The barrier between practitioners and the top job

Head of contract, HSE Recruitment

In September 2018 I spoke at IOSH’s annual conference, arguing that safety and health professionals create their own glass ceiling.

The session was based on what are seen as the traditional career paths for safety professionals: adviser, to manager, to group level manager, to head of, and lastly director. But what I wanted our audience to consider was, why stop there?

I started by getting us thinking about the average FTSE 100 company chief executive, a 46-year-old white male, who attended Oxford or Cambridge and has a degree in economics, law or business.

However, a recent study by the CEO Genome project (ceogenome.com) found a trend for successful CEOs to come from a people- and culture-focused background.

Safety and health professionals focus on people, and developing workplace culture. Good practitioners focus on this as well as the technical aspects of their roles. So why don’t we see more health, safety and environment directors stepping into chief operating officer and chief executive roles? Is there a good reason for it, or is this a limitation that we set for ourselves?

The CEO Genome project found that there were four key attributes of successful CEOs. First, they make decisions with speed and impact.

OSH professionals do this every day – for example when someone repeatedly removes a machine guard you have to decide instantly how to communicate with that person and to take them away from immediate danger. This is something a good safety professional does almost instinctively.

Why don’t we see more health, safety and environment directors stepping into chief operating officer and chief executive roles?

Second, good CEOs engage with impact. This is a key part of any professional’s role. You must be able to engage persuasively with people at all levels, from shopfloor workers to board members.

Third, they adapt proactively. The best safety professionals don’t just focus on lagging indicators, but have a real keen interest in leading ones – enabling them to take proactive steps to predict future risks and adapt before they occur.

Finally, the most successful CEOs produce the right results reliably, something that any safety professional does consistently. A key part of the OSH role is being able to achieve key performance indicators, reduce lost-time incidents and have a real impact on the profitability of a business – something any CEO would be proud to be able to do.

What became apparent through the conference seminar is that all the key traits of a successful CEO are similar to those that make a successful safety professional.

I would love safety professionals to start looking at everything they do outside their qualifications – all the soft skills that make them effective and eminently employable such as ability to adapt, to solve problems, to engage with people, and to create buy-in at all levels.

If you do so, you could set yourself on the road to career success, and perhaps even to the chief executive’s office.

The IOSH 2018 Careers Zone was sponsored by HSE Recruitment Network and healthandsafety-jobs.co.uk, IOSH’s official careers site.


Laura Aucott is head of contract, HSE Recruitment


  • Most will not make it as the

    Permalink Submitted by Dale Banham on 8 October 2018 - 01:53 pm

    Most will not make it as the current safety practices, 'tickbox' approach, safety librarian ( Reference items to look for risk averse approach rather than consider HASWA principles of cost benefit R/P), look for ITIS on every incident using reactive approach and full plastic cards for every activity, relying on PreQual for proactiveness! . Take a long while to make decisions and never challenge upwards.
    Many businesses still see safety as a hinder and compliance as a means to reduce risk for lower insurance premiums, finish site quickly to increase returns. The only benefit is to have lower level H&S persons in higher safety posts who comply with senior leaders and lead using external IT safety monitoring systems.
    Basically tick a box!


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