Fay Feeney Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Risk for Good
As a young business consultant hired to help companies improve the safety of their workplaces, Faye found herself in a challenging situation where she had to muster up all her courage to speak with conviction about something she knew was the absolute truth.
An important turning point early in my career was telling the CEO of one of our biggest clients the real reason why he was experiencing a high number of work-related injuries.
At the time I was a young consultant hired to help business leaders improve the safety, health and environmental aspects of their company. The CEO had been working with my employer for several months, and no one had ever explained to him why things were not getting better. My job was to try to turn things around and save the account.
The only woman in a boardroom filled with men, I knew the conversation we were about to have would impact the well-being of over 3,000 people. “So,” the CEO wanted to know, “Why are so many people being injured at my workplace and what do we need to do to improve the situation?” The room went still, twenty years ago, when I looked him in the eye and spoke the truth: “The reason people are being injured, sir, is because you, as the leader of this company, do not make the safety of your employees a top priority.
“And because you don’t make it a priority,” I continued, “the people reporting to you do not make it a priority. Therefore, they don’t put much energy into preventing injuries in the first place.” Taking a breath, I went on to explain that he was not demonstrating his leadership on that issue, and unless he did, things were not going to change.
I’ll never know for sure who was more fearful in the silence that followed—the other men in the room or me. They hadn’t heard anyone speak to their boss like this before and were concerned that he was not going to accept my remarks in a positive manner.
I could have watered the message down, or I could have let him save face by taking the approach that it was his managers’ responsibility to implement better safety procedures. But I knew that when the person in charge doesn’t send a clear message that something is important, then the whole organization responds accordingly.
After a moment or two, the CEO composed himself and thanked me for saying that he had not lived up to his responsibility of protecting the safety of his employees. He expressed gratitude for pointing out the challenges that lay ahead and said he looked forward to working with me. When my knees stopped shaking, I called my employer and said that we not only kept the account, but we had moved to a new level of respect.
It is important to be able to communicate effectively, honestly and directly with people, especially those who are in a position of authority. In this instance, it meant having to muster up all my courage to speak truthfully and with conviction about something that I knew was the absolute truth. As a result, the CEO and I were able to build a professional relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
Good leaders are open-minded and willing to listen. They accept responsibility and acknowledge the influence that their position has on the behavior of others—whether it is in business, within their families, their circle of friends, their community or the world.
Fay Feeney, Founder and CEO of Risk for Good, is a risk professional helping companies interpret information from customers, investors, and competitors. Fay serves as vice-chair of the American Society of Safety Engineers Foundation that provides scholarships to advance the environmental profession. She has been named to the National Association of Corporate Directors “100 Persons To Watch” in recognition of her work promoting the highest standards of corporate governance.