In the latest ‘Safety Bytes’ Irwin & Colton ask Zoe Hands – Operations Director at MerseyRail how her skills and experience as a Health & Safety professional equipped her for the position of Operations Director. Merseyrail is a commuter rail network serving Liverpool Region. The network carries 34 million passengers per year and forms the most heavily used urban railway network in the UK outside London.
Q: Can you tell us about the transferable skills the HSE profession develops?
In terms of the kind of background and skills you get as an HSE professional, and how that can lend itself to operations, there are two really key transferable skills that I think HSE professionals have.
The first one is their ability to risk assess. I spend almost all of my time as an Operations Director risk assessing the threats and opportunities that are there in the wider business, whether that's with my train crew, and what the threats are to their morale or to their availability and sickness and things like that, or whether it's to the train operation itself.
Where is the next point of failure going to be? Where is the next bridge strike going to be? all these things that impede the service, you're constantly risk assessing them and coming up with improvement plans to address those risks. That's a skill set that is natural to an HSE professional. So that's something that's really, really good to that can be taken across.
The other big thing that I find HSE professionals do more than perhaps general managers do, is look outwards for solutions. When I went into operations, they very much were self-reliant. So when something went wrong, they would look amongst themselves as to how to solve it. They didn't look at other departments and other businesses, as to how they would solve it quite as readily as I think health and safety professionals do.
Because health and safety professionals can't deliver their own success, they have to do it through others. They have to influence and convince others to come to that message. That skill, I have been able to get the operations team to look broader than just themselves, and how can we partner, how we can collaborate with others to get a better result for the business. So I think that's something that definitely health and safety professionals have in their advantage.
Q: What challenges have you faced moving from H&S to Operations?
For me, there were two big challenges. One was around credibility. I do think there's a bit of a stigma attached around health and safety, and whether it's a support function as we're often seen. Could you deliver the hard products that you have to do as a business? So I think getting that credibility was the first big challenge.
And the second challenge was more around my security of knowing that it was making a difference. If I take those two separately, addressing the credibility issue comes when you get results. And until you go in there and you can start to put your mark on something, you potentially don't have that credibility. You have to earn it!
There's no easy way, I think, to cut through that. You have to deliver. And if you deliver, you get the credibility. You earn the respect that perhaps you thought you might not get.
On the second point around, confidence and that self-assurance that you're making a difference- going from being a subject matter expert towards being a generalist, certainly in an area that I hadn't operated before, relied upon others. I had to pull the strengths and ideas from others. And I took more of a coordinating role instead of a direct leadership role.
And that's OK, because if it gets the results, you need to be the kind of leader that the team needs. And that was probably one of the big challenges, was to make that transition. But it comes naturally. You get feedback from people as you're doing it. And then you sort of pivot and adjust based on how well your leadership style is working.
So whether you're in a leadership role in health and safety or in operations, when you're a leader, you have a cabinet responsibility to make sure the business is a success. It can't be successful if it's unsafe, and it can't be successful if it's not delivering the product with the commercial value that you need to get back from that.
For me, health and safety professionals should very much work outside of their lane. Clearly, they've got their health and safety agenda and they must advance that at every opportunity, but the real value that you can add is to ask the same probing questions you do around safety of other areas. So understanding the logic behind the decisions that have been made, and whether they're assigned is something that safety professionals do all the time. Why do we do it that way? We're trying to understand what the employee's thinking and feeling, and what product safety we're trying to get out of that.
Apply that same logic to a new revenue program, or a new operational initiative. Has it been thought through? It goes back to this idea of risk assessment. Risk assessment as a general skill. It applies to everything across the board. If you're good at it, you'll be good at all parts of the business.
Q: Have there been any downsides to the new role?
I think it's downsides, it depends on how you look at things, as to where there's a downside of taking the risk of moving out of what you know into something that perhaps you don't know as well. Everything is a learning opportunity, and as long as you're prepared to emotionally go through something that isn't immediately necessarily satisfying - I found the first three, four months really difficult. I felt really insecure. All I wanted to do was to go back to my comfort zone.
But I knew at the end of that process, that I would be a better professional, whether it be a health and safety professional or an operation professional, having gone through it. That's little consolation when you're going through it, but you do come to a point where you realised the difficulties that you have in making those adjustments, and having potentially failures, will ultimately make you better at the end of it.
I know I can always go back to a safety role. And the experience I've had of trying operations will make me a better safety professional. So really, there's no losing out of that. But it is difficult to go through the kind of roller coaster of making the transition.
Q: What advice would you give to someone changing role function?
So with the benefit of hindsight, looking back at how I was as an HSE director, where I spent 100% of my time in the world of HSE and advancing that agenda, to now where I understand an ops director, has maybe 10% of their time that they can dedicate to that, because they've got all the other competing KPIs they've got to do. I think I would try and understand more how I can maximize the 10% of that ops director's time, and maybe edge it out a bit. Maybe try and get it to 11%, 12%, 13%, but not expect or want the operations director to be as 100% involved in it as you are as a safety professional, and then judge them for that. It's just not possible to give the amount of time to safety in operations that I gave to it as an HSE Director.
Does that mean I value it less? No, but I think if you're an HSE Director, you understand the ops director's perspective of all these competing priorities. You can empathise a lot more and partner with them a lot more so that you're helping them deliver it, and let's say, maximizing the 10% of time they've got to spend with it. Instead of just maybe feeling like they're not giving enough time to it, you've got to realise they've got other things that are equally important that have to get their attention. And that's not something as an HSE director you may be so accustomed to.