Safety Mentorship 3 – Making Time

Hi! I am Mark, and I am a firm believer in standard work.

So many times I hear others say that their work is just too unexpected and random to have anything standard about it. They are convinced that they should not be limited by standardization. The work of a safety person is variable and standard work can be derailed with just one report. And yes, I was one of those people. I found that standard work was fantastic for environmental programs as they were very regimented with paperwork and inspections, but it usually came in the form of a compliance calendar. It was only later that my mind was opened to what standard work could really be.

I was working for a site that was implementing a standardized system that was part of an overarching corporate system. The mentor that was assigned to our site completely sold me on the benefits of standard work. Instead of poo-pooing the suggestions, I embraced the idea that certain things had to be done on a regular frequency. I found that when I thought about the daily and weekly items that I needed to accomplish there could be a cadence that could work.

A little bit of background about me as a person. I am not someone that embraces chaos. I like things to be orderly. I like things to be simple and easy. It makes me happy to find new ways to make my work and life easier. Even early in my career, I believed in the idea that I needed to plan and do all the things I could predict because it was inevitable that there would be something that would come up that was unexpected. I like having a plan and sticking to that plan. There is something satisfying about making a list and then checking things off that list.

Some of the basic ideas that I first embraced as part of standard work were keeping my email inbox at 0 unread messages that were greater than 24 hours old, tracking how many meetings I was able to attend that were scheduled in advance, assuring that I was able to tour various departments each week and to make one-on-one time for each of my team members. The last one is critical to being a good leader/mentor.

When it comes to being a mentor or a leader of people, we have to make sure that we not only allocate time for them but make time for them. This means that if for some reason they are late or not at the meeting, we go find them. We make it a point to show that this time is important to both our development. I have found time and time again that I have grown and learned from helping those that I am mentoring achieve their goals. I may not fully understand their goal or the path they want to take in their career or the organization. When that happens, it means I have to start asking and digging for the information they need.

Making time to be a mentor cannot be just a focus on the person when they are present. There is preparing for a meeting, conducting the meeting, and then following up with any needs from the meeting. It is a significant and necessary investment in the lift of a mentor. As leaders, the most valuable resource we have to offer is our time. It is crucial that we use it wisely and that we are taking the time to show we are making the investment.

Mentorship Part 2: Listen

Have you read the book “If You Give a Cat a Cupcake”? I have one similar for you. “If You Give a Safety Person an Audience.” It goes like this.

If you give a safety person an audience, they will want a stage. Once they have a stage, they will ask for a microphone. With a microphone in hand, they will ask for a computer and projector. The safety presentation will be in full swing, and then four hours will pass. Once the four hours have passed, the audience will be tired. The tired audience will start to sneak out of the building. As they sneak away, the room will become empty. Once the room is empty, the safety person will ask for a new audience.

Ever seen this happen?

We safety people love to talk, this blogger included. Given the chance, I will just keep on talking until I completely lose interest in even what I was trying to say :-). I even once had another safety person coach me by saying “if anyone in leadership gives you a chance to speak, take it. Never just let it pass by.” I have found, though, there are times to talk and times to say that you have nothing to add to the conversation.

I was once sitting in a meeting room where we were discussing fumigation and extermination protocols during a shutdown. The room was buzzing with concerns and excitement. The team was questioning the company that was contracted to do the work. Questions were being hurled about and the contract firm did a good job explaining the process in addition to the lengthy protocols and process manual they had provided. Finally, someone in leadership looked at me and said “are you not worried about this at all?”

All eyes were on me at this point as I had been completely silent

Me, “Not really.”

Leadership, “What!?! Why no?!?”

Me turning to the contractor, “Is this the first time you have ever done this”

Contractor, “No. We have done this for many companies for many years across the nation?”

Me, “Ever had an instance of human, property, or environmental damage as long as your protocols are followed?”

Contractor, “No. As long as the written protocols are followed.”

Me, “I’m good”

I had very little to say and that was okay. The project was still a success. 

We must learn and practice the art of listening. As safety mentors, our team is going to have lots of questions, concerns, and thoughts. We must not only hear, but we must understand what is being said and what may not be said in those conversations. When we are mentoring or helping guide a new safety leader, there are many topics that we will have to explain. We must, though, give them the knowledge they seek and not extraneous information or even miss their point altogether. The point of mentoring is to meet the needs of the organization and of the person. This can only be accomplished through good listening. Too many times, I am focusing on how I can fix the problem rather than really listening to the person. As leaders, we must keep our minds and ears on the person then engage solutions as a team.

Mentorship Part 1: Be Available

It has been interesting in the last few weeks how many times I have had to recount how I chose the safety field (or how the safety field chose me). I owe so much to have great mentors early in my career. At one point, I was able to host a summer intern and have had various positions where I had the distinct honor of leading others. All this has really got me thinking about what makes a great safety mentor. Now I am not saying that I am the living embodiment of a great mentor. What I do have is perspective and lots of time to reflect on the moments that helped shape me (both good and bad). I also have a desire to be a great safety mentor. It is important that those of us with experience and perspective help guide and coach those that are new to the profession.

The first principle that I find important for a great safety mentor is to be available. Taking on an intern or hiring someone into an organization that has little experience is not a decision to be taken lightly. They are coming to your organization in hopes of gaining experience that will help them find that permanent job or grow in the position they are in. For that dynamic to be successful, it takes time. I have heard the stories of interns going to a position and day one they are told to perform a mundane task such as inventory the chemicals and reconcile the SDS. The intern then sees their supervisor again on the last day, and then it is over. Granted, the life of a safety person is not all glitz and glamor. We do have to maintain those SDS and any help is always appreciated. 

The idea is that there should be time set aside regularly to talk about progress, what the person is observing, who they are meeting, what are their questions, what are some goals they have, and so on. As a mentor, honor that open-door policy. Encourage them to come by and chat. One of the most important factors that I found made a profound impact was how my mentors never turned me away and never made me feel I was an inconvenience. If I had a question, they were there. I remember not only asking job-specific questions but safety career questions. I was not a traditional safety student. I was learning on the job and being able to hear about experiences and ideas from someone who had lived it was so valuable. 

One of my processes as a supervisor was to do my best to be available. If someone needed to call me at 2am, so be it. I wanted to be available. If I was in my office, I wanted them to come to see me. It is amazing the influence that we can make when we are simply open and available. To let our team know that there is someone who will be there to listen, care, and act where appropriate. Can we fix it all? Nope! We can, though, be available to have the experience with our team and that is how we embody empathy.