Learning to plant trees

“Did Brad ever tell you about all of the trees we planted?”

So began a story about Brad Giles and a season of planting saplings in the wilds of Idaho. And by the end of the story, I’d again be reminded about the impact one person can make in the world.

I met Brad Giles several years ago at a safety conference. At work, I’d just been selected for promotion to Chief Master Sergeant and days later hired to manage the U.S. Air Force’s safety career field. As Chief is the final military promotion, I was feeling the beginning of a career plateau.

Yet as Brad and I spoke over dinner, he shared with me a vision. A vision to share the vast potential of a career in EHS with military veterans. Veterans who protected our nation would serve again to protect our workforce. Brad ignited a fire in me that evening.

Last night, another Airman emailed me to let me know he’d passed the CSP exam and to thank me for my leadership and example. But it wasn’t my example he was seeing.

It was Brad Giles.

Because while Brad may be an ASSE fellow, former BCSP board president, ASSE director…and much more…what makes him so very special is this fundamental quality.

Brad plants trees.

From all of the trees…thank you, Brad. And happy birthday again.

Coming in level

Coming in level for an aircraft landing is optimal, depending on the design of the craft, to avoid damage to low engines and excessive stress on landing gear.

In new jobs, whether by promotions or by moving organizations, we like to think we can “come in level” too.

But jobs aren’t engineered runways.

Your predecessor made choices. Decisions to accept risk. Some situations were ignored and others were acknowledged but reprioritized. Ideas were developed and either implemented or shelved until the right time. Teams were built, modified, grown, reduced, and in some parts held together by tape and glue stick (find these first).

Have a new job or one on the way? My highest recommendation goes to “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. It’s one of the most read books on my shelf and receives the highest reviews in my mentoring groups.

Come in level…but prepare for the runway.


Off the Fence

“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off.” – Jim Rohn

Many Airmen in my military career field are highly skilled and well trained in safety. Frequently, I’m asked for advice from these young military service-members about staying in or getting out of the Air Force.

Sometimes there is no “best” answer.

At one point, years ago, I too faced this crossroad. The best advice I received during this time?

“When you choose, pursue your chosen option with everything you have.”

This mentor went on to tell me if I chose to remain in the Air Force, the worst thing I could do stay and regret it or go through the motions until retirement. And if I chose a civilian career path, l should set big goals. In either case, “be the best there is.”

Sitting on the fence is painful. It holds you back from committing and provides a path for excuses to hold back opportunities. Too many options leads to a lack of focus on what is important.

Are you delaying a choice?


When To Burn That Bridge

I have two colleagues with a certain expertise.

With nearly every email, and regularly in meetings, they know just the right words to use and actions to take.

They burn bridges with wild abandon.

Their secret to burned-out shells of relationships? They pride themselves in their ability and find comfort with “getting things off their chest.”

A How-To Guide:

  • Don’t agree with a topic or decision? Shoot off an 8-page email to the highest-ranking executive in the business unit.
  • Read something that can be taken the wrong way? Take it personally and insist everyone is out to get you.
  • Send something and you didn’t receive a response within a day or in a way you approve of? Time to light a match.

But there are times to burn bridges. (I lit one up myself a couple weeks ago.)

Here are three things you should think about before lighting the match to the bridge.

  1. Balance the cost: What is gained by the way you interact or respond? What will the cost be to your team (think bigger than yourself)? Is the issue really deserving of this level of response and emotion? Is the relationship worth more than this single issue?
  2. Know your values: If the situation goes against your values, get involved sooner than later. Burning bridges with people and organizations conflicting with your moral compass is a “must-do”. Strike the match.
  3. Get a 2″x 4″: Pick up a long piece of wood. (No, not for the side of their head.) Put it down on the bridge and walk across. Even if you were right about the issue, there is no shame in repairing the floorboards.

When do you burn bridges?


Depersonalizing Failure

I was sprawled in the middle of the road, my right knee bleeding onto the asphalt.

At 0430 a.m. the running trail was still dark. I had failed to see the curb in the middle of the road and tripped over it, scraping my knee and hands in the process.

I began to rationalize the incident.

Who puts a curb there? Where were the street lights? I’d forgotten my headlamp, but I was in a hurry. My alarm had malfunctioned.

And so it went.

When others fail, we learn. We say, “I’ll never do that”. We look out for curbs that others trip over.

When we fail, we instantly rationalize. It’s not our fault we were speeding, the cops needed to write more tickets that month. We went bankrupt because of the economy, not because of poor decisions we made, right? We blame. We see fault everywhere but in ourselves.

And often the lesson is missed.

To learn from failure, we must depersonalize failure. It’s why learning to fly in a flight simulator works so well. The risks, to the student’s health and ego, are reduced by the environment. It’s also why advances in virtual reality technology, like crane operator training, are so exciting.

My knee still carries the scar from the fall. But by depersonalizing the event, I was able to learn (wear a headlamp) and stop the rationalization.

I Waited Too Long

On a recent evening walk with my family, we passed through an RV park where a couple was just pulling in for the night. We said hello and struck up a conversation about their recent travels. As they’d been on the road for 18 months, I asked the man what his favorite part of the trip and if he’d do anything different.

He said, “Key West was my favorite stop and yes…yes, I’d do it differently.”

Pausing, he continued. “I waited too long.” His wife nodded solemnly. “I worked and worked until I got old. Then we started traveling.” He rolled his eyes. “Next time, I’d begin much earlier.”

The error is called sequencing. Thinking we must do this, before that, when the timing will be “perfect”. College, first job, then a stable job, student loan payoff, then kids, then a house, then….

And so it goes. Until, “I waited too long.”

Warren Buffett agrees. Buffet said, “I always worry about people who say, ‘I’m going to do this for ten years; I really don’t like it very well. And then I’ll do this…’ That’s a lot like saving sex up for your old age. Not a very good idea.”

What are you waiting for?


Where Should Safety Managers Spend Their Time?

A senior safety director in my organization frequently says that safety professionals in the field should spend 50% of their time in the office and the other 50% on job sites. Some would argue time in the field should be increased, while others see no way to reduce their current 90:10 office /job site ratio.

What about managers? Where should they spend their time?

Read any management book on the subject for advice on the subject. In summary, managers should spend time thinking and planning the team’s work, doing the work required to align resources, and analyzing what is/is not working.

I ask a lot of safety managers what they do and how often they do it. They spend a lot of time on email, in meetings, conducting inspections, reviewing investigations, and handling personnel issues (from appraisals to training to hiring).

What’s missing? Strategic planning/prioritization and analysis.

Without a strategic and deliberate plan for the year, prioritization is relegated to reactive response. A daily schedule driven by the email inbox is a sure method to burn out even the best of teams.

Analysis also suffers in many managers’ schedules. Not only analysis of injuries and incidents (too often only accomplished to satisfy a program requirement and lacking actionable plans), but analysis of what’s working, who’s working on what, and where the team’s time is being spent. Without this knowledge, what exactly is being managed? If the manager isn’t looking for what works and what doesn’t, who is?

Managers can no longer simply be the most senior employee. Our teams deserve managers who plan, do, and analyze.

What more on the subject? Pick up a copy of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshal Goldsmith.


The Price Is Right (Maybe)

The television game show began in 1956 and still airs today. Contestants on The Price is Right guess retail prices of products from cans of soup to cars and vacations.

The show works because most people do not have a good idea of what the prizes cost. From the flashy cars to the cruises, most players end up wildly incorrect about the prices.

But it’s not just television.

We see others with high-level careers, mansions, luxury cars, the latest purse or watch…and we compare ourselves to them. Too often, we neglect to ponder the price. Not the retail price per se…but the price in terms of study, sacrificed social time, multiple failures, hours worked, the loss on privacy, trade-offs in relationships, or even strained physical and mental health.

Psychologists call this imbalance the Comparison Fallacy. We too easily look past our own talents, priorities, and goals and become distracted by the accomplishments of others.

Yes, the benefits may appeal to us, but are we willing to pay the price? If not, then wish the person all the best. If, on the other hand, the cost (work, study, sacrifice) aligns with your goals and values, then redouble your efforts and get busy.

Is your price right?


Lou Holtz: Why Education and Credentialing Matter To Leaders

“Players need confidence. That’s why I had tough practices. Because then we had easy games.” – Lou Holtz

College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Lou Holtz is the only coach ever to lead six different schools to bowl games. And his teams consistently won.

Because tough practices equal easy games.

Education and credentialing are not about a piece of paper.

They are about the journey. They are about who you become during the struggle. They are about letting go of limiting beliefs such as; “I might fail”, “I’m too old for that”, and “I don’t have time”. They are about being an example to those who look up to you.

As a leader you show the path to those you lead.

When you can’t find the time, why should they?

If you can’t endure “tough practice”…what does that say about your game?

When you insist “it’s just a piece of paper”, are you leading or encouraging the status quo?

Your Company Values Don’t Matter

Like a bad version of Fight Club, we have values, but we don’t talk about values.

Not in meetings, not in group conversations, not in our annual headquarters’ reports, not in formal or informal performance assessments, and we never call each other out for displaying behaviors contrary to the organization’s values. Wait, there was that 60-minute presentation on values at the senior manager’s course. Does that count?

Like safety and risk management, if people don’t discuss it, address it in planning, adhere to it when it’s not easy, and use it as a tool to guide decisions…values do not exist.

Patrick Lencioni, in an article for Harvard Business Review, wrote, “…when properly practiced, values inflict pain. They make some employees feel like outcasts. They limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behavior of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance.”

Do your values go beyond the poster board on the wall?

Do they inflict pain?

Do they invite criticism?

Is your team’s culture intolerant of decisions made that run counter to your values?

Do your values matter?