Certification vs. Qualification
Last year my wife went to the dentist to have a filling put into one of her teeth. She had severe pain for several days, went back to the dentist and found out that he had put the filling in backward. He replaced it with a new filling but the next day it fell out of her tooth.
We chose a different dentist this time around.
We’ve all experienced this – you go to the doctor, dentist, etc., and it becomes painfully obvious very quickly that the person working on your should have chosen a different career. What about the safety manager?
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A job title doesn't mean having the right personal qualification for a position. There are some people who were not cut out for the job they have chosen. We see this in younger people more often than in employees older than 40. The reason is that younger employees are trying on different hats, so to speak, as they learn which jobs suite them best.
With aviation safety managers, this isn't quite the case, because many safety managers come from the ranks, or they also have a "full-time job" as well as the safety manager role. This may not always be a suitable match for the new safety manager, as an aviation safety management system (SMS) is more than the traditional safety program.
An aviation SMS is more complex, more structured and more hands on by management than the traditional safety program. In the past, "safety programs" were a "nice touch" to show that management cared for employee well-being. This is not the case with modern aviation SMS. Besides having strict SMS documentation requirements, SMS requires the development of the "just culture" which protects employees from management as they dutifully participate in the SMS.
So no, in this post I’m not talking about the technical requirements for becoming an aviation safety officer.
The much more relevant question is: what personality traits separate the average aviation safety officer from the good one, and how do you stack up?
Traits of a Competent Aviation Safety Manager
And to be clear, being a competent safety manager involves much more than simply knowing:
- How to golf with the accountable executive
- SMS requirements
- Aviation operational hazards and risks
- Auditing techniques
- SMS concepts
- Risk management principles
- Human factors
- How to motivate people
- And so on.
Having these traits and knowing these requirements may be how you landed your first safety officer job.
Rather, consider the following items in this article an overview of what traits help a more experienced safety officer implement these concepts, principles, human factors, etc. with great efficiency and success.
Universally, there are 4 great traits that every successful safety officer has.
Here you go.
#1 Great Aviation Safety Officers Are Decisive
A good friend of mine is a high ranking safety officer and was the youngest person to ever land his position – long story short he is an excellent safety officer.
Spending time with him has made me realize that part of the reason he is so good at what he does is that he is extremely decisive.
Decisiveness as a trait takes on three forms:
- Knowing the material well enough in most contexts to quickly make an informed, justified decision
- Knowing successful methods well enough to quickly make an informed, justified decision in a new context
- Knowing successful procedures to carry out the method well enough to quickly make an informed, justified decision
To boil it down: decisive people make good, justifiable decisions very quickly.
This means either knowing the most successful approach based on already used methods and procedures. Or, if the situation is new, it means being able to immediately identify the most important factors and know the correct approach.
I would like to point that being decisive doesn’t mean trying to make the best decision – it means making a good decision.
Why is that important?
Trying to make the “best” decision is a trap in terms of time, energy, no end-goal, and usually involves considering more than what is relevant.
Good safety officers make good decisions that quickly and actively address the present concern. Being decisive is the vital component of establishing a safety officer as the authority on risk management.
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#2 Great Aviation Safety Managers Are Social Chameleons
Healthy aviation SMS function well at all levels of a business/company/department, including a diverse range of skills and education, from general labor to upper management.
Thus, safety managers need to be able to comfortably and naturally traverse a diverse range of social environments.
Here are the essential traits of every good chameleon:
- Is a considerate listener
- Is transparent (see the previous article on how transparency cultivates healthy safety cultures)
- Has an approachable demeanor
- Is honest without alienating
Transparency and honesty are especially important, as becoming too “political” – i.e. lack of transparency, and secrecy – can be a dangerous pitfall for a safety manager.
Basically, successful aviation safety officers are universally good at wearing many different hats. Moreover, this ability allows him/her to cultivate trust at all social levels of a workplace.
#3 Great Aviation Safety Managers Are Ambassadors
Being an ambassador is the more active sibling of being a social chameleon. Being a social chameleon is the ability to cultivate a relationship with diverse social circles, but being an ambassador involves communicating the needs of one party to another.
These “needs” and “parties” take on many forms.
As you are probably well aware, a safety officer is a middleman communicating between:
- Upper and lower management
- Management and contractors/suppliers
- SMS procedures and company policy
- SMS implementation and all levels of the workplace
- And many more combinations of the above
But being a good ambassador is not just about communicating the needs of one party to another– a good safety officer will translate those needs.
The unfortunate fact is that in different systems and different social circles, rarely are the different elements speaking the same language. The unfortunate consequence being miscommunication and feelings of neglect – the recipe for carelessness.
A good safety manager, as an ambassador, will actively ensure that the various parties in his/her workplace understand each other and are working on the same page. The result here is that people feel respected.
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#4 Great Aviation Officers Are Safety Journalists
Journalists keep the beat on the latest stories and changes. This point is fairly simple, but with impressive implications.
It boils down to two things:
1. They proactively sniff out holes and areas to improve safety
With how quickly technology, machinery, and personnel change, good safety managers keep abreast of these changes, plan accordingly, and implement these plans when needed. This involves knowing about the latest aviation SMS technologies, as well as reviewing current safety trends and looking for defects or areas to improve.
2. They are great documenters
In other words, all of the things a safety officer had to learn and remember to land their job, they don’t forget. Well, at least they periodically brush up on that knowledge.
Long story short, the journalist in good safety officers stays ahead of information – both new and old.
Safety Managers Are SMS Authority
To sum it up, excellent safety officers establish themselves as the authority, but create a socially safe place around themselves – they do not alienate any element of the workforce or SMS. They make sure people and policies are being acknowledged by other parties in the workplace.
Where do you excel and where can you improve? Have you noticed any other traits that should be on this list? Let us know your thoughts!
Smart Safety Managers Understand Effective Use of Technology
Smart safety officers are efficient and understand that technology can amplify their risk management efforts. An SMS database is structured to guide safety professionals as to best practices by providing a framework for repeatable risk management activities. By using an SMS database, safety managers are left with more time to promote the SMS. Otherwise, safety managers are burdened by incessant SMS documentation.
SMS databases are designed to manage all SMS documentation requirements.
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There are common SMS challenges faced by most new and experienced safety managers. One common challenge centers around SMS data management strategies. For example, we commonly see safety managers use:
- a spreadsheet for their hazard register;
- email for reporting safety issues;
- SharePoint for document management;
- another spreadsheet to store safety issues in a table and track risk management activities;
- another spreadsheet to track SMS training;
- Word document to edit the SMS manual; and maybe
- another spreadsheet to track safety goals and objectives.
This data management system is not efficient. Data sources are not integrated to easily pull reports and to identify trends.
I know safety managers who spend three weeks each year creating reports for management because they don't have an SMS database that automatically:
- collects SMS data;
- stores SMS data;
- generates reports;
- identifies trends and notifies management;
- alerts users of overdue tasks; and
- allows management to easily monitor SMS performance.
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Originally published November 2015. Last updated July 2019.