Opinion

Why new safety leaders need to get out more

Kevin Furniss
Kevin Furniss is head of HSSE & sustainability, AP Moller Maersk

Every year, thousands of people take on leadership posts with great expectations, wanting to secure early successes to start to repay the faith and trust organisations have placed in them. Yet so many new leaders fail to deliver sustainable results. The reasons behind this failure vary, but there is one recurring factor: professional relationships or lack of them.

In most commercial enterprises, leaders have been educated in management theory and business administration but not in relationship building. By applying pure management theory, new leaders can find themselves over-reliant on data – which is vital in itself but it should not be at the expense of relationships in their early days.

By failing to talk to and understand their colleagues, leaders risk isolation, inhibiting their ability to develop important connections and cultivate channels of “soft” information. If they continue to stand apart, new leaders are inevitably labelled as remote and unapproachable.

So it is important that new leaders get out and about. Written assessments, though informative, are more valuable when we understand the context and the people behind them. It is impressions, ideas and strong feelings about how to deal with issues that offer more than formal analysis. Organisations seldom insist that the main objective in a leader’s first 100 days should be to recognise and build key relationships.

New leaders’ desire to hit the ground running can lead to them arriving with the answers to problems already worked out. They bring their own fixes or they reach conclusions too early without soliciting the right level of input. They may fall into this trap through arrogance or insecurity in their new role or through a misplaced belief that they must appear decisive immediately.

Organisations seldom insist that the main objective in a leader’s first 100 days should be to recognise and build key relationships

A good leader accepts they may not be the smartest person in the room or the one with all the answers. Employees who believe their leaders’ minds are made up are reluctant to share views and information. This hinders the leader’s ability to understand the true nature of a conflict.

We need to coach our new leaders to resist the desire to “do something”. They must step away from jumping to answer and instead embrace and project a spirit of inquiry, even if they are confident they understand an issue and the best way to deal with it.

Time spent in conversation, carefully diagnosing the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses from a people perspective, is seldom wasted.

The last point about relationships is that many new leaders devote too much time during their transition to vertical influence – upward to their line manager and downward to direct reports – and not enough to the horizontal dimension of peers and key stakeholders. This is understandable, since leaders gravitate to the people they report to and who report to them. But they also need the support of people not under their authority.

Relationships are key to the long-term success of any leader, but they are critical for those fresh to a post. Helping them to avoid relationship pitfalls depends on how well we prepare our leaders for their roles and in the first days. This requires supporting them in their diagnosis of colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses, negotiating success through others, building coalitions, and ultimately helping them to secure the early wins they seek.

Kevin Furniss

Kevin Furniss is head of HSSE & sustainability, AP Moller Maersk

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Comments

Very nice article! Liked "spirit of enquiry"... that't the way one can help build capability! :)

Yes, ‘understanding context and the people behind them (risk assessment) and ‘the spirit of inquiry’ is something you come to realise with experience.

The idea that leaders have the answers is arrogant. Integrity is a rare quality and active listening a rare skill. You can’t have meaningful safety conversations without them.

Great article hits the spot

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