Extending Your Leadership Reach: Making Central and Local Connections

Entice and excite participation among personnel at distant sites by removing their barriers to involvement.

HOW can your leadership be both spread and focused? This is a critical tension faced by many companies with multiple operations. Stretching, on one hand, to encourage individual sites to determine their own safety interventions; tightening, on the other, toward exerting expert central controls so far-flung plants attain desired, consistent results.

In command-and-control, "do-as-we-say" leadership, corporate headquarters made decisions, specified expectations, demanded implementation, and then monitored results. This concentric approach has several advantages: Weaving the same interventions throughout the company builds corporate identity, strengthens culture, and can facilitate planning high-quality--vs. hit-and-miss--interventions. In addition, the company can apply the same metrics everywhere for evaluation and accountability. And identical applications may be easier to support/institute/reinforce companywide.

Sounds nice--on paper. But ripple-out programming doesn't often work in a multicultural, time-zone-skewed world. Headquarters may be seen as disconnected from local issues or not recognizing the differences in cultures between graveyard and day shifts within the same plant, much less between countries. Check-in conference calls or e-mails don't have the same power to rev up results as real-time visits. Further, resistance to a distant power source can result in bare-bones commitment or halfhearted implementation to seemingly cookie-cutter applications.

Ripple-out programming doesn't often work in a multicultural, time-zone-skewed world.

In response, many companies have swung their safety controls pendulum toward localized decision-making. The advantages: Sites better know their own workforce and specific needs, so they can select or tweak interventions to fit. This often results in greater buy-in. But if sites don't get desired results, corporate patience with "do your own thing" safety can sour. Additionally, some companies' business plan requires a unified safety culture, whether for consistency, regulating agency approval, or efficient allocation of resources.

Breakthrough strategists extract the strengths of different approaches while minimizing their weaknesses. Here are actions corporate can adopt to boost safety in distant operations. (If you work on a site level, consider requesting HQ to provide this support):

1. Scan and Scope. Select content-rich applications with universal application, either developed internally or from outside. These should be based on commonly useful skills (e.g., heightening risk alertness, decision-making, balance, safety leadership, etc.). For example, Phelps-Dodge screens in, then internally publicizes, a select set of interventions for reducing soft-tissue injuries in their range of worldwide operations, from mining to manufacturing.

2. Clear the Path. Centrally negotiate contractual issues (including pricing) that might otherwise stymie easy plant-level adoption. Some companies go so far as to purchase worldwide rights to vendor-created programs (or even the vendor itself) in order to own the application, thereby tweaking and distributing without restrictions.

3. Spread the Word. Recommend and publicize a limited set of key initiatives for potential site adoption. Examples include: making promotional videos available for download, offering exposure at conferences, and webletters with corporate consultation at site level. It's critical to offer possibilities, inform, and energize sites on many levels with executives, supervisors, and workers.

4. Melt the Ice. Entice and excite participation by removing barriers to involvement. Corporate can host (pay for) a pilot program in select sites that volunteer to become first wave participants. This generates "local" data and promotes early buy-in, overcoming initial financial obstacles or "won't work here" objections.

5. Support the Start. Partner with sites by partially subsidizing next level of implementation. Specify which elements are core to the initiative and which may be "localized." This strategy simultaneously maintains consistency while inviting site-level adjustments and promoting ownership.

6. Sustain the Returns. Create and maintain a centralized source for evaluating and reinforcing adopted corporate interventions. "Heroize" effective local customizations. Promote Best Use Practices throughout the corporation; keep initiatives alive and thriving by developing a process for incorporating these practices into next generation of programming.

Develop vehicles where sites can readily communicate with one another about obstacles seen and overcome--via the intranet, conference calls, video, or other mass media delivery.

Don't restrict this to statistical wins--look for and disseminate anecdotal improvements, as well.

7. Accelerate the Momentum. Help sites build on successes. For example, create pre-implementation agreements with plants, specifying how they will reinforce initiatives (e.g., coaching on topic one, two or four hours/month). As does one international food products company, reward those sites that have met agreed-upon metrics in corporate-driven activities.

Help sites build on successes. For example, create pre-implementation agreements with plants, specifying how they will reinforce initiatives.

There are many creative strategies for balancing corporate direction-setting with local customization and ownership. By planning for a range of approaches, you can have your safety cake and eat it, alloying the strengths of consistency, culture, creativity, and control.

This column appeared in the March 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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