Leader interview

Gary Booton, Rolls-Royce

The engineering giant’s head of health, safety and environment – supply chain, talks about catalysing change and what a career that takes in enforcement and lobbying has taught him. 

Gary Booton, Rolls-Royce
Gary Booton, Rolls-Royce | Image credits: © Andrew Firth

“Have you seen the dancing guy?” asks Gary Booton CMIOSH, some way into our interview at Rolls-Royce’s Learning and Development Centre in Derby. I’m starting to look around me when he explains he is talking about a viral video clip of a festival goer dancing alone idiosyncratically in a patch of grass. After a minute, the dancer gains a companion, and then a second; eventually almost no one is left sitting down.

“We’ve used it quite a few times in the company,” says Booton. “It’s become shorthand for the point that you might think I’m talking rubbish now, but if you listen and remain curious you might find there’s something interesting here.”

Changing the orthodoxy through experimentation is a theme he returns to throughout our conversation, but in this instance he’s linking it to the company’s Health, Safety and Environment (HS&E) Week last September, which saw aero engineers taking part in relaxation workshops, conversations about the importance of sleep, and discussions about wanting the company to be a fun place to work. “I’m sure there’s a few people who feel very uncomfortable with those sorts of conversations,” he observes, but cites the dancing guy video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA8z7f7a2Pk) as evidence of how quickly the outlandish can become the new norm.

If you are sitting in somebody’s kitchen with your boots on, that is a different kind of negotiation. It taught me a lot more about how you persuade people 

The perception among his peers when he first landed the job with Rolls-Royce was that he “would have a lot of time for golf” (he doesn’t play), that there wasn’t much to do in HS&E in a big corporate. “You know, stroll in, have a coffee, have a couple of meetings and sit at your desk,” he says. “But it’s like any organisation, there’s an awful lot of room for improvement.”

The group’s engineering excellence has promoted it rapidly in recent decades to the global stage. But its very success has left it with an HS&E culture perhaps better suited to another stage of its growth.

“This year [2015] we have made modest steps in a change agenda,” he says. “We have an HS&E culture project that will run for many years. It’s a significant step for us as a company because it recognises that we need to do things differently. It’s about changing everybody’s behaviour.

The completist

Booton is not far into the third act of his career, but he has already collected the set of health and safety roles. Starting as a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector, he went on to govern HS&E policy at the EEF manufacturers’ trade body, had a stint as a private consultant, and is now the most senior health and safety professional at Rolls-Royce’s aerospace arm (see box on p 37). I ask him what advantages that breadth of earlier experience gives him now.

“The grounding HSE gives you from the health and safety point of view, that’s pretty faultless,” he says. “Certainly now being in a global corporate, their standards are recognised wherever you go.

“The other benefit was more subtle. I was fortunate to have a lot of different roles in the HSE. I started off in the engineering group but pretty early in my career I also spent a year in an agricultural group. Some colleagues said it was the lowbrow end of the market, but the stuff it taught me was a different way of dealing with people.

“On the shopfloor in an owner-managed business you are still on the shopfloor and they are doing the same things as in a 3,000 employee business, just on a smaller scale. But if you are sitting in somebody’s kitchen with your boots on, that is a different kind of negotiation. It taught me a lot more about how you persuade people. From the outside, people think you have a [government] warrant, so you can make people do anything, but persuasion is more long lasting.”

Later in his time at the regulator, he was involved in lobbying the European Commission on the text of directives on explosive atmospheres and equipment: “This was when the Tory government wasn’t looking for great new initiatives coming out of the EU, so our lobbying position was quite challenging. But you learn to build alliances”.

Well founded                           

Gary Booton career history

2013 - present: Head of HS&E, Supply Chain, Rolls-Royce

2011-2013: Head of HS&E Europe Middle East & Africa, Rolls-Royce

2010-2011: Freelance consultant

1999-2010: Director of health, safety, climate and environment, (formerly head of health and safety), EEF - the manufacturers’ organisation

1994-1999: HM inspector of health and safety, Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

1992-1994: HM inspector of health and safety, Electrical Policy Section, HSE Safety Policy Division

1988-1992: HM inspector of factories, HSE

At the EEF, under the direction of Martin Temple, later author of the government’s first triennial review of the HSE’s work, the focus of his advocacy shifted to the British government, pleading manufacturers’ cause.

“It was interesting being able to connect that with real business experiences. I remember a call one Friday afternoon - and Friday afternoons it’s never good news. It was a business in South Wales, a die casters making brake calipers for the automotive industry. This was in a period when insurance premiums were going through the roof and they couldn’t renew their employer’s liability cover, which meant they couldn’t trade.

“The reason they couldn’t renew was their brokers said ‘you are a foundry’. Well there’s foundries and foundries. This wasn’t Sheffield Forgemasters where they are casting up to 75 tonnes and it takes six months to cool; it was all die cast in a machine. Because I had been lobbying in that space I had lots of contacts in the insurance industry and with ABI [Association of British Insurers] and I was able to get the guy cover so they could open the doors on Monday. But that sort of stuff is also gold dust when you go and sit down on Monday with a politician or a senior official. If you can say ‘there’s this guy who runs a factory who does this and he has a problem’ it’s more likely to be heard.”

He says this was valuable training for talking to his seniors in the private sector. “Make it personal, tell your health and safety story. Why does it matter to you? Not why does it matter to Rolls-Royce? If safety is a value of the company, not just a business priority, tell people why it matters to you. I don’t think it matters what you are trying to persuade people of, whether it’s to buy a training product or to influence government or to influence leaders that there is a different way of having conversations, which is what I am trying to do now.”

How does that feel?

What sort of “different conversations”, I ask and we return to the change agenda. “In my part of the business there’s a really strong culture of leaders getting out on the shopfloor talking to people,” he explains, “which is great, but they could be more two-way discussions.”

He says Rolls-Royce’s operations managers have grown the company into a global manufacturer using a directive approach. The group’s safety metrics are in the upper quartile for the engineering sector. “But the business wants to be in the upper decile, and you don’t move into the top 10% doing what you’ve already done.”

So he is encouraging the senior managers to try a more engaged consultative approach, trying to get them to ask questions more likely to get the staff to open up, such as ‘If I was a new apprentice, what would you be telling me about this job?’ or ‘What does it feel like to do this job?’ or ‘How would you like us to do this better?’

“It’s about building the trust and relationship with people, so they think ‘these guys really do care about it’,” he says. “That’s the journey we are starting on.”

I ask whether his idea is to try to foster emotional intelligence, persuading managers to think what it is like to be the shopfloor staff and to find out what motivates them. “That’s exactly what it is,” he agrees. He recalls a restructuring programme at the EEF after the 2008 economic recession hit, in which he was surprised that some staff, told they were entering a statutory consultation period for redundancy, responded that they didn’t want to deal with the uncertainty of their jobs being at risk and would rather have bad news than be left waiting. “It’s arrogance to assume you know what other people want,” he says.

He has yoked the HS&E change project to Rolls-Royce’s existing high performance culture initiative, launched in 2011. “That was introduced with a recognition that we have the biggest order book the company’s ever seen, and we can’t fulfil that by just pedaling a bit faster,” he says.

What we are learning more slowly is that it’s how you respond to bad news as a leader that is critical 

The bigger programme provides the legitimacy to change people’s thinking about health and safety, he says. “Particularly the safety and health agenda, because it’s personal, has resonance with everybody who works for us, whether direct employees or contractors. Do something that matters to an individual or empower them to do something and they’ll respond differently,” he says, returning to his earlier theme.

The programmes follow the Hearts and Minds model, developed by the Energy Institute and Shell, (www.eimicrosites.org/heartsandminds) which maps parts of the organisation onto a maturity model, where the echelons are pathological, reactive, calculative, proactive, and finally generative, (“which is where you want to be”), where the culture is characterised by the phrase “HS&E is how we do business round here”.

Booton says there is a way to go but the company has identified early adopters, groups of people who are interested in improving HS&E performance. “Give people the tools, the flexibility to improve, and we say ‘tell us the good stuff you are doing’. It’s not the HS&E team doing it, we are the last people who should be doing it.

“The messenger is the message,” he argues, noting that most of the business is at the calculative rung on the maturity ladder, reliant on systems and procedures to manage risk. “We have our management standards certification, we have our trackers and our heat maps. We love a bit of data, we are full to the rafters with engineers. The problem is human performance doesn’t always fit in with that.

“So we are saying ‘sometimes let’s just try stuff’,” he explains, though he recognises this tactic takes many managers outside their comfort zones.

“They say ‘But if we can’t track it, how do we know it’s happening?’ And we say ‘Sometimes you just have to go with it’.”

The programme has been launched at executive level and is now cascading down the business.

“We are using it across the management teams, all first line managers and a sample of shop floor employees.”

Spill control


In the scheme of things

Gary Booton is head of health safety and environment (HS&E), supply chain, for Rolls-Royce’s aerospace division, comprising civil and defence aero engine manufacturing – the business’s other arm is Land and Sea, which covers marine and nuclear power engineering.

Despite the phrase supply chain in his title, Booton’s remit takes in the aerospace division’s own 26 manufacturing sites and 15,500 employees, together generating an annual turnover of £5bn. Aero engine component development and testing is carried out in-house and so is final assembly and maintenance of engines such as the the Trent 7000, which powers the Airbus A330neo.

Health, safety and environmental (HS&E) management is part of the quality function and, as the most senior HS&E manager in the division, Booton reports to the quality and HS&E executive director, who is a quality specialist foremost.

He has a central team of three HS&E improvement managers and a “functional reporting line” of 27 managers in the factories. (“They report at site level to manufacturing managers,” he notes.)

Separate from this structure there is also a group HS&E function and Booton reports to the group HS&E director, along with the other divisional safety heads.

“Officially my role is primarily one of governance of HS&E performance,” he explains. The manufacturing operations are responsible for their accident rates and environmental impacts and his function is tasked with “reporting back on the business’s performance, challenging it to do better and coaching it where needed”.

In 2014, the group’s main safety measure, the total reportable injury (TRI) rate, fell by 16% to 0.37 per 100 employees and is on track to meet the group target of 0.3 by 2020. But the year also saw a couple of incidents involving hazardous chemicals, including a nitric acid spill in March at the Indianapolis, Indiana, factory in the US that prompted a plant evacuation.

Booton explains due to the incredibly tight tolerances in aero engine manufacture, the best way of trimming parts is dipping them in acid, reducing thicknesses by microns without adding any of the material stresses that come with manual methods and which can compromise the components’ integrity. Hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, nitric and sulpuric acids and caustic soda are all used in the plants.

He says the programmes of safety events and stand-downs did not stop incidents and a more strict approach to who goes where on the manufacturing floor was needed, locking down access to process areas with hazardous substances. “If you are not trained you don’t get in,” he says. Even the most senior managers are now told: “You can look through the window, or you can do the training.

“What I wanted to do was put control smack bang in the factory again. We have all sorts of non-core activities: plant maintenance, crane maintenance, done by third parties. They used to get into these places because they had passes. We’ve stopped all of that unless they are trained and authorised.

The company has also standardised the signage across all sites, introduced hazops procedures where they didn’t exist and revamped them where they were already in place, revised the emergency response procedures for acid splashes, installed acid detection monitors and improved daily, weekly and monthly process checks.

“Any manufacturing business is always cost- constrained and we are particularly so at the moment, but we are spending millions on this with the blessing of the top of the business,” he says.

That “particularly so” is a gentle allusion to the fact that Rolls-Royce’s revenue dipped for the first time in 2014, prompting profit warnings then and again in 2015 - though it has an order book any other engineering company could only dream of.

Booton says if these setbacks have any silver lining it is the way they throw the company’s continued commitment to safety spending into higher relief: “It makes people at the sharp end of the process think ‘they mean it!’”

Data dependency

I ask him where legal compliance stands relative to the company’s own HS&E goals.

“We believe regulatory compliance is below our minimum standard,” he says, “so we will be surprised when we find we aren’t compliant. Which is pretty symptomatic of a calculative business. We have had our external audits, we have had our own audits, we have data; so how on earth can this happen?

“We need to become a business where it’s OK to share bad news,” he reflects. “People get that intellectually, what we are learning more slowly is that it’s how you respond to bad news as a leader that is critical. When an HS&E incident happens in the company we need to mature our response, to be thankful to the person who reported it. Now we know about the problem we can do something with it.”

He says Rolls-Royce’s previous chief executive, John Rishton, used to say that the company has to be world class at some things, but not at everything. “And I extend that to risk and risk taking. There’s a lot of things it’s OK to try out: try a new form of risk assessment; try giving production leaders a grand to improve their areas from an energy point of view; try things.

“There are things we have to be obsessive about, like design and quality, but then I want them to be able to turn that off and say it’s OK to take risk over here because it’s not business-critical to us. There might be gold in there.”

How do you promote that experimentation? “It’s about showcasing what’s safe to try. We all learn by mistakes. There are some mistakes that a company that makes aero engines and nuclear reactors can’t afford to make. But there are others we can.”

He points out that the nose cone of an aero engine is tipped with rubber. “There used to be an icing problem on the cones. Somebody thought if you made that little bit from rubber it would keep vibrating and ice would never build up. You don’t necessarily get that if you don’t allow experimentation.”

Enabling people to find the solution themselves is better. And they will come up with something you had never thought of 

On a visit in 2014 to the company’s Montreal plant, he noticed a forklift coming through with a blue projector LED casting an apron of light on the ground to warn people nearby, a product used by some cyclists. He asked how it had come into the plant. One of the staff had approached a manager, saying: “I’ve seen this, could we get one to try?” It was $200, so was approved immediately. “We don’t need a committee, we don’t need to write a procedure, we can just try it, and if it works someone else can try it.”

Is the company capturing these innovations centrally to share best practice? “Not really, not yet.


Regulatory reflections

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Gary Booton joined in the 1980s was a very different organisation from what it is now.

“I worked for a guy called John MacDonald,” he says, “a lovely typical old school senior civil servant. I was just leaving after the job interview – he had the most cluttered office I have ever seen – and he said: ‘Oxford or Cambridge?’ I said ‘No I’m going back to Northampton’. He thought I was joking and said ‘No, no, university’. And I said ‘Warwick. They do have one you know!’”

What does he think of the state of the executive now?

“I don’t know, and that concerns me.” He says HSE director general, regulation, Kevin Myers spoke at a conference recently and Booton challenged him on the executive’s commitment to improving occupational health standards in the UK. He says he received a well-constructed political answer but can’t see how more action is possible with so few resources.

“I feel now that the time is right for HSE to reinvent itself. It needs teeth and that doesn’t mean going out and nailing everybody for lots of offences. It needs to find itself a place where it is an influencer of change. I don’t see it at the moment.

“I think it’s breathed a collective sigh of relief that it’s still there, which I can understand. But if you aren’t moving forward you are going backwards. I don’t see it on the front foot often enough.”

Born of experience

Does he think business leaders are born or made? “Oh, made,” he says without hesitation. “The sovereign leader approach is so far out of kilter with modern business reality. The charismatic leader is a rare thing. Any large organisation has to have a group of people with influence and therefore leaders are made, because they are those who are able to influence their peers. You can’t manage by edict; people have to believe it.”

“There’s almost a structural recognition of that in roles. We have an awful lot of very, very intelligent engineers, world class, but in order to win business and outcompete we need to have people who think differently as well and to be able to value people who are not of that mould.”

I ask what he has had to work on in his own management style to be an effective leader.

He pauses.

“That’s a big question … being slower to offer solutions. In my early days in HSE it was very much problem identification and this is what an acceptable or good solution looks like. Enabling people to find the solution themselves is better. And they will come up with something you had never thought of.

“So I’ve learned to be more confident to be the enabler, the catalyst. I don’t give you the answer. I can tell you what’s absolutely bonkers or dangerous. But moving people up the ladder so they are coming up with solutions, that’s the best.”

The ultimate business, he suggests, doesn’t need an HS&E function, “or won’t do at some point in the future, because everyone will be self-sufficient. Most of this is blindingly obvious. They are more than capable of getting the answer.”

In the real world he concedes that production pressures, the pace of change and and other distractions mean there will probably always be a job for risk experts to check businesses maintain standards of protection. “Yes, for the foreseeable, there’s a future for the profession. But having a conversation where you envisage a time when that might not be the case is part of demystifying what this is all about.”

The sign that the organisation is on the right path to devolving risk to the lowest appropriate level, he says, is when an accident or regulatory breach happens. “And people no longer ask ‘What’s HS&E doing about this?’, but ‘What’s the business doing about this?’”

The stage he sees the company’s senior management beginning to move into now – the proactive stage in the Hearts and Minds model – is where they say: “What more can I do about this? How can I get better? In sales terms it’s pull rather than push.”

What would he like as his legacy at Rolls-Royce? “I would like to have achieved the recognition that it’s not about the numbers. It’s OK to have a ‘feel about’ conversation. And - this isn’t down to me, it’s down to the good work our OH team are doing – having a much more open understanding about wellbeing because that’s where the big agenda is.”

I end with a predictable interview question: What advice would he give his younger self?

“Take more risks,” he says, smiling.



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.


  • This so so inspiring for

    Permalink Submitted by Foday Mansaray on 23 June 2016 - 10:35 pm

    This so so inspiring for young and passionate HSE Professionals. This is just what one needs.


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