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Jim Spigener is vice president of and executive consultant for BST Solutions in Ojai, CA. In this interview, Spigener explains how safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals can become change agents, as well as strategic advisors to senior management, within their organizations.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as vice president of and executive consultant for BST Solutions.

I have worked for 20 years in the chemical business—17 in operations from the shop floor to production superintendent and three years in safety. I also have 20 years’ experience with BST working with behavior-based safety, supervision and executive leadership teams from the C level down. 

In what ways does the current economic climate present opportunities for SH&E professionals to be agents of change as well as strategic advisors to senior management?

SH&E professionals have the unique opportunity to use a personal and values-based initiative like safety to move an organization’s culture to high performance. Only safety truly displays what the company and a group of leaders stand for from a moral and ethical position and has the power to send a clear and personal message to employees. Safety has the power to capture employees’ hearts and to transform the organization. The benefits do not stop at safety.

What steps should SH&E professionals take to become change agents? How should they adjust their current role and responsibilities?

SH&E professionals must educate themselves on the attributes of a high-performing culture and what leadership behaviors develop those attributes. They must learn how to use safety for leadership and culture development. Finally, they must learn how to become a coach and how to develop a coaching relationship. They must learn how to guide management in understanding how to improve the culture through their focus on leading with safety.
How can SH&E professionals also become strategic advisors to senior management without overstepping their boundaries? What approach should they take?

They must be able to educate the leadership group. They must learn how to find strategic partners to influence the senior leader in understanding how to use safety as a strategic lever to overall higher performance and leadership development.

Throughout the past year, many organizations have actually invested in safety as a cost-cutting measure instead of cutting back on safety to save money, as other organizations have done. What/who do you believe has influenced organizations to invest in safety during these unstable economic times? How can SH&E professionals perpetuate this change from this point forward?

These organizations have come to realize that if they develop a high-performing culture, they increase commitment. They have also learned that safety is the absolute best initiative to develop this culture of commitment. So in these uncertain times, companies are using safety to galvanize their organizations.

The trick is to actually build the commitment. Once that is done, perpetuating it is all about continuing to keep the benefits both personally and organizationally in front of leaders. 

Based on your experience with other SH&E professionals, what obstacles (if any) have they encountered when they have tried to become better change agents? What advice do you give them?

To be honest, most have not had any experience or training in this area. I find that many understand the need to become a change agent but do not understand how to accomplish it. I tell them they must either educate themselves on how to develop this or to go outside for the expertise. This is a major undertaking. Many underestimate the magnitude and payoffs as well as the risks of this undertaking. I have personally worked with and trained many SH&E professionals in this area. I would also encourage them to ensure that research supports anyone they either benchmark against or listen to. It is important for SH&E professionals to get the right information. If it has not been empirically proven, beware.

How can senior management in those organizations with an SH&E professional on staff better allow that person to become a change agent and strategic advisor? What kind of compromise must take place for change to occur within the organization?

Senior leaders must first see the power of safety as a strategic lever to higher performance and only then will they let SH&E professionals have a seat at the table. SH&E professionals must understand change management and be able to guide leaders in this understanding. Coaching skills then come into play.

Once an SH&E professional becomes a change agent and strategic advisor within an organization, what results can the organization typically expect to see with respect to efficiency, injury rates, costs, etc.?

Results are dramatic in many companies. Safety improves by as much as 50% in the first year, absenteeism declines, grievances and disciplinary cases decrease and productivity improves. The same cultural factors that improve safety also improve productivity, reliability, sustainability, profitability, etc.

How can SH&E professionals better earn senior management’s trust?

By understanding how they can improve all metrics as well as safety and at the same time make better leaders out of everyone in the organization, all while improving the organization’s drive to live its values.

What is the most important thing an SH&E professional should remember when trying to become a better change agent with an organization?

Safety is critical, but it must be driven wisely and cannot be the only focus. There are smart ways to influence, and influence is the key. SH&E professionals should also realize that whatever they ask the organization to do, it must move all initiatives forward. They must understand culture and good sound change management principles. Finally, they must be willing to speak forcefully from a point of understanding.

Jim Spigener is vice president of and executive consultant for BST Solutions in Ojai, CA. He has helped companies worldwide prepare and implement safety solutions targeting senior leadership teams and global improvement strategies, as well as middle management and shop-floor initiatives.

Prior to his position with BST, Spigener worked as superintendent of fire, security and safety for a Fortune 500 chemical firm, developing, implementing and coordinating a behavior-based accident prevention process.

He speaks frequently on effective safety leadership, behavior-based approaches to quality and behavior-based safety and has authored many articles for industry and trade journals.