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CEOs see success when safety is their north star

Business persons on meeting in the office.

In a recent episode of the Inside the Strategy Room podcast, author, Harvard Business School professor, and former CEO of Medtronic, Bill George, talked about the importance of authentic leadership, purpose and finding your “north star.”  

He said he encourages people in his course at Harvard Business School to chart a lifeline, looking at highs and lows – personally and professionally – and what was learned from them.

He also recommends “processing the most challenging time you faced, because through that, you will discover what really matters to you.”

Many CEOs have discovered that safety really matters to them

On October 19th, a group of formidable CEOs, many of whom have made creating a culture of health and safety their north star, will be recognized at the Canada’s Safest Employers Awards ceremony, and one will walk away with the top honour.

Last year’s winner, Phil Verster, CEO of Metrolinx says safety became a way of life for him when he was managing director of Network Rail in the UK and a front-line worker was struck by a train. He was forever changed by the experience and shifted from seeing safety as important to viewing it as an “an absolute duty.” 

“I went to the hospital and sitting next to his hospital bed with his family was just eye-opening.” At that moment, he made improving the safety of employees at home and work his purpose. “We have to make them safer, and really care about your people, and for me, that was personally a moment of change.”

Former winners have similar stories. George McClean won two Excellence Awards as CEO of National Tire Distributors. He said his passion for safety was spurred by a near miss early in his career. 

For Yves Tremblay, President and CEO of Pronghorn Controls, winner of two Awards of Excellence in the Best Health & Safety Culture and CEO of the Year categories in 2021, it was the tragic death of a friend on the job and being the one who delivered the news to the family that forever changed him. 

Everyone wins when safety is the CEO’s north star 

Their reasons for becoming safety champions may vary, but past nominees, CEO of the Year and Excellence Award winners share an extraordinary commitment to keeping employees, customers and communities healthy and safe.

Not only are they creating workplace environments where employees and their businesses thrive, but their commitment reduces risk and costs to the organization, prioritizes employee well-being and enhances brand reputation.

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services’ 2023 Health and Safety Leadership Survey reveals just how beneficial a culture of safety can be. The survey provides both employee and employer perspectives. More than 1000 employees and 500 C-suite executives participated in the most recent survey, along with managers and those who influence health and safety decisions. 

Almost all respondents see a direct correlation between health and safety and business success. And the majority of employees who participated said they consider health and safety before accepting a position.

  • 73% of employees said that health and safety are important to them in accepting a new job
  • 97% of respondents said that having a culture of health and safety is key to sustainability
  • 97% of respondents said that having a robust health and safety strategy is important to overall business success

Survey respondents are categorized based on the level of maturity of their health and safety system, ranging from Start of Journey, Reactive, Managing, Proactive, up to Leading. In Leading organizations, health and safety is treated as a strategic priority. Information is reported publicly and board decisions are made based on the impact on health and safety.

This is the fourth year of the survey, and each year, regardless of category, size of the organization, or respondent’s title, there is strong agreement that CEO commitment is a key driver of health and safety success.

Weaving health and safety into the fabric of the organization

A culture of health and safety is demonstrated in tangible and intangible ways. It is evident in the way people behave and how they respect and look out for one another. Leading workplaces aren’t flawless, but when incidents occur or situations arise, they have the tools, resources and training to manage them with confidence. And, they have CEOs who are committed to learning, growing and continuous improvement.

Some of the tangible ways that CEOs demonstrate their commitment include: 

  • Building health and safety into the organization’s vision, mission and values

  • Factoring health and safety into business decisions

  • Establishing clear accountability for keeping one another healthy and safe and adhering to policies and procedures

  • Engaging employees in the design and evaluation of health and safety programs, policies and procedures and seeking their input when making decisions that will affect them

  • Investing in training and development

  • Creating a respectful workplace environment where everyone feels safe to raise concerns and ideas

  • Regularly measuring and monitoring the impact and outcomes of health and safety programs and initiatives

  • Responding swiftly to incidents when they occur, acting with empathy, investigating and sharing lessons learned across the organization

Over the years, CEO of the Year nominees and winners have shared actions they believe are important for leaders who want to demonstrate the importance of health and safety, including:

  • Recognizing that the things leaders say and do impact culture and values directly

  • Making health and safety a priority in meetings and not attaching a time limit to the conversation 

  • Establishing health and safety standards and ensuring all leaders in the organization promote and commit to them

  • Creating an environment where leaders respectfully challenge and coach one another

  • Regularly measuring safety and tracking progress on health and safety-related goals

  • Integrating safety into core values

  • Being vocal and visible about health and safety 

  • Leading by example 

  • Making sure to be visible in both the good times and the challenging times

  • Making health, safety and wellness a topic of discussion every day 

  • Investing in the proper PPE and ensuring it is good quality and professional so employees are proud to wear it.

Moving along the continuum toward becoming a Leading organization and being eligible for awards like the CEO of the Year and Best Health and Safety Culture might seem like distant, lofty goals; however, as Bill George said, it all starts by figuring out what matters most.

Kiran Kapoor, Vice President of Service Delivery at WSPS sums it up this way: “To move your organization from one end of the spectrum to the other, you have to flip the switch from simply reacting to really understanding and embracing the value of health and safety and its positive impact on business sustainability and competitiveness. You’re not going to go from 0 to 100 right away, but you must shift your mindset; otherwise, you will always be operating in reactive mode.”

Building safety culture from the top

To be eligible for the CEO of the Year Award, nominees must demonstrate that they champion innovative safety values and drive safety from the top by:

  • Inspiring, engaging and exciting the workforce
  • Treating safety as a strategic business objective at the executive management level
  • Driving safety initiatives with ongoing communication (alongside the safety leader/team).

For more information on the Award visit: Canada's Safest Employers Awards | Canadian Occupational Safety

If you would like to learn more about what other CEOs are doing to create cultures of health and safety in their workplaces, plan to attend Leading Minds: Exceptional Results: An open forum with CEO of the Year Nominees on October 19, 2023, at Hotel X in Toronto.

Get to know the author – Fresh Communications