When Paul O’Neill became head of Alcoa in 1987, he wanted employees to know one thing: Safety wasn’t a “priority,” it was a precondition. It was a bold idea. But the words weren’t what caught people’s attention. O’Neill made safety the primary measure of leadership performance. Accountants were told not to equate finances with people. For managers, there would be no excuses for poor safety - even budget. If something was a hazard, it was to be fixed, period. O’Neill gave labor leaders his home phone number and told them to call day or night if managers were not living up to these expectations. When a worker called late one evening about the hazards of a conveyer belt that had been broken for three days, O’Neill was on the phone with the plant’s manager the same night. That conveyer belt was back online by 5 a.m. As O’Neill later recounted, that was when people knew he “meant it.”
You don’t have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to recognize the power of a good message. When you lead, your words and actions send a message about what is important. The difficulty is getting your idea across in a clear and compelling way. O’Neill’s tenure is still remembered today not because he articulated an idea, but because he showed people what that idea looked like.
An effective safety message is really a story. It’s a way of helping people rethink what safety is. To tell the story, every leader needs his or her own answer to the question: “Why is safety important to me?” For some leaders, that story comes from seeing someone seriously hurt or killed on the job, or from experiencing a close call themselves. For others, it comes from a deeply rooted conviction developed over many years. There are a number of ways to find or develop your own story. For example: Looking at your own experience with safety, visiting an employee in the hospital and asking him to share his story, or setting aside five minutes a day to find a new reason why safety is important to you.
Drawing on the principles of transformational leadership, your story becomes a way to influence, challenge, inspire, and engage:
Shared experience - story - is foundational to change. It is what makes safety personal. and it helps us remember why we do what we do.