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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Coaching with care

The senior manager safety tour of a workplace can be stiff and awkward. The winner of the Leader category at this year’s awards tells PETER BATEMAN how she turned the concept into a coaching opportunity for junior leaders.

When I speak to Michelle Henderson in October she is about to leave PowerNet to join the board of Meridian Energy. After three years as chief operating officer with the Otago/Southland-based electrical distribution network company, she says the move is an opportunity – sooner than expected – to move from an operational role to a governance role.

But it is her award-winning leadership initiative with PowerNet that we are on the line to discuss, and how its two key strands – demonstrating care for people, and coaching operational staff to help them become better leaders – could be adapted for use by other organisations.

An engineering graduate from the University of Auckland, she moved south to New Zealand Aluminium Smelter at Tiwai Point and spent 17 years there in a variety of increasingly senior roles before moving to Australia. Still with Rio Tinto, she spent six years in infrastructure roles covering mines, ports and rail before “coming home” to PowerNet in 2016.

“I was born and schooled in Auckland but I put roots down in Southland, so coming home from Australia, it was to Southland. Moving to Meridian, there’s some iconic assets so still a nice Southland piece there.”

I ask what first stimulated her long interest in health and safety, apart from working in high-risk industry sectors. Turns out it was an incident in the late 90s at the Tiwai Point smelter in which a worker was seriously burned. Being from another area of the plant, Henderson was assigned as lead investigator.

“I met him in his hospital bed. In the corridor I met his partner and their small children. Those kind of experiences stay with you.”


She praises the mentors she worked with during her rise through the ranks with Rio Tinto, all of whom role modelled care for people. Joining PowerNet, she soon realised that workers in the high-risk electricity distribution sector faced a variety of risks quite apart from those connected with electricity: manual handling, working at heights, and driving long distances between jobs.

Her strong focus on health & safety, she says, was driven by two things.

“People were being hurt and there was the potential for serious harm, so there were some good improvements to be made. Also, it’s easier to help leaders improve their leadership when the ‘why?’ is safety – because it’s their mates getting hurt.”

The result was her development of what came to be known as the “coaching by kilometre” initiative, when at diarised intervals every two months she and three others would go on a 950-kilometre road trip over several days to visit half a dozen work sites to observe work, give feedback and have conversations about health and safety.

To start with, the tour was undertaken just by Henderson and the distribution manager, but she soon worked out that these regular tours were a great opportunity to coach frontline leaders, not only in health and safety but in how to be a more effective leader overall.

She found the best combination of people to fit in the vehicle was an operational department leader and two frontline leaders, along with herself as COO. It became a leadership development vehicle – literally – which used health and safety as a focus to lead into wider things.

“We’ve already seen those frontline leaders stepping up – doing better at performance reviews and other leadership skills – because of the safety work.”


Not that it was all plain sailing to begin with. Sites were always advised in advance of the date and time of a visit, as part of living the values of being honest and up-front.

This did of course provide an opportunity for some to avoid being visited, however it was clear after several visits that teams valued senior operational leaders engaging with them in their workplace and having the opportunity to showcase the work they were doing.

Henderson stuck to the schedule every two months and won people over. “We knew we were getting somewhere when the guys stopped hiding. When they started saying please make sure you come to us and we’re up such-and-such road and we’ll leave the gates open for you. That’s when we knew they valued these visits enough to make it easier for us to find them.”

Her time with Rio Tinto had taught her a good model for giving useful feedback in the field, including acknowledging awkwardness. “Sometimes we’d say yes, we know this makes you nervous. It’s not that easy for us either, but we don’t want you getting hurt, so we’ll just tough it out and make some progress.”

Giving people positive feedback to continue working a certain way, she says, will have a more lasting effect than nit-picking over minor details. It’s also essential to authentically demonstrate that you care, because people will soon pick up if you do a once-over-lightly.

“You get short-lived results if you just do health and safety to stay out of trouble. You’ve got to do it with the right intent. And lifting your game in health and safety lifts your game in all sorts of other ways.”


In the early days, Henderson did a lot of the talking with the field team on site, modelling the sort of leadership behaviour she wanted to see. She also made sure the visitors did more listening than talking. As time went by she stood further back, and the frontline leaders spoke up.

The leadership coaching would begin as soon as the four got back in the vehicle and began driving to the next location. As a group of leaders, how had they performed on site? What could they have done better?

“I used to ask the guys in the back seat this: did what we did today help or hinder those guys from going home unharmed today?”

Putting frontline leaders from different areas in the vehicle had other benefits, including breaking down barriers between people and between business units by making it clear they all faced similar problems.

Almost all the company’s 37 frontline leaders have now participated in the programme, which is effectively a form of free internal vocational training for frontline leaders, and a way for senior leaders to be well connected to what is really happening in the field. On the road, knowledge is shared and tips exchanged. The result is a much strengthened health and safety culture, and a significant reduction in days lost due to injury.


Henderson’s departure from PowerNet doesn’t mean the end of coaching by kilometre. She’s proud that the programme is now sufficiently entrenched to carry on without her; that she’s shown enough senior leaders how it’s done so they can flourish in the same way.

“The guys will go again on 4 November and they’re absolutely ready for me not to be in the car with them.”

The initiative has helped reinforce the company’s focus on critical risks and their controls, and that effort needs to be focused on the right places.

“What I was really role modelling was talking about the critical risks, not the trivial ones. Back at senior management level, it meant we were having the right conversations.”

One critical risk that is now properly recognised is driving.

“We’ve had to reframe that, actually, driving to the site is the job. The job doesn’t start when you’ve unpacked your tools at the work site, the job starts at the depot and doesn’t end until you’re safely back there.”


I ask how coaching by kilometre could be adapted by other businesses, most of which do not have PowerNet’s geographically wide spread of remote work sites. Henderson makes two key points. First, decide a field visit schedule that is appropriate for your business, put it in your published diary, and stick to it. Let nothing get in the way, because leaders need to spend time in the field doing some talking and more listening, and if you cancel a planned visit it sends a poor message about your care for people.

“Put it in the schedule at the drumbeat that matches your business,” says Henderson, “and do it as a priority.”

Second, match the number of site visitors to your particular business. “You can’t go with ten leaders to watch two people! We were hitting the limit with four people visiting six or seven.”

Finally, always debrief as you leave: how well did we as leaders go? Which boils down to: how did we help (or not help) this group of workers or contractors get home safely tonight?


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