Understanding Your Personal Competitive Environment, Part 1

Thinking globally, acting locally is one of the keys.

AS our organizations continue to look for ways to advance in the marketplace, we need to constantly examine how we view our roles as individual contributors. As a result, it is ultimately our responsibility to continually assess the direction in which we are heading so we can positively contribute to the success of the organization and meet our own developmental needs.

The following composition is a summary of the presentation I was honored to conduct at Safety 2006, "Investing in Today's Safety Professional." The American Society of Safety Engineers' Annual Professional Development Conference and Exposition was held June 11-14, 2006 in Seattle at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

One of the realities of the 21st century is that in many instances when promotions are available within organizations, individuals in safety are routinely passed over for those promotions. As I have looked over the organizational landscape of enterprises with which I am familiar, I can clearly see that the top individuals in safety are rarely those who have a safety background. Going even further, the top individuals in safety are sometimes buried under a confused conglomeration of departmental titles, such as security/safety/risk management or loss prevention.

As safety professionals, there is a choice to be made: You can either continue to be overlooked for opportunities for which you might reasonably expect that your skills and abilities might qualify you, or you can work to take stock of, manage, and/or control the events that affect your professional lives by examining and evaluating on a continual basis the factors that affect your personal competitive environment.

When someone asks you what you do for a living and you say you are in safety, how do they look at you and what do you say in response? If we have trouble presenting who we are as safety professionals and doing so in a manner that shows our ability to have an impact on the operations in which we are involved, can we really blame someone else for doing the same? If we do not take the time to coach others or help them to develop an appropriate perspective around the critical and essential nature of safety, then how can we expect to affect their mindsets?

The uncomplicated rejoinder is that each safety professional must take an active role in defining and then demonstrating to others what our role is and who we are, versus allowing others to dictate our role and who we are. There is much work to be done in this area, and it is fundamental that each member of the safety community work diligently to advance this cause.

Why Are We Overlooked?
I want to offer some reasons--or, perhaps more appropriately, excuses--why the phenomenon of overlooking the safety professional exists. I contend that when senior management is looking to fill positions for which a person with a defined safety background might qualify, even if it is outside the safety realm, they tend to select individuals who they feel have experiences more relevant to them. Or they select individuals with whom they are more comfortable based upon a personal and/or business knowledge perspective. Finally, they select individuals who display a willingness to assume responsibilities outside their core areas of expertise.

While I believe each of these areas plays a significant role in the reasons safety professionals are overlooked for promotions, it is the last two that provide the most opportunity for safety professionals to control their own destiny. Additionally, while being dedicated to the safety professional is not undesirable, there is something wrong with the idea that you could be so myopic in your perspective that you are not even willing to examine other areas that might allow you to build upon your previously acquired skills. In that regard, you have to understand the operations of your business in total and the relationship that other functional areas have to the safety field. If you don't, you are hurting yourselves and your businesses.

Throughout our careers, we have been faced with the idea that we must be aware of the competitive environment(s) in which our business or businesses operate. As I have often been taught, "If you do not know what your competitors are doing, then you are probably out of the race."

Assessing where your organization is based upon its prior performance (the past), where it is currently (the present), and most importantly where it is headed (the future) is a requirement to remain competitive in our global society. However, I believe the constant focus on our larger organizations has come at a price. That price is a lack of understanding as to how we as individual contributors fit into the larger picture of our organizations and what each of us must do to be aware of our own personal competitive environment.

To affirmatively respond to these issues, we can and must prepare ourselves to handle any situation we encounter for which our skill sets are a match, whether we decide to stay with our current organization or move on to another operation. Like our global organizations, we must take stock or inventory of our past, present, and future so we develop an appropriate course of action that will allow us to remain viable over the long run. We must think globally, yet act locally in order to achieve our goals of being the best we can be. The ability to engage in analysis and being prepared to accept possible future opportunities is essential to understanding and responding to your personal competitive environment(s).

If analysis and preparation are essential to understanding and responding to our personal competitive environment(s), then the questions that naturally follow are: how do we do that, what must we analyze, and what opportunities will exist to maximize the chance to be the best we can be?

We must start with an analysis of how the profession is perceived within our own environment(s). This examination will help you determine whether you are working from a position of strength or one of detriment. In life, each of us builds our successes upon the shoulders of the person(s) who came before us. As it relates to the workplace, if that individual had a positive image, then more than likely you will receive the benefit of their good deeds. However, if that person was seen as a non-contributor, you probably will have to work your way out of a deficit situation that you did not cause.

As it relates to understanding and responding to your personal competitive environment, there are several areas you should be aware of:

  • The global marketplace and what employers are looking for
  • Understanding and defining what is meant by a customer
  • The need to enhance your technical abilities
  • Building alliances
  • Taking risks
  • The importance of visibility
  • Curiosity
  • Taking the initiative for career and personal development
  • The role of a leader

The Global Marketplace and Employers
While most of us can identify values, it is not only values that employers want--because they already believe, rightfully so, that you already possess the values that will allow them to be seen in a favorable light.

In the final analysis, employers are looking for individuals who will allow them to extend the range of services they provide and do so in a manner that will allow them to continue to be profitable. While you may think that means your current or potential employer is looking at your functional expertise, the reality is that your functional expertise represents only a fraction of what employers need in order to sustain their economic viability. Employers need you to be technically proficient in your function areas but they also need you to be astute enough to understand their business as a whole, as well as how your role relates to other functional areas within their operations.

Today's employer realizes that the best employees, the ones with the most chance of affecting their operations economically and in other ways, have a broad base of skills that stretch across functions. While they may not expect you to be an expert in areas outside your field, they do expect you to know enough about these areas that you can see the connections and possible pitfalls that may be present when different strategic options are discussed. As individuals involved in safety, each of us needs to understand that one of the worst ways a person can refer to us is as "a good safety professional." Being a good safety professional without having a broad knowledge of the business issues that affect your operations will not be enough to sustain you or your profession when organizations decide they need something more.

Understanding and Defining Customers
Understanding and defining your customer may seem like a straightforward matter. However, it is more complex than you might think. A customer in its uncorrupted form is anyone who has a service request. A customer is not just the person with whom we interact as it relates to our specific area of knowledge. Rather, it is literally anyone who comes in contact with us for any reason. To the extent they are interacting with us as we execute our professional duties, then each of us represents the safety profession to everyone with whom we come in contact. Let me repeat that: Each of us represents the safety profession to everyone with whom we come in contact. When you view your role this way, it is clear to see the enormous potential each of us has to affect our arena.

We need to keep in mind that the customer is not always right. However, the customer is always the customer, and as such, they always have a choice. They can either choose to utilize your services or can go somewhere else. If this seems harsh, it really is not because the same options apply to each of you.

When a customer has a service request of you, they might not even know what they are asking for or how much effort it will involve. Customers change from day to day, hour to hour, and sometimes from one word to the next. It is during these times when your interpersonal and safety knowledge skills have to mesh so that you can carefully walk them through this potentially tricky maze of contradictions, which they may have no idea they have just entered.

Enhance Your Technical Abilities
The need for technology will never be less than it is today. Put another way, the need for the acquisition and utilization of knowledge in the field of technology will be greater in the future than it is today--and tomorrow represents the future. Knowing this is the case, we must be aware of how technology will affect our profession and our businesses. If we don't know the answer, then we must find someone who does. If we cannot readily find someone who does, then we need to dig deeper to avail ourselves of professional associations like the American Society of Safety Engineers, publications such as this one, and related entities that can help us find the answers to remain viable as individuals and as a profession.

It is not just enough to find the answers; once they're found, we must be able to apply the necessary effort to acquire a firm knowledge of the new technology and then move from there to the utilization phase so we can demonstrate our expertise. The acquisition of knowledge without application is folly. The application of knowledge without an appreciation for theory is vanity. To behave in either way is detrimental to you and your profession.

This column appeared in the September 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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