Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher became chief executive of IOSH on 1 August. We spoke to her about her plans to take IOSH forwards.
For Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher, every challenge represents an opportunity. And for those in the OSH profession, there will be plenty of opportunities in the years to come.
‘We are ready for it,’ says Vanessa. ‘And we will respond. We need to stretch the boundaries of what we do now.’
Vanessa has succeeded Bev Messinger as IOSH chief executive. Planning for the change in leadership to ensure a smooth transition took several months, and Vanessa is keen to ensure members continue to be fully supported throughout her tenure.
Uncertainty and changes in the business landscape, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, are among those challenges facing OSH professionals that can be turned into opportunities.
‘Think about where people work, the design of workplaces and the type of work people are doing,’ she says. ‘These things were always going to change, but they have been brought forward by the pandemic. As a profession, we have to adapt and focus on how we can support these changes.’
But there is much more, says Vanessa. ‘We are also facing changes brought about by technology, including the use of artificial intelligence in organisations. We need to understand the implications of humans interacting with different machines. There are big macro issues to consider, particularly in countries with ageing demographics. Whether for political or business reasons, people are staying in work longer, but this means there are more considerations around managing chronic illnesses or mental health problems.
‘And we have a societal change in terms of public attitudes to sustainability and the importance of doing good ethical business. Pulling these together, we need to stretch the boundaries of the profession, looking beyond being purist OSH professionals to much broader roles.’
Vanessa’s CV: A life in professional services
2017-2021 Director of professional services, IOSH
2013-2017 Director of learning, Association of Corporate Treasurers
2012-2013 Chief operating officer and interim chief executive, Association of MBAs
2010-2012 Managing director, Celodus Ltd
2005-2010 Director of corporate services, Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply
2003-2005 New Technology Institute centre manager, Coventry University
2001-2003 Product development manager, Chartered Management Institute
1999-2001 learndirect development manager, University for Industry
1993-1999 Economic Development, Education and Adult Learning project management, Greater Peterborough Chamber of Commerce, Training and Enterprise
Evolution, not revolution
Vanessa has already been closely involved in the developments within the OSH profession and at IOSH itself in recent years, having served as director of professional services since 2017.
Among her priorities in her new role is supporting the Board of Trustees, Council and presidential team with the development of IOSH’s new five-year strategy to succeed WORK 2022. Once agreed, she will be responsible for its delivery.
Vanessa says the fact she has become chief executive as an internal appointee plays a significant role in helping with continuity – and she says her focus is very much around ‘evolution, not revolution’.
‘The advantage of coming into the role as an internal is that I’m already party to development around the new strategy,’ she says. ‘So much success has come from WORK 2022. We’re now seen as a hugely credible operator on a global stage, our influence has increased substantially, we have clear professional standards and pathways for members, and the voice of the profession is being heard loud and clear in the boardroom, as well as with investors and regulators.
‘All of this, added to the pandemic situation and the focus on health, safety and wellbeing as businesses recover, means IOSH is in a supremely strong position to continue to influence on a global stage.’
Vanessa believes her time overseeing IOSH’s professional services, coupled with her previous experience at other professional bodies – including a spell as interim chief executive at the Association of MBAs – means she knows exactly what it takes for a professional body to be successful.
‘I started my management career early, just three years after completing my first degree, when I took on a general management role in a small charity that focused on providing educational opportunities in the local community. It was at this point that I got the bug for learning and this extended to seeing others develop.
‘This passion took me into the world of professional bodies, and I’ve held senior roles involving education and qualification activities, running commercial subsidiaries and policy and research, as well as my current role at IOSH. This breadth of experience has helped me understand what a good professional body looks like, and I’m delighted to be able to bring this into my new role.
‘I have also run a small business, where I was the person responsible for OSH. This role really taught me the importance of OSH and I absolutely share our members’ determination to make sure people are protected at work.’
Aiming to deliver: Three top priorities
1 New strategy development
My role is to support the Board of Trustees, the presidential team and Council in shaping our next strategy, to ensure we continue the success of WORK 2022.
2 Strategy implementation
Once the strategy is agreed, my role really kicks in, to work with IOSH’s senior leadership team, other colleagues throughout the business and our volunteers to implement the strategy, ensuring there are clear delivery plans in place.
3 Positive working environment
Life has changed because of the pandemic and we have learned new ways of doing things, both internally and through our volunteers’ network. One of the great learning points has been how agile we can be, something I’m determined we continue to demonstrate.
Big steps forward
Vanessa adds that she has been able to learn a huge amount from Bev, someone she describes as ‘an inspirational leader’ and is determined to continue to put people at the heart of IOSH as chief executive.
As part of this drive, she is keen to ensure that equality, diversity and inclusion is at the core of how the Institution operates. It is a guiding principle of the development of the new strategy.
‘For IOSH as an employer, for our membership and the wider profession, it’s so important that we have an inclusive approach,’ says Vanessa. ‘I don’t like lip service to be paid to important areas like this; I want to get it right into the fabric of how we do things. It will take time to achieve this, but as an employer and a professional body we must allow an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work. It is absolutely right that IOSH drives this agenda.’
With continuing to facilitate a positive working environment high on Vanessa’s priority list, she pinpoints the four principles of ‘modern agile’ – make people awesome, make safety a prerequisite, experiment and learn rapidly, and deliver value continuously – as something the organisation can strive towards.
Achieving this, she says, can help IOSH continue to deliver for its members as they move forward and start to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.
Returning to those opportunities, in the more immediate term the key one for OSH professionals is to ensure what they do is front and centre within their organisations and in the minds of senior leaders – and she urges members to be bold and demonstrate what they bring to their employers.
‘OSH has always been crucial to the success of any organisation,’ she says. ‘But, as they focus on their recovery from COVID-19, protecting people is what is likely keeping senior leaders awake at night. So, there is an opportunity for OSH professionals to demonstrate how they can be trusted advisers and enablers, ones who can cope with the demands and changes being faced by businesses.’
As someone who takes great pride and job satisfaction in seeing people develop themselves, Vanessa is to continue to witness this among IOSH’s staff and its members and describes her appointment as chief executive as one of her proudest achievements.
‘I enjoy helping people go on to bigger and better things,’ she says. ‘It’s all down to them but being able to make a difference in someone’s life is incredibly satisfying.’
Did you know?
Vanessa once shared a red carpet with the queen of Bhutan. While working for another professional body, she helped develop new regulations and an educational programme and made several trips there.
On one of those trips, she found herself on the same flight as the queen, who was returning from a shopping trip in Thailand.
Vanessa recalls: ‘As I followed her off the plane, the steps were covered in red carpet, which stretched across the tarmac and into the airport. I thought ‘I can’t get off the plane now’ but I was waved down the steps, so I followed her in the entourage all the way through the airport.’