Leadership for a culture of safety: Closing the performance gap

July 2, 2019 / By Priscilla Knolle, MD

In my last blog titled “Culture of safety: Transformation through employee engagement,” I presented my interview with Anil Mathur, President and CEO of Alaska Tanker Company. Anil shared how a caring culture helps create a psychologically safe place to work, and how employee engagement lays the groundwork for a sustainable culture of safety. He described the benefits of employee engagement as observable, vast and immeasurable. With an environmental safety record of no oil spills with 60 billion gallons of transported crude oil, no employee injuries in 23 million hours of work (except one finger fracture) and a 95 percent employee retention rate, in this final part of the blog series I present Anil’s insights into key leader attributes and leadership principles that enable such an exemplary and consistent organizational health record.

At the outset, Anil describes leadership as a “way of being.” Some ways this plays out in a leader’s behavior are:

  1. Always face relevant issues and take the time/resources to understand them fully.
  2. Listen attentively and deeply; let others experience being fully heard and understood. Allow them see your compassion and caring.
  3. Be generous and avoid being controlling.
  4. Exude positive energy.
  5. Demonstrate your vision and unwavering moral compass through specific conversations, actions and decisions.
  6. Invest in developing trusting relationships.
  7. Be willing to take on personal and career risks for your principles.
  8. Be careful in corrections- address behaviors and not the individual.
  9. Use humor- “keep small things small.”
  10. Allow others to grow and thrive- do not default to “taking charge.”

Anil states that for sustainable transformation, there is not one optimum “leadership style.” When the organizational culture or current performance is poor, then an effective style is directive and disciplinarian. When continuous improvement is the chosen path, then a participative style and teamwork are more likely to bear fruit. At higher levels of performance, individual empowerment is most effective.

A psychologically safe space is necessary to foster continuous improvement and empower people. The “what’s missing?” model versus the “what’s wrong?” model is a more positive, actionable idea and actions produce results. Develop a deep understanding of business drivers (actions) and focus on those. Business results (outcomes) will follow. Anil believes in carefully selecting strategic initiatives and sticking to them.

Anil relates how we all have “background conversations” and how this “filtered perception” can affect actions. This continual awareness of “looking inward” along with outward strategic interventions is critical to successfully leading organizations and achieving goals. In the McKinsey Quarterly article “Change leader, change thyself,” authors Nate Boaz and Erica Ariel Fox describe this phenomenon as closing the performance gap. They conclude that “this integration of looking both inward and outward is the most powerful formula we know for creating long-term, high-impact organizational change.” Anil embodies this principle and with a proven leadership record of nearly two decades at the helm of the oil industry, I thank him for these insights, which are applicable to all sectors, including our healthcare sector.

Priscilla Knolle, MD, CPHQ, CHDA, CCS, is a Clinical Transformation Consultant at 3M Health Information Systems.