SAFETY PERSPECTIVES

What Can Richard Branson Teach Us About Safety Leadership?

Posted by  Craig White

The only thing that is constant is change.  The business world knows this statement all too well.  Just like people, organizations change and grow over time. Effective managers must be able to adapt during these transitions.  One driving force in the evolution of business, particularly in the last couple of decades, is technological change.  Whether it be a plant worker operating robotic manufacturing equipment or a professor skyping a lecture to online students, all industries have been impacted in some form by advancements in technology.  Let’s take a quick look at a businessman who understands the value of welcoming change.468580459

Those unwilling or unable to keep up with the fast pace at which business is transforming with technology will lose their competitive advantage and struggle to stay in the black.  Nobody knows this better than Sir Richard Branson, an English billionaire and founder of Virgin Group, which parents over 400 companies including a record label, airline, and mobile service.  In his book Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, Branson discusses why adjusting to change was pivotal to his success. 

The music industry has experienced some major changes over the past few decades, largely to do with how people to listen to music.  Branson’s ability to strategically plan the switch from vinyl records to CDs in the 1980’s was key to Virgin becoming one of the largest music retailers in the world.  More recently, as CDs have taken a back seat to digital media, Virgin continues to be relevant in the music industry as it has moved into online distribution and sale of records.  Branson cautions that change is inevitable, and effective leaders must be prepared to adjust accordingly.  Beyond this even, leaders are responsible for making change happen, particularly when it comes to employee safety.

In today’s global economy, change is constant.  A successful safety leader not only adapts to change; he or she embraces change. That leaves the question, how do they specifically go about embracing change?  This can be boiled down to three simple behaviors:

1)      Eagerly drives changes related to safety policies or systems,

2)       Involve others in the changes

3)      Are open to ideas from other people about how to make the job safer.

Leaders high on these factors are agents of change, meaning they do not simply accept and carry out new systems as they roll out from top management, but rather they truly believe that good things can come from change. Like Richard Branson, they don’t just passively react or adapt to change, but they get involved and they bring the change themselves.  In order to continuously improve safety, leaders must always look for new ways to reduce exposure to risk. This means always asking, “How can we do it safer?” and driving efforts that will help the company to accomplish this goal.

Half of the battle for leaders who want to reduce their incident rates is to obtain employee buy-in for new safety policies, which will only happen if the employees believe that their opinion matters.  At Virgin, Branson is known for empowering his people to make decisions and improvements.  Similarly, leaders must involve their people in the change process when it comes to safety.  Employees will respond to new safety policies much more positively if they were involved, or at least had a say, in the process.

Lastly, by purposefully asking employees for input and being open to new ideas for improving safety, leaders can better manage safety changes in the organization.  One of Branson’s habits is he never stops asking for employee’s opinions and ideas.  In fact, he reportedly keeps a notebook where he constantly records new ideas and suggestions from employees on how to improve customer service.  

Let’s apply this to safety. People often have great ideas based on their everyday experiences working around the hazards that you are trying to mitigate. Why not listen to their ideas?  Your people may know more than you think about what the risks are, so make it a point to be open to their ideas.

By taking a page from Richard Branson, leaders can actively drive change, involve others and be open to new ideas. This allows leaders to better embrace change and use it to further improve safety.

 Our Guest Blogger this week is Craig White, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance.  He has six years of research experience at Tier-One universities (Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Rice University), and has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.  He is also a contract safety services consultant for Select International.

Craig White

Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX. He is also a Contract Safety Services Consultant for Select International.

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