Safety Leadership with Former CEO John Barbagallo

Former CR CEO John Barbagallo sat down with Kerry Walker from SafetyWorks Group to discuss safety leadership and building a positive safety culture.
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Show notes

Getting Started

[00:00:02] Welcome to this issue of leading safety, keeping safety real.

[00:00:07] Our goal is to stretch a safety net of connections across the world through exchange of ideas between organisational leaders. These are the people who influence what thousands of their people do every day at work and even at home through the culture they define and live that permeates the organisations. In this podcast series, organisational leaders share their personal stories to support other leaders, to keep people safe at work, in a constantly changing global tech environment work, health and safety is one of the many areas executives and board members have to juggle. How do they fit health, safety and well-being in with running a successful, complex business? How do they keep it real?

[00:00:56] Our guests will share with us how they live the value they place in the people who work for them every single day. The challenges they have faced and the super wins they’ve had that have provided the motivation to keep them in there. It’s personal and real and we know you’ll learn something along the way that will help you, and you’ll make some great connections.

[00:01:19] So let’s chat. We’re excited to welcome today’s guest, John Barbagallo an executive leader with significant global experience across the mining, metals and industrial sectors. John has experienced as well as led a range of different cultures when it comes to health and safety. His current role is head of CQMS Razor, a company with 40 years’ experience leading engineering, innovation and manufacturing of mining equipment.

[00:01:50] So a huge welcome to you, John, and thank you for agreeing to be a guest on the leading safety – keeping safety real podcast.
Thanks very much, Kerry. It’s my pleasure.

[00:02:01] I’d like to start our chat with a brief summary of your own journey and how that has shaped your philosophy around the health, safety and well-being of your people.

[00:02:11] I’m a trained chemical engineer and that was many years ago. But I remember early in my career when I was working in the Bowen Basin and I had the opportunity to lead quite a large operations team and one of my operators one day got his hand caught in a conveyor. I was very much encouraged to manage this statistic and I got the person back to work. Unfortunately, with complications. And really, it wasn’t a particularly good outcome for the individual. And that was probably my first time to really learn and reflect on my role in the incident, did I really care for the individual, did I do the right thing by the person in terms of his treatment and long term health? And that realisation really shook me and probably started my journey on safety. We really weren’t asking questions, you know, how do you prevent this from happening again? How do you build a workplace culture? Have a look at our training systems, have a look at how we bring you people into the workplace so that that early insight was very valuable. And then as I went through my career and I reflected on that, but also other events, both successful and not successful, to start building my own routines and building my own personal self-belief structures to improve the way I lead safety in the business. But there’s no doubt that workplace systems, strong site cultures and strong leadership support really do promote better safety outcomes for businesses.

[00:03:49] Yeah, absolutely. You have worked for a number of key players in the resources sector Glencore, Rio Tinto, Arrium and Molycop and now CQMS Razer. How would you compare the maturity of safety leadership in the industry? Is it fairly consistent? Does it vary a lot? What drives the difference?

[00:04:08] Look, over the past 30 years I’ve been in business. It’s come a long way. And where I started, wherever it was in the world or within Australia. They’ve all been good in their various ways. They’ve all had different challenges because there’s different work, different employees, different financial situations that were prevailing at the time. What has been good is that there has been a commitment by all of these organisations for zero harm outcomes, commitment to training and commitment to actually get better. But when I look back, I think Rio Tinto and Molycop were the organisations that really truly believed they made a big difference or could make a big difference into the way people were interfacing with the work requirements. Rio Tinto, they invested very heavily. Their drive for excellence, their unwavering commitment really taught me so much. And that was really my first involvement with the Dupont Safety Principles and it really deepened my resolve to get towards zero. Within Molycop it was much more global organisation given my role and the different cultures, and working with the different cultures was important. But I remember one American person telling me Molycop has provided a gift to their employees and that gift is safety. You start to hear these elements, you realise you do impact upon people’s lives. You do change how people want to work and how they want to work together to create better outcomes. So that’s probably my insights across the organisations I’ve worked for.So those strong cultures must really make your job easier and you must consider yourself lucky in a sense to have to have had that consistent sort of commitment in the organisations you’ve worked with.

[00:05:50] I think it’s a real danger looking through an Australian lens, only when it comes to safety, when you’re working globally, Australia has much to bring to safety in terms of culture. But the Chilean, Peruvian or Indonesian, or the US cultures are actually different and some of the cultures actually have some benefits in that the way they look after the family and the way they look after each other and that way their safety does become for the group rather than just for the individual. So it’s recognising the differences, understanding the weaknesses, but actually leveraging the strengths and then sharing that globally to get better at it.

[00:06:27] Okay and you would see that in your current role with a company that operates in ten global locations, are there particular challenges associated with that in creating and maintaining a consistent safety culture, given your Australian context?

[00:06:42] The answer is yes. I think as the role of the CEO of the company, we’ve really got to create a shared value for safety. And what does that mean and how do you bring that to life. But you’ve also going to recognise that in China, culturally, it’s very different than it is in the US or indeed Canada or Mexico. And there the things that I find challenging is that the community expectations are different as well. The educational differences, let alone the language that supports the businesses that we operate. So we’ve really got to plan for that. Sometimes you’ve got to put a lot more education and a lot more time to build the level of understanding that’s necessary. The other challenge for us is that we’re growing quite quickly at the moment. And then when you bring new people into the organisation, you’re actually introducing them to a new culture and a new way of doing things. They’re probably the challenges that confront me as a CEO, but they’re very positive challenges. I get to talk to people. You get to learn about people. But and influence their belief structures and how they can assist us getting to goal zero.

[00:07:46] It must be fascinating meeting all those different cultures all the time and interacting with them.

[00:07:52] Look, it’s one of the privileges of the job but I certainly don’t enjoy the travel that goes with it. That aside, when you get to spend time on the ground with the people that make a difference in your business and how they contribute to making us a better business for the future, it’s very rewarding.

Greatest Challenges & Lessons

[00:08:08] I’m interested in CQMS Razer’s safety always value. That includes the words we support our team mates to keep safety at the top of our minds and encourage every team member to speak up. How does your leadership team demonstrate their support for this and what’s been your experience since you started in October?

[00:08:30] Look, I give credit to CQMS Razer. It’s been a core value for a while, as safety always is really their rallying, rallying cry to make sure that people understand the importance and the value that we place on it as well. In terms of safety always, safety is critical no matter where you work in the business. And we’ve got a range of activities from foundries to quite complex supply chains to working on mine sites. And all of these activities have hazards and risks associated with it. So, you know, safety always is, you know, how do we bring our best from a safety context every minute, every job and every day into the work environment. And that’s really the background to it.
In terms of the leadership team that worked with me to manage the business, it’s an evolution safety. You know, you never you never have got it. You’ve got to keep working at it. And you know, me coming into the business has been helpful in that I bring another perspective that enables me to work with the management team. And really, we’re working on our plans, how do we work with our people? How do we work with our systems? How do we continue to build our cultures together? And one of our operations, our foundry in Maryborough, it’s got quite a lot of experienced people. So the safety always and having the opportunity to speak up is important because there’s a lot of assumptions that happen in workplaces like this. And I’ve been delighted that the leadership team are really encouraging everybody to have a real contribution to better outcomes, not only today, but into the future.

[00:10:10] It’s important because with so much going on in so many places, if people don’t speak up, the chances of you finding issues is difficult.

[00:10:19] In management it’s a real reflection on our culture. If you hear well we’ve always known about that, but actually we’ve never done anything about it or we’ve normalised it and we haven’t seen it. You know that that’s disappointing but these are some of the concepts behind speak up not only from a mental health point of view, but from a safety point of view and actually how we want to run our business.

[00:10:41] Have there been any surprises for you in the last nine months?

[00:10:44] The answer is yes. I think that comes with the role of the CEO many times a surprise is really a result of how we play our business game. In some ways it might be surprising, but they’re really not. You get you get what you sort of sort of deserve as well. I think from my point of view, it’s let’s get everything on the table whether it be safety or other business issues and then you look at your resources, you look at your plans and, you know, how do you aim for excellence? And then you develop your plan and add your resources and try and engage everybody to have the same level of conviction that I have.

[00:11:17] So really, just like any other part of the business. Correct. You treat it the same.

[00:11:23] You know, Dupont had that wonderful saying there are five key elements of the business and safety is first amongst equals. And I think that’s a good phrase to remember.

[00:11:31] It certainly is. What do you hear in the C suite and the boardroom around your networks about the biggest health, safety and well being issues at the moment and emerging?

[00:11:42] I think it’s a good question. As the CEO, you’ve got to live with today but you’ve also got to think about the future and that’s a delicate balance to get right. When we look at it, so the three areas for me, mental health and the whole range of issues and concerns and avenues where mental health develops is very, very important.

[00:12:04] You know, when I first started working, this just wasn’t spoken about or recognised. And I think this is a really important element today, but probably more so in the future, because I don’t think we’ve uncovered all of the issues that confront organisations. I think the one which is a bit of a now, but it is a factor for future with, you know, legacy work forces like CQMS Razer. What are the silent risk factors for longer term exposure? So whether it be dust or noise or manual handling or over use syndrome as well and how we care for our employees as the retirement age continues to push out, keeping people working longer.

[00:12:43] And then the last one not only attracting but actually positively influencing the next generation that’s coming into our workforce. Their demands are very different than my demands when I first joined the workforce and their expectations of what a workplace should look like and how they play their part in it as well. So learning and adapting and encouraging the changing workplace, particularly the types of work that that are occurring in the workplace as well, are higher levels of automation and greater digital exposure are all areas that are obvious. But we know we have to deal with and that comes with a different set of safety risks as well.

[00:13:24] Yes. And when you haven’t got the experience of new things over a period of time, you don’t necessarily know how they may manifest.

[00:13:32] So keep keeping a foot in today’s issues is very important. But actually having a foot and trying to understand what the future is, is also important to get your safety or health, safety, environment and community plans right.

[00:13:46] How do you personally keep safety real?

[00:13:51] This is a really easy one for me. I grew up on a farm in north Queensland, so from very early in life, you know, I was driving tractors at far too young of an age. I was taught to be very pragmatic, very sensible and I had to be responsible and I had to keep things simple, you know, because that was sort of the life that I was brought into. But for me, the real heroes in our business are the people that turn up every day and make our business great. You know, trying to delight our customers, trying to produce products, managing our supply chain globally. So keeping safety real is how do I stand in their shoes have a look at their challenges, have a look at their exposures and how can I provide the support structures to make them successful. But more importantly, how do we make them more efficient and effective into the future?

[00:14:40] My greatest time in this job is getting to the sites or getting to the customers, getting to where our people interface with the real work and seeing how they do that. And then you very quickly see what works well and doesn’t work well. And I see my role pretty simple, actually. How do you make it easier and better?

Pearls of Wisdom

[00:15:02] Okay nothing beats getting out there and seeing for yourself. Thank you, John, for sharing your story. Finally, I’d like to extract a couple of pearls of wisdom, if I may. Firstly, how do you think engagement of leaders in health, safety and wellbeing has improved since you started your career in the late 80’s?

[00:15:20] This is a nice question and I reflect on it, there are many layers to potential answers. But I start with myself. I’ve really been blessed and privileged and I’ve worked with some great people, great mentors. I’ve had wonderful experiences and I’ve had tremendous exposure to best practice through my time. So I feel like I’m well, positioned in terms of my own ability to pass on and evolve and collaborate within and outside of my organisation.

[00:15:52] But in terms of the question, there are a number of threads. Society in terms of its demands keeps changing in terms of safety. Employee’s demands and expectations continue to evolve, which is important. Access to information, access to support, access to training is actually getting much easier today given the digital age. So all of these are actually helping the engagement conversation. But offsetting that, the world is getting faster, businesses are getting busier and you know, we are getting more siloed.

[00:16:24] So there are some positives pushing us in the right way and there are some influences that are actually making a little bit harder. The work that SafetyWorks do, to promote networks, to promote sharing and promote best practice are all good examples of not sitting in your silo thinking the world is tough or you’ve got all the answers to promote better engagement is actually to live on the journey of lifetime learning and collaboration.
And if you take these principles, businesses like mine and many, many other businesses across the world have a real opportunity to actually be better. And you bring that back to the zero, zero harm concept and this is just a wonderful outcome for the business if we get it right, for the world, if we get it right. I think it’s going to get better, but it’s not easy because there are other influences that that continue to impact upon us.

[00:17:21] Yeah, I think it’s interesting when you think about your own children entering the workforce and the expectations of parents for their first job. And, you know, you’d expect them to go to work and be looked after. So that’s a little different these days.

[00:17:35] Well, there’s always a shared responsibility and if you come from a parent point of view. If your child is in a workplace, that isn’t right. We’ve also got a responsibility saying, well, is this the right place to be. But, you know, building that knowledge and confidence in your children is also important so that they can make good choices around their daily work, but also who the right employer is for them as well.

[00:17:59] And the ability to speak up. Correct. And secondly, what advice would you give to executives of the future as to how best to demonstrate visible leadership in health, safety and wellbeing to the people who work for them?

[00:18:12] Look, I think the first thing is be prepared to learn. Be open. Be curious. There are important aspects.

[00:18:18] Number two, we seek out the best, you know, go well, this is a little bit about the learning, but also go and discover what has been done. And that will actually push you a little bit further and faster along your own personal journey.

[00:18:32] I think the third one is work on excellence. You know, if you aim to the average, well, that’s the best you are going to be. And everything that you do, whether it be, you know, systems or people you hire or your aspirations in terms of the goals and targets you’re looking to achieve. The fourth one is then how do you build successful routines for yourself as senior managers days are pretty busy, but you’ve got to make time deliberately to go and do the things that make a difference. So that’s what I mean by building successful habits. And the last one is just keep adapting, keep growing, keep challenging yourself because this is really important for internal growth and people see as you grow that you’re showing visible felt and authentic leadership yourself. And then, you know, when you’ve got to that stage, you get back to step one, which is, you know, keep on learning and being inquisitive then start it all over again. And I think that keeps you very grounded and in touch with your workforce but also making sure you feel responsible for the activities in the business.

[00:19:35] That’s really great advice. Sure. Our listeners will be really appreciative of that. If you had to describe safety in one word or one phrase, what it means to you.
Loving your people.

[00:19:47] That’s a nice place to finish. Thank you, John. We really appreciate you taking the time to share that with us today.
Thanks very much Kerry.

[00:19:57] Thank you for listening to the leading safety podcast. This episode is brought to you by SafetyWorks Group leaders in Workplace Health, Safety and Wellbeing Solutions. Don’t forget to rate, review and subscribe. Once you subscribe, you’ll receive a reminder each time we release new episode. You can find our podcast and lots of health and safety resources on the SafetyWorks Website at