Safety Manager Communicates with Upper Management
Aviation safety managers are faced with particular challenges stemming from:
- Acquiring top management support for aviation safety management system (SMS); and
- Maintaining top management support for the safety department.
The problem stems from safety managers not speaking the same language as upper-level executives. Imagine dogs trying to communicate with cats.
That is right, aviation safety managers are a different species than upper management.
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It is not by accident that one of the first steps in implementing an aviation safety management system (SMS) is to acquire top management support. This has repeatedly been proven as a critical step in every successful SMS! Your SMS will not survive without it.
Aviation SMS is implemented from the top down. This means that it must start from the accountable executive and upper management. The accountable executive is responsible for the SMS and for regularly monitoring SMS performance. The most difficult part of a safety manager's job is not necessarily getting the accountable executive's support, but trying to get the other managers to realize that the SMS has become a core business process and can add "real financial benefits" to the organization.
In this post, we'll explore some tips to earn or maintain support for your SMS and perhaps increase your aviation safety budget.
Safety Managers Need to Learn How Upper Management Thinks
- Are very busy;
- Don't like to waste time;
- Don't understand your specialized SMS jargon;
- Are under pressure to deliver profits;
- Are very good at saying the right thing to get their way; and
- Want you to say what you need and then leave them alone.
Understanding the psychological makeup of top management is necessary for safety managers to become successful and also to increase the success of every aviation SMS implementation.
Without top management support, your aviation SMS program will certainly fail. Therefore, it is imperative that the safety department earns and maintains top-level support. It only takes one manager to "poison the well" and damage the safety culture safety managers are struggling to cultivate.
Unfortunately, it is not the safety manager's job to align the upper managers' mission with the SMS, but the accountable executives, as the accountable executive is responsible for making sure the SMS is performing in all operational areas.
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Top Management Is Juggling Many Other Managers
Aviation safety professionals must be empathetic to the fact the top-level management is being bombarded daily with information and demands from many other elements, both internal and external.
These include but are not limited to:
- Comptrollers and auditors;
- Regulatory agencies;
- IT managers;
- HR managers;
- Maintenance operations;
- Marketing and advertising; and
- Board of directors.
Safety Managers Have No Direct Power to Make Operations Safe
Only the most optimistic safety managers believe they possess the will to make their company safer. What many safety professionals don't understand is that they don't have authority over front-line employees to influence their behaviors. Therefore, the most successful safety professionals have the ability to work through other managers.
Line and staff managers have direct control over the front-line employees. Upper management has direct control over the line and staff managers. Consequently, effective safety managers start from the top of the food chain and allow management processes to work. In the end, safety professionals will be working very closely with the line and staff managers to affect the will of those at the top while implementing the SMS.
When there is resistance to the SMS implementation from other operational department heads, I recommend discussing these "indicators of resistance" with the accountable executive instead of confronting the managers directly. This SMS implementation belongs to the accountable executive.
The accountable executive is responsible for addressing substandard safety performance, and when top-level managers resist the SMS, this definitely affects the safety culture and SMS performance.
What Should Safety Managers Tell Upper Level Managers?
Managers like to hear:
- Good news; and
- How to avoid being on the 6 o'clock news; and
- How to save money.
Once safety professionals understand what upper-level management needs and want to hear, making their case becomes easier.
I believe it all boils down to making the "business case" for:
- Saving money;
- Complying with regulatory requirements;
- Enhancing the company's reputation;
- Differentiating your company from the competition; and
- Acting in a socially responsible manner.
Safety managers should keep these elements at the front of their minds when discussing SMS initiatives with upper management. The most common complaint we hear from safety managers is that upper management does not offer adequate financial support to the safety program's budget. If this happens to you, focus on how your increased budget will contribute to your airline or airport's overall business case.
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Final Thoughts on Earning Top Level Support for Safety Initiatives
Once you have earned top-level support for the aviation SMS, you should not take it for granted. Safety managers can gradually lose top management support without realizing it until it is too late.
To avoid losing top management support, make sure you:
- Communicate regularly;
- Ensure managers are properly trained according to their role in the SMS;
- Discuss and broadcast the wins attributed to the safety program;
- Don't hesitate to bring bad news;
- Provide useful safety data to management to facilitate timely decision-making;
- Keep looking for opportunities for the safety team to add value to operations; and
- Phrase safety budgetary items as "investments" that will contribute to the bottom line.
No aviation SMS will survive without upper management support and explicit leadership. Top-level management must communicate this support both in word and deed. In order for upper management to work effectively with safety managers, there must be a high degree of trust between both parties. In addition, upper-level management must have a rudimentary understanding of aviation risk management processes.
If your upper-level managers don't have an understanding of risk management processes, I suggest either:
Aviation SMS training appears to be the most effective method to bring upper management into the light. Do you include special training for upper management at your company?
How do you get upper management involved in your SMS?
We can help enhance transparency and enforce accountability in your SMS. Ask us how.
Learn what tasks other aviation safety managers do on a recurring basis...
Last updated in May 2023.