Leading Safety

A little over 25 years ago, I came to International Paper from the field of public accounting. I came with solid training and experience in developing business plans and strategies, analyzing financial results, and evaluating business opportunities, but I had absolutely no clue as to leading people to work safely. While I have always been interested in leadership and saw the importance of solid leadership in the various athletic teams I played on growing up, I had no background or training for the challenge of leading people to work safely each day. It quickly became apparent, that if I couldn’t lead people in this aspect of work, it really didn’t matter what else I brought to the table.

During my first five years with IP, I worked at a multi-wall bag plant. It wasn’t too much different than a typical box plant operation. I quickly learned that if I was going to have influence with people and impact their safety, I had to be present with them. I had to spend time with them in their work element, see how they performed their job, and just be with them. In the recent safety leadership training, we called this “Managing by Walking Around”. The concept has been around for years. To make a difference with people, you have to be present with people. That simple concept was very key to my leading people in those first few years with IP. While engaging with people, I would often come across people not following safety rules or just plain making poor safety decisions. In each of these cased I had a choice, either address the issue or ignore it and hope nothing happened. The thought of ignoring a situation and having something happen to one of these people that were my responsibility was too much of a burden to bear. I had to intervene. I’m sure my techniques were not as effective as the “SORRY Method” noted by Paul Balmert in his book “Alive and Well at the End of the Day”. The SORRY technique really gets at the essence of “why”. Every leader needs to know why so that they can address the root cause of the issue.

From the bag plant, I move over to the paper mill for about five years. The level of operational complexity was somewhat overwhelming at first. It was at the mill, that I was first exposed to the “Safe Work Observation Process”. We asked everyone in the mill to perform at least one observation per day. That’s right, one per day, not one per month as we talk today. I saw how that process almost singlehandedly transformed a safety culture of a mill employing 850 people to one of the safest operations in IP. It was also during that time, that I learned that there were times during observations, upset conditions, and other instances of uncertainty, that I really had people’s attention and had an opportunity to have meaningful influence as a leader. I didn’t call it a “Moment of High Influence” at the time, but that’s what those times were. Those opportunities in a typical day where I could be impactful as a leader and really make a difference in the safety of those people I worked with.

When the mill was closed, I had to find work somewhere and was fortunate to join the container group. For the next nine years I would provide leadership in container plants. I still recall my first day walking into the plant as a general manager, never having seen a container plant before. I saw a lot of things I didn’t necessarily understand and a lot of things that were very concerning to me from both a safety and operational standpoint. I asked a lot of questions in those days. Some of those questions were aimed at learning and getting answers. Some of those questions were aimed at getting people to think differently and have influence as a leader. In his book “Alive and Well at the End of the Day”, Paul Balmert calls these influential, open ended questions “Darn Good Questions”. Something else I saw the need to do very early was “Lead by Example”. In trying to get people to think and work differently, I had to set the example if I could ever expect them to follow. This leading by example included the attention to quality, the focus on being productive throughout the day, and more importantly, the personal commitment to working safe and having a positive influence on others to work safely.

For the last six years, I have served in a region manager capacity. I still recall a very serious injury that occurred within weeks of my taking this job. That injury reminded me of how quickly things can happen and how life impacting a serious injury can be to someone. That incident even further elevated my awareness and need as a leader to further engage in making the “Case for Safety” in every plant visit, every plant conversation, and every opportunity I had with people. It also provided the framework for the “Stump Speech” I often use today because it impacted me in a manner that I will never forget.

I say all the above not to tell my life story, but rather to encourage everyone to be engaged in leading safety and note how integral these techniques can be in the everyday life of a leader. We trained on safety leadership over a year ago. We certified on it earlier this year. The Company has invested more over the last few years in equipping leaders with skills in this area than any other time I can recall. Now is the time to execute on this training. In essence, do what we have prepared to do and do it well.

Make a difference in the life of someone else today. Use the techniques and concepts highlighted above and be a leader.

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