want to serve others in this profession?

2. What industry or industries do you want to provide value to and why?

3. What experiences and education do you need to pursue or obtain to become the type of leader you want to be?

4. Five years from now, as you invest in your professional development, how will you be perceived by company leadership, the workforce, your peers in the profession, and your family?

5. What are your most important roles and responsibilities to create these perceptions?

6. How will you track your progress and hold yourself accountable?

Ask and answer these questions, and you will be off to a great start.

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