07/18/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

About Leadership: Safety Is Core to Any Business

Russell Seal, who led BP Oil for many years, used to say 'If you can't manage safety, you can't manage' and I believe this to be true. If we cannot run a business, any business, in a way that protects the lives and limbs, the eyes and hearing and the health of our employees then we cannot run that business. Simple as that.

Any CEO who allows a business unit in his company to run with a poor safety record is not asking the right questions. Any Board that allows its Company to run with a poor safety record is not doing its job either. So what is poor? Is it worse than average? For our industry, for our country? What is the standard?

I am sure that the only appropriate goal long-term is zero accidents. It is never enough to say we are doing better than others. Safety is an absolute, not a relative corporate value. And while one does not go from poor performance to zero accidents in an instant, or even in a year, it is the goal that has to be firmly set and always kept in view, no matter the starting point.

Safety needs to be the first item on the leadership agenda, and on the Agenda. It is the first thing to think about when you are asking 'how are we doing?' or talking about that to a town hall meeting, it is the first thing to talk about at an offsite conference or when visitors are present at a meeting ('if there is an alarm, it will sound like a continuous bell, and we will leave by the stairway to the right of the door, and assemble in the car park') and at a management meeting or a CEO report to the Board, it is the first thing to cover (accidents, investigations, near misses).

Improvement in safety performance yields to attention. Without management attention, it drifts. As much as anything in the Corporation, yes, as much as strategic direction and financial performance, safety performance reflects corporate leadership. And this needs to be sustained over time, not for days or weeks or months, but forever. Why do I emphasise this to such an extent and in such strong terms?

I think there are two simple reasons. First, because while our employees don't come to work wanting to be injured, or killed, they are people, and people take shortcuts. Have you ever seen a lawn that people did not cut across if they were able to? And shortcuts, bred in the soup of repetition and familiarity, lead to accidents. Not isolating an electrical system because the operation to clean a trap has been done every week for years, and there was never a problem. Leaving the motor running on a truck while you go up to turn off a valve, because you want to get back to the control room quickly on a cold night. Not putting on a seat belt for a short drive.

Second, because as the leaders of the company, we put in place actions to improve safety and it improves to a certain level. I can guarantee you that whatever actions you take, if you start with a mediocre performance, you will improve and then plateau at a somewhat better performance. Then you need some more actions, on top of what you are already doing, to get to a plateau of better performance. And so on. Until you get to a point where year after year there are no accidents. And to sustain this requires constant attention, and refreshing, and curing of small problems before they become big ones.

No accidents, means that every bit of the plant is running safely, of course. But it also means that if someone spills a teaspoonful of coffee it is wiped up at once, before someone else comes along and slips on it. That the kitchen operates to the same set of standards as the plant, that the back office has the same standards of housekeeping as the factory. Even if there is no factory, only office, everyone is conscious of having a safe working environment.

Ultimately, it also means that we are so conscious of safety as individuals that when we are doing a repair at home we think and act in the same way as we would do at work. Indeed, if the company you are leading is only doing retail stores and deliveries, safety consciousness is just as important as if you are running a dynamite factory. Well, almost as important.

So no accidents at the bottom of a staircase that we walk down through our rules, statements, actions, improved skills and unrelenting attention. And when a setback occurs, as they will, we regroup, we look for root causes, we reinvigorate what we were doing and re-establish our place on the staircase.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium-sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?