Running a marathon has more in common with developing safety and quality cultures than you might think.

Once you get going with your programme, other priorities soon crowd in and the shine rapidly wears off. Both have stages of enthusiasm and despair too. And you have to develop a steely resolve to hang on – especially when you hit the dreaded ‘wall’.

That’s when you need renewed courage and determination.

I’ve worked in health and safety for just short of 50 years, for many well-known, global companies like ICI. And I’ve found that the most challenging part of a culture change programme is some two or three years in. I also know what it’s like to hit a psychological wall of fatigue at mile 22 of a marathon, having run one every year since I turned 60.

Yet these interesting times we now find ourselves in add even more uncertainty than usual.

When the pressure is on to keep cashflow and the bottom line positive, managers tend to put all their focus on keeping the business stable and afloat.

This is perfectly understandable.

It’s not that safety or service or product quality isn’t important. It’s just that the board don’t seem to mention these things quite so much, when all the other problems pile up.

Keep on running

This has a detrimental effect on staff because they listen to what their bosses don’t say as much as what they do say. When challenged about this, management will ask you what else they’re supposed to do, when their families already complain that they never see them.

Similarly, at 18 miles into the London marathon, a cold rain was falling and I was exhausted and in pain. I really wanted to give up. That’s when your brain poses perfectly reasonable questions, like do you really want to walk another eight miles in the pouring rain? Wearing just a thin t-shirt when you’re already exhausted.

To be successful, a safety or quality culture needs a constant stream of messages from leaders, about their values and how they don’t change whatever the pressures. They need to keep on running as it were. And the best will use social networking tools like Engage to reinforce their verbal messages.

Staff also notice what leaders do as well as what they say

Staff notice when leaders stop doing what they did before. If that happens, you can give the impression that safety is only for when times are good. I’ve actually heard that said. I even heard a section leader once say that he’d delegated his safety tours to his secretary!

Staff also pay attention to how management reacts when they miss a target.

At one well-known international company I was told that staff felt they’d be criticised whatever they did. So, when faced with missing either a sales report, or safety and quality discussion targets, they often chose to forego the latter. My colleague referred to this as staff choosing the “least worst b*ll*cking”.

What does that tell you about the company’s priorities?

Tough times force you to ask tough questions of yourself, much like during a marathon. Like the kind your staff will ask: “but we have to stay solvent” comes the anguished response. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of your staff’s health, or the safety of those who use your product.

The way to cope is with relentless preparation

And not just when times are OK. You need a proven coach too – a supportive partnership from experts who’ve been through the process before and know how to get the best results.

It takes courage to keep running through the wall. In much the same way, it takes a deep, ingrained determination to value your people and your customers as much as the bottom line.

This will carry you through the hard times, even when you feel like giving up.

I’ve lived through many challenges to business: recessions, crashes, changes in government and regulation. And advice like this helped me build a successful business that’s not only survived – it’s thriving.

I’ve also seen the effects of a fatality at work. No one wants their business to suffer, but trust me – you really don’t want to experience the avoidable death of a colleague at work.

So keep pushing when you hit the wall. You will succeed. Your bottom line will improve, as will your culture, as long as you value your people, lead by example and keep them engaged.