Failures which lead to the BP Texas City disaster of 2005 were a sobering reminder for all of us who work in safety. Yet for Frank Penketh of BAE Global Combat Systems Munitions, at a conference studying the incident’s aftermath, it was a catalyst for change:

“The BP disaster happened because people at the top didn’t want to hear bad news. And the risk of letting standards slip concerned me – I didn’t want us to lose all the progress we’d made.”

As SHE & Security Manager, Frank realised that consistent leadership behaviours are crucial. So in response to this he created their innovative ‘Leadership Commitments’ campaign to preserve their successful open and transparent safety culture:

“Leaders don’t realise how much influence they have on other people’s behaviour. Not just what they do, but what they don’t do.”

Leadership commitments explained

“Our leadership commitments basically says: ‘if you follow these simple steps you’ll never lose sight of what you want to achieve with safety’. They’re about how leaders lead, but also how they’re responded to [by staff] as well.”

Frank gives an example, that of ‘I will never knowingly walk by’ which points out that by being consistently observant, you set an example to staff of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. This trait will then transfer to your teams and encourage similar behaviour; what Frank calls “a healthy unease”.

Leadership maturity

The behaviour described in Frank’s Leadership Commitments requires new levels of emotional and managerial maturity which empower teams and encourage them to take responsibility for safety.

Yet this can be difficult for resistive senior managers or established shop floor personalities to adopt because it necessitates a blame-free culture where leaders avoid dictating rules.

So why would you attempt to change traditional leadership behaviours within your workforce?

“If you’re prepared to adopt an open and transparent management style along with behaviours that back it up, you’ll begin to see step changes in your teams as they reflect your beliefs. This is how cultural change begins and grows.”

Frank argues that traditional leadership approaches, with scapegoats and ‘fear of speaking up’, only get you so far on your safety culture change journey. So to really enact culture change:

“You need to engage honestly and consistently with people at all levels.”

He believes that a collaborative and inclusive culture, like at BAE Global Combat Systems Munitions, protects your long-term investment in better safety. And it mitigates the impact when accidents inevitably happen:

“Otherwise, one mistake can cost you years and years of progress if you don’t have the trust and bravery to admit and learn when things go wrong.”

Where you should begin

Changes in leadership behaviour won’t happen overnight. Improvements should be steady and sustainable towards achievable goals, with external support where appropriate like how JOMC helped BAE Global Combat Systems Munitions.

Frank offers advice for building on his Leadership Commitments:

“It’s about small steps. Choose what you feel is achievable; even if you focus on only one or two of these things, you’re on the right track.”

Finally, your action must be motivated by a sincere belief that no one should get hurt:

“You must be convinced about what you’re doing… By believing in and adopting these behaviours as a leader, you’ll make a difference – to yourself as well as to your team’s behaviour. And it does work.”

This article was written by Chris Kenworthy