Neil Lennox, group head of safety and insurance at Sainsbury’s, provides seven tips on the skills you need, and which to look out for, when recruiting OSH influencers.
With 69 competencies divided into 12 areas in technical, core and behavioural categories, the recently updated IOSH competency framework covers all the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed by OSH professionals. In the first of a series, we look at influencing, and how to attract the best influencers of the future.
1. Sales skills
I have a degree in engineering, but I started my career in sales and marketing and I see safety as an extension of that. As OSH professionals, we’re selling a concept or an idea: a way of working for people at shop floor level, or a way of risk management for people at board level. That means technical knowledge alone isn’t always enough. In our last few rounds of recruiting, I’ve taken people from inside the organisation who know it well and who have some passion for safety. They might not know everything, but they have the right kind of skills to engage people in our business. It’s often easier to give them the underpinning knowledge through safety qualifications and training than it is to teach somebody how to coach, influence or really couch things so they fit into the business framework.
2. Look beyond the answers
By themselves, interviews can be a relatively poor indicator of people’s ability to do the job. How can you gauge somebody’s suitability for the job for the next 40 years when you interview them for just an hour? Like most businesses, we use a competency-based framework for our hiring processes. We will formulate
open-ended questions such as ‘Tell me about a time when you...’ But beyond the answers that candidates give, we look at the way the answers are given, how candidates present themselves, how animated they become, and what language they use.
3. Understand persuasion
There is a need for people to acquire commercial skills and deliver their message in business language. So when recruiting, I look for people who can persuade me about something: can they sell an idea? And then, when challenged, they must be able to make the argument for why things are done that way. They must be able to consider things, adapt and come from a different angle.
4. Provide options
Of course, there is a danger in being too agreeable and you have to know where you draw the line. However, the vast majority of safety legislation these days is risk- and judgement-based. We are often asked by business leaders: is it okay for us to do this? We then have to make a judgement call and share the pros and cons of any potential decisions. If it means they are taking on a risk and should something go wrong they might end up being prosecuted or fined, then that’s a business risk they have to weigh up. We shouldn’t necessarily say: ‘No you can’t do that.’ We should be able to appreciate that saying ‘no’ might also come with a cost at a business level, then provide information to help leaders understand the risks.
How to... Wield influence in the workplace
- Step out of your comfort zone a little bit: get involved in projects outside of your normal day job that aren’t directly involved in safety.
- Do a secondment to a different part of the business, even if it’s only for a day or a week. Get time out on the shop floor, do work shadowing or job sharing – really get a feel for how the different parts of your business work so you can actually understand the impact of the decisions you make.
- Take a management training course. Management accounting or anything that is on the MBA syllabus is worthwhile.
- If you can’t take a course, read management theory books and watch YouTube videos such as TED talks. These will help you use the language of business rather than the language of safety.
5. Right language, right time
There is a difference between being an influencer on the shop floor and in the boardroom. In the boardroom, we have to be able to explain why it’s important that we invest or change the way we do things. It’s about selling a message and being able to answer questions. Then, if you get told ‘no’, think about repackaging the argument differently.
On the shop floor, OSH professionals are usually trying to overcome a barrier that means somebody isn’t doing something. We need to be able to explain, simply and succinctly, why it’s important that staff follow the rules. At that level, it’s more of a coaching role, trying to explain why it’s important something is done that way. But we must also listen to the challenges staff might have. It’s easy to be dismissive of those doing the job who don’t understand safety, but they understand how the job is done.
6. Tact and diplomacy
Using language carefully is vital; it’s worth developing a coaching style or skill-set. Instead of telling people off, try asking why they are doing things the way they are. What is it that they expect to happen? Why aren’t they following procedures? Do they understand the risks? It’s also worth looking at the way they’ve done something and, if it’s not causing extra risk, think about taking it on board.
7. Empathy, experience and authority
Only in the past 10 years perhaps have people started to make OSH their career choice. While that is great, the direct link of people going from the shop floor into OSH is becoming lost. There is a real benefit in being able to say: ‘I’ve operated that, I know what the pressures are like.’ I make a point of including ex-store or department managers on my team because they know what it’s like to run a shop and the pressures that colleagues are under. Then, with the right OSH training, they can support their case with technical authority.
IOSH competency framework
The recently updated IOSH competency framework has been designed to help OSH professionals build capability and keep pace with rapid change in the workplace. It’s a useful reference tool for recruiting and developing individuals or a team.
To find out more, visit iosh.com/competencyframework
About our expert
Neil Lennox is Sainsbury’s group head of safety and insurance, and a non-executive director of the Parliamentary Safety Advisory Board. Neil also represents the CBI as a judge on the RoSPA Awards panel.