Business Skills for HSE Professionals – Transforming from HSE Manager to Director

Sponsored Article by Dr Waddah Ghanem Al Hashmi and Dr Rob Cooling

There are significant opportunities for Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) practitioners to improve their understanding of the language of business to develop influence. Organisations seek to achieve continual improvement in HSE standards, culture, and performance and therefore HSE practitioners must be equipped with the right business skills and acumen to drive change. As two experienced practitioners who eventually became Directors, we reflected on our development paths and growth and eventually realised that we could be business leaders, more than our experience as HSE practitioners, which allowed us to occupy director positions relatively early in our careers.

We both embarked on MBA programmes and a few years ago published a book, The Ten Step MBA for Occupational Health and Safety Practitioners (Routledge, 2018) which takes the reader through 10 Steps encompassing a typical MBA programme. The book establishes three key themes which are deemed critical in understanding the world of business to exert greater influence.

  • Strategic – aligning HSE to the overall direction of a business and creating a lasting HSE purpose that all stakeholders can relate to
  • Cross-functional – understanding the different parts of an organisation and integrating HSE within business functions and ways of working.
  • Distinctive – looking for creative new ways of presenting HSE data and information to generate interest and enthusiasm

As we developed the research and the book, we looked at ways to help HSE practitioners working in strategic roles, with responsibility for HSE across multiple sites and jurisdictions. We debated, leveraging on our own experience what those who were aspiring to reach senior positions needed to know about business whilst assessing its relevance to our profession. HSE leaders need to be fully aware of key business functions (e.g. Marketing, Finance, Human Resources, etc.) and how all these functions contribute to the bottom line. Sometimes we are critical that other functions do not understand HSE, but how often do we take time to understand the constraints of other functions?

Whilst our book is written within the context of Occupational Health and Safety, we recognise that many organisations have an integrated approach to Health, Safety and Environment (and often other disciplines), with the 10 Steps of the MBA programme just as relevant to the Environment and Sustainability professionals, who often have to face similar challenges in convincing organisations of the added value of their work.

In the series of articles to come, we will discuss lessons from the world of business and their relevance to HSE. Step 1 covers Strategy and Leadership, including key leadership styles, leadership theories and frameworks. The importance of creating an HSE strategy aligned to corporate strategy cannot be underestimated. This includes setting a vision, developing a clear road map for realising this vision and implementing compelling programmes to develop influence and impact. Recently the importance of strategic agility and its application to HSE management has become prominent to respond to change and disruptions like we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We address General Management in Step 2. In the management of an enterprise, essential skills are needed to manage risks and opportunities from a holistic perspective. Understanding the requirements contained in ISO 45001 is central to the success in the development, implementation and maintenance of an HSE management system. The ability of HSE professionals to be able to manage projects is another important skillset in many organisations.

Step 3 covers Corporate Social Responsibility and Governance which have become areas strongly connected to HSE. The organisation as a corporate citizen should be understood from a moral and ethical perspective, with key concepts often a usual vehicle for promoting HSE. Importantly, we should always be looking to integrate HSE with corporate governance best practice. The ongoing shift to risk management includes a growing awareness of enterprise risk management, business continuity management and the opportunities created in HSE practice cannot be underestimated.

Organisational culture and cultural maturity focus on the design and implementation of behavioural change programs in consideration of emotional, rational, and situational factors. Understanding human resource management is essential in creating an effective strategic alliance between human resources and HSE functions to leverage cross-over points and collaborative opportunities. Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management is considered in Step 4 including the growing focus on well-being and mental health.

Economics and Financial Management is approached in Step 5, addressing economics, including microeconomics principles, frameworks, and tools applicable to OSH. The importance of improving financial acumen to develop influence is essential for the HSE professional. The application of financial tools, including net present value and cost-benefit analysis can help to determine the value added by HSE interventions and programmes.

At the heart of what we do as organisations are Operations Management which is covered in Step 6. This includes the oversight, design and control of business processes. The development of business management systems and the arguments for and against the integration of management systems, as well as operational excellence, should be considered by HSE professionals, along with key operations management issues, such as procurement, outsourcing and supply chain management.

Step 7 evaluates Marketing and Brand Management providing HSE practitioners insights on the development, selection and execution of marketing strategies for an organisation’s product and/or service offerings, and their relevance to HSE. Aspects such as brand management and marketing strategy are essential for situations when HSE professionals need to take on the role of marketeer to raise the organisational profile of HSE. HSE practitioners must also recognise their core competencies to build a compelling value proposition and narrative for their role and function within an organisation.

Data Analytics and Decision-Making is approached in Step 8 and focuses on the essence of decision making and the importance of objective data and analysis in reaching sound and robust business decisions. HSE Practitioners should learn the analytical tools, including descriptive and inferential statistics, how to quantify and present uncertainty and to be able to ask the right questions when presented with different types of data.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship are tackled in Step 9. The concept of innovation and change management and how organisational systems, infrastructure and capabilities can be created to encourage innovation, and how experimentation can be encouraged within the confines of an HSE management system is a fascinating subject. In this ever-changing and dynamic world, entrepreneurial skills are increasingly necessary, including in the area of HSE.

Finally, Interpersonal Skills are discussed in Step 10. The concepts of emotional intelligence and their relevance to career progression, leadership and growth continue to grow in importance. Key interpersonal skills including communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, empathy and curiosity all provide the HSE professional with an understanding of the softer skills needed to generate change in organisations. Practitioners should recognise that it is by coupling theoretical knowledge, experience and interpersonal skills that they can enable themselves to succeed within an organisation. Understanding power within organisations and how to develop the ability to influence and persuade individuals at different levels of an organisation is also critical.
HSE practitioners aspiring for growth to senior leadership and directorship roles must continue to look for new ways to be more strategic and cross-functional in their approach, along with being distinctive in identifying innovative and new approaches to HSE practice. We look forward to sharing insights that we hope will assist in generating greater impact and the transition from HSE Manager to Director.

*Dr Waddah S Ghanem Al Hashmi is from the UAE, a Sr Director in ENOC, the Hon Chairman of the Energy Institute in the Middle East and Chairman of the Federal OSH Committee with ESMA in the UAE. He is a prolific writer and thought leader in the region and internationally. Dr Rob Colling is from the UK, a highly experienced Director, currently Vice President for Health, Safety, Quality and Environment at Expo 2020 Dubai and has served as an IOSH Trustee for the last 4 years. Both Waddah and Rob published The Ten Step MBA for Occupational Health and Safety Practitioners (Routledge, 2018), see The 10 Step MBA for Safety and Health Practitioners – 1st Edition – Wa (

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