Building a career in safety and health management is a marathon not a sprint. The journey could take 40 years, but if you run even slightly off course for long enough, you will find yourself far from your intended destination.
To avoid looking back on a career and regretting either missed opportunities or a sense of not having reached their potential, practitioners have to map their professional routes.
Typically, there will be four to seven roles in this journey but, regardless of how many you fill in your career, safety and health is a niche area and opportunities will be limited. As a result, it is imperative that you invest time to know where you want to get to and ascertain some sense of the path.
This is not necessarily a time-consuming task but, if it's not scheduled, years can easily fly by without us stopping to reflect, assess and plan. Professionals undertake planning day in, day out for the companies they work for, but not always for themselves.
To address this, first define your goal; the clearer you can make it the better. What industry do you want to be in? What location? What size of team do you want to manage? You may even want to specify the companies you want to work for.
The seniority you aim for does not have to be the global director or head of department, which some feel is the definition of success. Not everyone is cut out for these roles and many of the happiest professionals are those who excel at being second in command or business unit leaders or those who have found satisfaction in a niche position in a big team. Whatever your goal, as the author Paulo Coelho put it in The Alchemist, "when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it".
The world changes and flexibility is key when setting goals. The role you set your sights on now may not exist when you reach the right level to take it on, but it is essential to know where you are aiming for at any point.
For most senior OSH leadership roles a solid technical background and qualifications are essential. But for many professionals safety and health is not their first career. This leads to the situation in which many people have qualifications from different fields and have to study again to secure the more senior positions.
Once you reach the point where you are applying for senior management roles, qualifications will probably not be critical. Until then, it is likely that they will play a big part.
The qualifications route to a senior leadership position will usually start with a qualification that gives you the ability to move towards chartered membership of IOSH. This could be a NEBOSH or NCRQ diploma, NVQ level 5, degree or equivalent. Each of these routes has a different learning regime that will suit different individuals' preference and time available. With one of these qualifications securing graduate membership and the path to chartered professional status can be mapped.
Talk to people who can help you in your organisation about your career goals and how you can build the necessary skills
It is then important to look again at your goal. What other qualifications will you require for the steps towards that position? What will set you apart from other candidates? What skills do you need to build? Should you broaden your experience with an environmental qualification? Look at the people who are in your target roles and companies now -- what qualifications and employment experience do they have? This information could give you a good steer.
The soft stuff
As the other career development articles in the February 2019 issue of IOSH Magazine emphasise, the ability to persuade, influence and achieve buy-in for OSH priorities from top management and the workforce are essential for any senior safety and health leader. These are also the skills that are in the highest demand and they distinguish the best candidates when applying and interviewing for senior management roles.
The two major questions candidates need to ask are: how do I identify where I need to improve? And how do I start to improve these skills and competencies?
IOSH's excellent competency mapping tool, IOSH Blueprint (bit.ly/2Cdv2eY), is described as helping practitioners to "review your current skills and knowledge while identifying gaps and the training needed to achieve your goals". It is an important free resource for anyone in safety and health and will help you to answer that first question about areas for improvement.
Once you have found your skills gaps, start with the easy wins. Talk to people in your organisation who can help you about your career goals and how you can build the necessary skills. You might find your HR department can help you to create a plan. It may also offer training courses or mentorship schemes. Many large organisations have programmes that develop future leaders. Find out whether yours does and how you can become involved.
Non-technical competencies are not solely work focused and most organisations will be interested in examples of how you have developed them outside the workplace. If you are involved in a sports club, charity or other organisation where you have a position of responsibility, make sure this is on your CV and highlight it in interviews.
Seek out a mentor, someone you admire, who is the kind of leader or manager you would like to be. They could offer valuable advice and support along the way and help with the challenges you face. The OSH profession is a friendly one and there are probably more people than you think out there willing to support you.
Mentoring is often easier to secure with longer tenure in an organisation, where you have time to get to know people throughout the business. The career paths of many of the most successful practitioners include a period of seven or more years with one organisation. In retrospect, such practitioners often describe this longer spell with an employer as critical because it allowed them not just the opportunity to find mentors but also to see the fruits of medium-term strategy and planning.
Once you have the skills, qualifications and experience, it is key that you put yourself in the right position to be identified for the senior roles and give yourself the best chance at interview. Two key ways to do this are to network and raise your profile. You can do this in many ways, by attending events, alumni meetings, IOSH conferences and branch events, for example.
Or you could connect with your existing network through coffee meetings and engage with a small number of trusted recruitment partners. This will give you an up-to-date understanding of the recruitment market for senior roles and perhaps an insight into jobs on offer.
Many companies will look to their most senior safety and health professionals to raise the profile of their organisation through talking about success or innovation across the industry. They will often look for examples of this in a candidate's career. This can be tricky to achieve if you are a number two, with a director already playing this role, but you can ask for opportunities as part of the organisation's development programme.
Finally, remember to allow for the fact that your plan may have to be flexible. Recession, redundancy, mergers and other factors beyond your control could knock you off course at some point. Having a positive mental attitude will translate these setbacks into learning opportunities and allow you to get back on course as soon as circumstances allow.