Mentorship 5. Be a Coach

Picture this. You are mentoring a new professional. They come in and report an injury. You pick up a chair, walk out to the shop floor, and sling it. Old school Bobby Knight coaching technique 🙂

When it comes to coaching as a mentor, it is more about the essence and spirit of coaching than the literal sense of the word. I was able to be a site material expert on coaching for my location. I loved it. It fits in great with my industrial and organizational psychology studies as I was still at that time working toward my Ph.D. I felt that my site was willing and ready to embrace this way of engaging even though the greater organization in my opinion was not the embodiment of what I was to be teaching. That, though, is a whole different story.

The first thing to remember is that there is no such thing as a perfect coach. It all starts with the desire to find the best way to motivate and empower your team. These skills are not natural. Some people do have more of an inclination to the process but are still something that has to be consciously thought about a practiced. I struggle with being a better safety coach every day. Being a coach and mentor is equal parts giving someone the knowledge to learn and helping someone learn how to gain knowledge.

The best place to start is to define what a coach is.

The philosophy of becoming a coach is great, but where do we start to make a difference in our team’s daily process. It begins with one of the earlier principles of “making time.” It takes time to coach, and it originates from choosing to make an interaction a coaching experience. A team member comes to your office looking for information. The two of you have had conversations about growth, learning, and development previously. Instead of just handing the answer over maybe it is time to help them find their answer.

Let me pause for a moment. Coaching should not be a waste of time. It should be a deliberate exercise to help develop someone’s ability to think and navigate the opportunities of your organization. For example, I have placed an order for extra equipment. My employee comes to ask if the new equipment has arrived. I then ask, “Where should be looking to see if the equipment came in.” That is a waste and does not help anyone involved. That interaction could be valuable if someone was wanting to learn the purchasing and receiving system as part of overall growth. It is about context.

Back to the scenario. Your team member had a new idea they want to implement. Instead of giving them your list of steps, you begin to help them formulate their plan. Use an organizational chart and ask the team member to describe who needs to be directly involved, who needs to know, and who has to approve this new process.

Safety Mentorship 4: Make a Plan

Do you have a career plan? Do those that you supervise or mentor have one?

One of the most interesting and value-oriented exercises that can be performed is to make a career plan. Sure, it can change at any time. A career plan is not at all static. It is a living, dynamic document that is ever-changing based on all kinds of factors both at home and at work. A career plan is one of those items that when reviewing it could take minutes or it could take hours depending on the changes, progress, and sometimes pure luck.

One of the people that I had the privilege of supervising was all in when it came to career planning. They wanted to grow and had a strong focus on skills and knowledge that would help them in the current company. One evening, we were having a discussion in my office, and they confided that they had a great chance of another position outside of our organization. Was I upset? Absolutely not. It would be absurd of me to think that the only possible way to advance would be to only focus on the organization that you are with.

I am a prime example of that same philosophy. If you look at my LinkedIn profile, 3-years is about average for me to be with a company. I am either growing with a company, or I am leaving. To be honest, each of my moves is more complex than just growth. It is about culture, the job market, the state of the business, and so much more. In other words, though, I am not averse to making a move. I also understand how tough that can be for others.

In the book ”Executive Warfare” by David D’Alessandro, he describes the factors that are in place to keep growing in an organization. It is admitted in the book that not everyone can be promoted because as you move up the opportunities to make another upward move are much fewer. It was interesting the way the book describes that our workplace should not only be a great place to grow but our workplace should also be a great place to come from. This means that other organizations want what we have been teaching to our teams. Our people should be in demand because they are being invested in.

So back to my story. When they came to my office to talk about the opportunity outside the organization I was sad to think I would lose a valuable employee but I was also excited as they would be fantastic in the new role they were going for. From that moment, we revised the career plan and started focusing on mock interviews and how to talk about their experience in a way that would show the new organization the person’s best traits. Ultimately, they took the new position, and I could not be prouder.

It is important that when evaluating a career plan with our teams that we are open, honest, and create trust. Sometimes, we have to let someone know that a role may not be good for them. I had a supervisor tell me one time that maybe I did not and would not fit the company culture. In other words, you are not moving up so you should start moving out. Not all career discussions are good ones. They should, though, be valuable ones. It all begins with having a plan and taking time to invest in that plan.

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.