Reflections on the 2009 EHS Management Forum
By Barbara Lemos, Vice President of Technical Practices, AECOM, Forum Affiliate Council Lead
Beyond providing a marvelous buffet of food for thought, the Forum is a chance for us to renew old friendships, embark on new friendships, and give some thought to the "bigger picture."
The "bigger picture" sometimes eludes us under the pressures of day-to-day work. 2009 has been a year of unprecedented economic, environmental, and workload challenges. We are doing more than ever before, and doing so with reduced staff resources and budgets (and doing so under some very compressed schedules!) Given these constraints, it was especially gratifying to see over 450 people attend the Forum.
What differentiates the Forum from other conference events is the degree to which attendees openly share their experiences. Most of us are accustomed to sharing best practices, but there's also a great deal to be learned from sharing "hmm… wish we hadn't done that" practices. While much of this sharing takes place – by design – in the course of our 24 concurrent sessions, there is quite a bit of it going on in the hallways, over dinner, during breaks, and by continuing interactions after the Forum.
Peter Senge was surely one of our most inspiring Forum keynote speakers. Whether or not you embrace the science or politics associated with the causes of climate change, his call to action to deal aggressively with the future impacts of our past and present lifestyles was compelling. Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. I was reminded of the great quotation by Woody Allen: "More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
The primary point that I took from Peter Senge's presentation was this: triggering the global collaboration necessary to alter our course will individuals and organizations to step of their comfort zone to work together (reminding me of another Woody Allen quotation from "Love and Death" where one of the characters notes: "The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep.")
If you haven't read Dr. Senge's book that was distributed at the Forum, I urge you to do so as soon as you can. Reading books is a luxury few of us can enjoy given our busy schedules. However, the message in this book will generate enough mental energy to propel you through the rest of your responsibilities with a renewed sense of purpose.
Our concurrent sessions featured highly relevant content delivered by knowledgeable and passionate speakers, and as always, the challenge was choosing which sessions to attend, since we have not yet perfected the art of time travel. In my case, two of my choices were pretty clear cut, as I was the Chair for Session 14 – Driving Culture Change for EHS Improvement, and Session 17 – Best Practices for Managing Risk through the M&A Process. We had about 60 people in Session 14 on Culture Change, and they heard an inspiring example of a safety culture turnaround at the General Mills West Chicago plant. If you've ever wondered how to begin a daunting process of culture change, check our Diane Dembosky and Duane Lane's presentation. Skipper Kendrick followed with a passionate and compelling presentation recalling Textron's global culture change evolution.
We had only 17 people at Session 17 (interesting for you numerologists out there) on the M&A process. They were treated to two comprehensive and engaging presentations by Alan Leibowitz of ITT and Karen Carter of Ashland. One reason cited by non-attendees for the small turnout was: "I don't need to worry about mergers – our company is not doing any acquisitions in this economy". If you foresee a return to acquisitive growth, check out their presentations. Due diligence has come a long way, and Alan and Karen's ideas can really help identify, quantify, and mitigate risk.
Session 4 on Employee Engagement featured some great presentations, especially Steve Walker of Burt's Bees. Their commitment to the "greater good" and belief that everyone can impact goals were ideas which could apply anywhere (although they're the only organization to have "Ecobees"). The video of employees sorting through dumpster trash was priceless.
Session 6 on Social Media was an eye opener for me, as I'm one of those people who just wish that social networking go away so I can deal with the 600+ people already in my Outlook contacts. It was great to see the extent to which organizations can disseminate information about their aspirations and achievements, while also collect meaningful feedback from stakeholders.
Session 21 on Pandemic Planning & Swine Flu Preparedness was a timely topic for everyone, and a reminder that there's a new "S" in many of the attendees' job descriptions: security.
As always, the exhibit hall experience continued the wonderful peer-to-peer networking which is a hallmark of NAEM and the Forum. The informal atmosphere and excellent food and well-timed breaks between sessions ensured plenty of contact. It was also nice to see the move to more sustainable booth presences, with fewer of the enormous booths of old with their large transportation footprint, and more pop-up banners, computer presentations, and electronic marketing materials in lieu of paper. I look forward to a day when the booth can be generated as a hologram.
Our final evening at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center provided a chance to experience Albuquerque through all your senses. The aroma of mesquite, the warmth of the fire (contrasted with the wintery ambient temperature), the taste of the local foods, the sound of the drums and bells and chanting, and the visual beauty of the art work provided a welcome respite for our intellectually-charged brains. I hope that you enjoyed this relaxing evening, and that you brought something home beautiful from the Cultural Center's world-class gift shop to remind you of your time at the Forum.