Champions are your eyes and ears on the ground – reducing harm and improving performance, day in, day out, right on the frontline. Choose the right people for the role, and culture change rapidly becomes self-sustaining.
Yet there’s a dilemma, one we often come across consulting for Tribe.
It’s this: there just aren’t enough hours in the day for busy senior people, who oversee thousands of people (sometimes at multiple sites around the world), to find these champions.
On top of that, it simply isn’t possible to know everyone in a large organisation. Worse still, the best candidates for champions are often as busy as everyone else.
That’s why it’s often much easier to just appoint H&S people as champions. They’re obvious, easy to find, keen to be involved, plus they have the experience.
But there’s a fundamental drawback to relying solely on H&S people. Kate Morris, consultant at Tribe with a strong background in HR, explains.
“To make an influential champion, you need credibility, and a lot of that comes from their relationship with their peers.
“They’re the kind of people who when they stand up, people recognise them from their day-to-day work, so they’re more inclined to believe them, rather than someone from H&S who sits in a separate section of the company and doesn’t know their job.
“The best champions are often in the early stages of their career, genuine, passionate about safety. The basic qualities of a good champion you can’t really teach. The secret is identifying those people, tapping them on the shoulder and saying ‘I think you’ll make a great safety champion.’
“Their response will often be ‘no, not me! I couldn’t do that’ – but that’s actually a strong indicator. To be a good champion you don’t need to be a technical safety expert, just someone who genuinely cares about people, quality and doing the right thing.
“They needn’t be senior either, in fact sometimes it’s actually better that they’re not. Talk to your operational leaders, they’ll know who the candidates are. They’re the engineers, supervisors and strong team players. They work with the people on the ground, day in, day out.
“It’s a fact that people buy from people who are just like them. When you buy a new TV you’re more likely to ask what a friend recommends than a salesman. People are more likely to be influenced by a peer rather than a ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they’ safety person.”
How do you turn someone into a champion?
“With a bit of flattery – tell them about the skills you’ll train them in, the confidence that gives them. Tell them ‘ you can make a difference, you have the power to stop people being hurt. You can get our company where it needs to be.’
“Then you empower them. You’re not turning them into a champion, you’re helping them be the champion they already are. Tribe helps businesses put their champions through a programme that puts everything into context. We assemble a team of potential champions from across the business, then, over a few days, give them the communication skills and tools to make it easy for them to approach people, use sticky messages and tell stories. That’s where the confidence to turn your culture around comes from.
“Then you set them loose, you give them the power to try things out on their own terms. In a way, you’re actually unleashing untapped potential in your workforce. That visibility sends out a message that you recognise talent, that everyone can have an influence on the fortunes of the organisation.
“With even a handful of your workforce acting as champions and influencing their peers, before long the good behaviours and attitudes become viral. You only have influence a couple of people, who go on to influence a few more people, and before you know it you have a movement.”
How do you convince operations to buy into the process?
“Being a champion is a bit of extra work, and that can put some people off – especially operational managers, who get a bit nervous about you taking their people away. But you have to remember that aside from the training, it’s only the odd presentation – their majority of their role as a champion happens while they’re doing their day-to-day work.
“Most important is the kind of conversations they have and their effect. It’s not ‘stop your job and do this’ it’s ‘do what you do anyway, but here’s how to do it even better.’
“Done properly, appointing someone as a champion is just acknowledging what they already do – directing their passion, giving them the skills to do more of it, so they have an even stronger influence.
“You could even make recruiting champions fun. Host a talent-show style nomination and voting campaign to get people involved, so they’re more likely to accept their appointed champion, who feels recognised and accountable to their peers. That way, if you’re too busy, you can crowdsource the process and make it more scalable.”