planningCareer Planning

We spend a huge part of our adult lives working, so we should pay serious attention to how we can build careers that both stimulate and satisfy us. To protect the safety, health and welfare of other human beings while at their place of work is intrinsically rewarding, and one of the reasons high-caliber individuals are drawn to the profession.

However, most individuals require more from their careers and have their own interests and motivations they would like to realize in order to fulfill their professional potential. Such interests could be: to experience new sectors, projects, or companies; to explore new geographies; to manage people; or to rise to the top of the profession as the global VP for health and safety at a Fortune 500 organization.

It may not be possible to design a comprehensive plan to realizing your grandest ambitions but, through thoughtful planning and devising some simple strategies, you can increase your chances of realizing your ambitions as an EHS professional.

Have ambition

First things first, if you can’t put your hand on heart and state any kind of career ambition then you are drifting.

Some people find it hard to think too far into the future; that’s fine – just think about what you might like to do with your current employer and what the next step to get there might involve. If you really want to progress, don’t drift – instead, set some goals, no matter how short-term.

Get qualifications

Every health and safety professional should be aiming to develop professionally, both for the purposes of career advancement and staying at the forefront of innovation in the industry.

Consider if there are any specialist areas in which you wish to become an expert, or whether you wish to stay broad-based in your skills and approach to professional development. For instance, if you wish to become an expert in fire safety, you can gain certification through the National Fire Protection Association; if you wish to climb the corporate ladder, you may consider devoting significant time to obtaining an MBA. The point is that, after general health and safety qualifications, you should give strong consideration to which qualifications you need – or do not need – in order to achieve your ambition.

Develop your soft skills

Read up on leadership, management and influencing, and seek out courses that offer tuition in these areas.

As a health and safety professional, staying abreast of legislation, and keeping up to date with your professional development is what employers expect. However, knowledge is of little use without also having the ability to persuade people to be healthier, or behave safely. Behaviors and cultures can only begin to change if you are engaging and influencing effectively.

This ability to transform behaviors and cultures is of great value to organizations, so possessing first class soft skills is of the utmost importance whether you are an a manager, director, or Vice President.

Finding a good mentor to coach you in improving your soft skills is also advised. Someone who has risen to a leadership position will nearly always be happy to talk through their experiences, listen to your issues, and ‘hold up a mirror’, so you can see how you come across to other people.

Be smart and go to the people who are at the level you want to reach as early as possible. You will get there much quicker that way and avoid some of the mistakes that they made. However, be sure to choose your mentor wisely.

Develop commercial awareness

We work in a market economy and, consequently, the people who understand best the workings of commercial enterprises and markets tend to be the wealthiest and most influential.

By that rationale, safety professionals need to be commercially aware if they truly hope to exert influence and advance their career to the benefit of themselves and their employer. Read business and industry news, network with people across your organization, and start thinking holistically, rather than with a narrow focus on your department, or project. Practitioners need to be pragmatic – EHS is only going to take its rightful position as number one on the business agenda if it fits with the commercial ambitions of the organization and is truly viewed as an enabler.

Seek out new experiences

Search for jobs that allow you to expand your transferable knowledge within diverse environments.

Let’s say you take a job working for a roofing contractor. It’s possible that in a few years you could become one of the world’s experts on health and safety within the roofing industry. However, this specialism might not help you move with the freedom you may need in order to realize your ambitions.

By contrast, if you take a job that allows you to experience a variety of environments and projects, then you will have more to offer both your current and any future employers. Put yourself forward for tasks you have not previously encountered. For instance, if you work in a food manufacturing plant, and the company decides to embark on a major upgrade that requires a major contractor to come in to carry out the work, then make sure you are heavily involved. Adding a $10m construction project to your experience is only going to open up new avenues.

Gaining experience outside your home country is another way to develop transferable knowledge. Through these types of experience you will learn to deal with different economic, cultural, and political environments, which will later enable you to improve your influencing skills and shape the behaviors of different groups of people.

Grow your network

We’re not talking about LinkedIn here; instead we’re talking about real, physical relationships.

To paraphrase a slogan: “Organizations don’t hire people. People hire people.” The more people you know, the more people will think of you when a job vacancy arises – even when it’s not publicly advertized.

Spend time getting to know people in your own company and all the companies with which you come into contact, whether they are in your supply chain, client organizations, or joint-venture partners. Not only will you create bonds that will serve you well in the future but you will gain new insights, ideas, knowledge and skills.

You can also build your network outside your job – you can attend health and safety conferences, or join the ASSE board at your local chapter. Getting involved in industry bodies will also help you develop new skills and raise your profile. Undertaking roles such as treasurer, secretary and chair of different groups or committees will only enhance your prospects.

Be careful, however, as employers will want to make sure they are number one when it comes to your commitment, and that any extracurricular activities are of benefit to them rather than a drain on your productivity.


In this tough economy and ever-changing world, it is more important than ever to be smart when evaluating each step in your career.

To prepare for whatever surprises lie ahead, try to make choices today that will maximize your options in the future. But before you do anything, devote some time to considering how you can make your current job work for you.

It shouldn’t be a straight choice between working to live or living to work, but it makes sense to give yourself the best chance to be fulfilled in all areas of your life.