Chris Williams, CAE serves as the Executive Director of the Voluntary Protection Program Participants’ Association (VPPPA), a 501[c](3) association representing participants and stakeholders in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program. Chris has served as an association leader for more than 20 years, leading membership growth, program development, and safety & health for a variety of organizations.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Association leadership
- Membership growth
- Governance, safety & health
- Program development
- Emerging leaders
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix.
Intro: [00:00:02] Broadcasting live from the Business Radiox studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Association Leadership Radio. Now here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:19] Lee Kantor here another episode of Association Leadership Radio, and this is going to be a good one. Today on the show we have Chris Williams with the VPPPA, which is the Voluntary Protection Program Participants Association. Welcome, Chris.
Chris Williams: [00:00:36] Thank you for the welcome. I appreciate that. And I apologize for the mouthful there. It was a VPPPA.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:42] Well, before we get too far into things, tell us about the association, how you serving folks?
Chris Williams: [00:00:47] So VPPPA has been around now since around 1984 or thereabouts, going on 40 years here we serve. The best way to put it is we were started as the Association for OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program participants. What that is, it’s a compliance assistance program for all industries that companies are involved in basically the best of the best in terms of safety and health programs. And as we’ve evolved over the years, the association has focused more on all companies. What we mean by that is there are other safety associations out there that represent the safety and health professionals and the companies that that really are striving for that VPP star designation. And also to be the best of the best, the world-class companies, we bring them into the fold as well instead of focusing just on that VPP program. So that’s as I’ve mentioned previously to a number of folks that are listeners here that I’ve worked with directly. We like our name Voluntary Protection Program Association, love it. It’s a mouthful. So we go by VPPPA because we represent, as I said, the best of the best in terms of safety and health.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:47] Now, when you have safety and health as the forefront of the mission, do you spend a lot of your time kind of in education mode where you’re just trying to share these kind of best practices?
Chris Williams: [00:02:00] Oh, certainly. In fact, our main focus as a5c3 is the education, not just of our members in terms of evolving their safety and health programs, but also industries as a whole. That’s construction, manufacturing, industrial, petrochem, everyone down the line from companies like Amazon all the way to Honeywell and some of the energy generation companies into the construction field as well. The education, it really starts with our safety convention, our symposium. That’s usually every August this year it’s in Washington, D.C. So coming up here soon and we focus on, as I said, not just educating the industries that we focus on, but helping them to connect and helping them to share their best practices. The popular saying from a safety and health perspective and I’m a safety and health person by trade. Previous experience with associated builders and contractors as director of Safety and Health, my father’s been a construction forever. We talk about until we get to zero incidents worldwide, we’re never going to have the very, very, very best program we can have. We need to keep evolving that program to continue to focus on helping all industries and all workers go home at the same or better condition in which they arrived. And that’s our primary goal.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:04] Now, how are we doing? Like what is the kind of state of the industry right now, in your opinion?
Chris Williams: [00:03:10] State of the industry, safety and health? We are better than we have ever been. I can tell that. I can say that with absolute certainty. You know, I’m old enough to remember back back in the nineties, safety culture was give a great example in terms of fall protection in construction. It was wear body belt. Well before that it was well, if you feel bad things are going to happen, you’re most likely going to perish. Then it was Wear Body Belt and if you fell, well, okay, you might be paralyzed from the waist down from the nineties. Oh, we evolved in that piece of equipment, evolved into a full body harness, which protects the wearer from serious injury. And so as we evolve safety in health, we’ve reached a point now that, especially with EPA members, are lagging indicators for our members, or at least 52% better than industry averages across the board. And while that’s great, as I said, one of the things that we as an association focus on, we continuously try to educate and share those best practices with our members to get that number to absolute zero. In terms of incidence every hour, our primary resource, our best resource we could possibly have are our employees, our workers out there. And our goal is to make sure that every one of them goes home safe.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:17] Now, do you find that the the companies you work with, a lot of companies, obviously, people are our most important asset and they there’s a lot of lip service towards that. But practically, you know, when the rubber hits the road, are you seeing them as maybe motivated and inclined to take action when it comes to safety and health as you’d like? Or is this something is it getting better? Like, where are we at from that standpoint?
Chris Williams: [00:04:45] That’s that’s a great question with VPA members. Our members, as I said, are always striving to be the very best. The best, and that’s what we look for. But as as we’ve expanded as an association and evolved our mission, some of those companies, sadly, there are companies out there. We see them in the news all the time that that they pay that lip service to. Yes, we safety is our priority. And yet you look at their their safety performance, it’s simply not there. And as we’ve evolved our association, our focus is to bring those companies in. We want those company. Used to join us. We want those companies to be a part of VPA so that they can learn and apply those lessons and get better. You know, we see them anytime I see a company and this is personal opinion, not a VP. Again, my safety backgrounds come into play here whenever I see a company or a person talk about safety as a priority. I always question that because priorities change. My priority for the longest time, every every January 1st, is I’m going to lose weight. And every March 1st, that priorities got. It’s changed. There’s something else to put out there. Safety to our members and our association. It’s a core value. It’s what we are. Our businesses, our members build their business on, their model on. And when I worked in construction, there are a number of companies that you talk about lip service say that their statement is essentially we will not perform any task if it is not completely safe. But those companies walk the walk. And our goal as an association of VPAS to bring members on board, to get them to where it’s walking the walk, in addition to talking the talk and to raise that boat with you, we talk about rising tide lifts all boats. That’s our association’s mission now and then.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:20] So, you know, you’ve been doing this for a minute and it sounds like it’s trending in the right direction. And do you think that just by kind of holding up the examples of the people that are doing it well and then I don’t want to say shaming, but just making the public aware of the people that aren’t doing it as well or could improve. Is that kind of the lever that you need to get more people prioritizing safety and health? Like, what are the levers you have to pull to, you know, encourage more companies to really walk the walk?
Chris Williams: [00:06:53] So it’s interesting to say that when we talk about shaming companies and that’s certainly been been something that that is an industry. And in terms of other agencies as well, they’ve worked towards, you know, it’s we bring attention to the company that’s not performing well. The reality is what we found in safety and health is that for the longest time I said the culture change is really started back in the nineties. I use the fall protection example, but the reality is safety is a culture. As the cultures of cultures evolved from the nineties, we realized that the culture of the generational leadership style of tell somebody to do something and let them do it, make sure they do it and come down on them hard. If they don’t do it the right way, it’s changed instead of shaming. Now it’s we work with not just employees but companies and say, listen, we understand these are things that are happening and we have the solutions for you. We can get you to where you need to be. Let’s work on that together and bring you up to speed so that you’re not going to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. You’re going to have employees who want to stay. You’re going to have employees that are working safe and understand the importance of safety because it is a cultural issue.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:00] So you’re finding that by bringing attention in a positive manner to the people that are doing it well and holding them up and spotlighting them and using them as an example, that brings more people into the fold.
Chris Williams: [00:08:13] Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’ll say this, our safety symposium we have every year, we have a large portion of our sessions dedicated, like I said, to sharing best practices and sharing our award winners, success stories, the best, the best. Again, showing how they’ve done it. That said, we also, from a safety health standpoint, know that we need to the best way to put this is most people their safety. Why why they do what they do, why they work safe. It stems from a catastrophic incident, a tragedy beyond explanation. And people that have gone through that loss, that have gone through either a death penalty on the job site or a serious injury with one of their employees. You can see the change there. And so what we also attempt to do is, is we bring in speakers that have have gone through that safety. Why? Because the last thing we want a company or one of our members to have to go through is that catastrophic incident to finally realize. So we try to duplicate that condition as much as possible and then promote the best practices after that and say, listen, this is something you never want to have to go through. Here’s how you never have to go through it.
Lee Kantor: [00:09:20] Yeah, because the people have lived through it. They, they know the importance, but they had to experience that devastation in order to really have it kind of sink in and probably make that cultural change. I mean it sadly. But you want to learn from their pain, really, so that you can eliminate the pain going forward for others.
Chris Williams: [00:09:41] Absolutely. I had a great conversation with one of our closing session speakers yesterday about this very topic, and she used to work at NASA during the Columbia disaster and said that NASCAR, and rightfully so, USA, has an exceptional safety culture. But unfortunately it was the Columbia incident and Challenger before that that there were slips. And in our profession, when there slips, it’s catastrophic. And so our mission is to avoid help companies avoid those slips.
Lee Kantor: [00:10:10] Yeah. I mean, it’s one of those things where, I mean, you’re dealing with human beings. So mistakes. You know, humans make mistakes. But if you can, you know, get to the heart of the systems and make sure that you’re catching some of these potential mistakes before they can happen systemically, then you can really make an impact and then you can prevent some of this.
Chris Williams: [00:10:33] Absolutely. And incident prevention in any industry is always a tremendous asset. And it’s something that we preach incessantly and for good cause. And it’s it also comes down to when we talk about culture as we’ve seen this this cultural evolution in safety and health. As I said, it went from. Do the job, get it done back it back up until OSHA was created back in the early seventies that it was all right. You work safe. But that was it. You were responsible for your own safety and you are still responsible for your own safety and the jobsite you’re on. But the cultural evolution we’ve now started to focus on in the early 2000s, and it’s been tremendous in terms of helping us get this message across, that it’s not just about you working safe, it’s about you watching out for the people around you to make sure that they’re working safe. And we’ve accomplished this. And in a way that I don’t think anybody, if you’d asked them 25 years ago, would have said this is possible, but we’ve accomplished it by. By having family days, by especially in construction, shutting down the job site and having families commit so that I, as an employee of the company, I as a steelworker, I as a carpenter, I as a laborer can see that the person working next to me has got got a wife and kids, got a husband and a child.
Chris Williams: [00:11:44] They’ve got parents. Those are the people that they’re working for. And so what we’re doing from a cultural standpoint is reinforcing that you’re not just responsible for your own safety, but you need to make sure that the person next to you continues to work it because they’re going to go home to a family. And if there’s that catastrophic loss, that safety, why that happens and we never want to see it, that’s where the loss is going to be felt. And I can this is a topic that I’m very passionate about because in my previous career with ABC as director of safety there, I had a member who shared a story with me from back. Back in the early 2000s on one of their job sites, a crane collapse killed a young man. Unfortunately, it was their safety. Why? And on a Facebook every year, we unfortunately have the parents of that young man. They post every year how much they miss them. And we’re now 20 years on from that. And it never we never want to have to see somebody go through that. And that’s why we do what we do.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:36] Right. And by including the families you are, you know, you’re kind of demonstrating the stakes like it is in Bob. There’s Bob and his kid and his wife and his, you know, grandkid like Bob’s more than Bob. So, I mean, the stakes are high. And everybody, it sounds like it’s very holistic. And I mean, I remember when I was in school and we’d read books about what it was like a hundred years ago. I mean, it seems like we’ve come such a long way because of, you know, organizations like yours that are really kind of giving people the tools to be better. And it sounds like that we are making progress. This isn’t a dream that can’t come true. I mean, with people kind of can learn from your association and the members and really can make a difference. And it sounds like it is.
Chris Williams: [00:13:25] Oh, absolutely. I pinpoint back and you can’t pinpoint a date, but when we when we realized that we could throw all the money and all of the best practices in terms of technical knowledge, in terms of personal protective equipment prevention to design, we could throw all of that technical knowledge into safety and health, but still not reach our goal. Once we figure it out, we need to include the human component. That’s when it really started to click across all industries that once we got the human component in there, realized that behavior really does have an effect on how somebody works. Not only that, the conditions they face off the job and we started to focus on employee wellness outside of the outside of the job, the workplace. That’s when it really started to shift. To get us to the point we’re at now. There’s still a long way to go, don’t get me wrong, in terms of any any any injury on any job site or any plant, any manufacturing facility is one too many. And as we still need to focus on that improvement, but we’ve come so far in the past 25, 30 years just from that. And then even before that, the famous photo of the New York skyline, the steel work is sitting on a steel beam. There’s I see that photo today. And I still my heart stops because, number one, I’m afraid of heights. Number two, there’s I can’t even fathom having someone at that height with absolutely no fall protection. And we’ve come so far and we’re so safe that I think workers from that day and age would be astounded to see where we are at from a safety and health standpoint. Again, there’s still some we still have to get to that zero.
Lee Kantor: [00:15:00] Now, are you finding that today’s generation of workers, you know, they’re elevating maybe mental health as high as physical health when it comes to their workplace experience?
Chris Williams: [00:15:14] Oh, absolutely. And we’ve started to see our members, VHP members are at the forefront of recognizing that employee wellness is critical to not just working safe, but the employees long term success in health. And we focused on, especially with our association. In fact, when I started I’ve been here about a month now. Like I said, my background is in safety and health. But it was amazing to see how proactive not just our members have been, but also the association itself in terms of focusing on that, you know, we have members that that will have mental health days for their workforce that say the force them to take the day off. And we do that as an association as well. We tell our employees, my team, listen, once a day or once a quarter, you’re going to take the day off and we’re going to pay you to take the day off. And we want you to go do anything that’s not work related. Because if you’re not mentally sharp and this is not just from the association standpoint, from a workforce standpoint in general, if you’re not mentally sharp and ready to go, that’s a mistakes happen. And again, in our in our industry, in safety and health, one mistake is catastrophic, can have catastrophic consequences, not just for you as an individual, but for those working around you.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:23] Now, is there an example you can share? I know that this is kind of new for you in this role, but maybe an example you can share that illustrates the change that can happen when a company leans into safety and health in terms of just better results and better maybe retention and better just, you know, you’re just a better organization when you lean into and elevate safety and health, not from lip service, but to actual action where you are kind of watching the back of your people.
Chris Williams: [00:16:56] Absolutely. And I can show you a recent example. I came over to the EPA from the Association of the Wall Ceiling Industry and Administering the Safety Awards there at a company when I started about five years ago that I talked to you guys, you’ve got a pretty good program. Why don’t you apply for a safety awards? And they said, well, you know, we’re still working on our culture and we still have some issues and some of our some of our officers, we want to make sure that we’ve got them on the right path. And so we brought them aboard the safety committee. And this is now three years ago, they applied for the first safety award they want for one of their offices. And they said, why don’t you apply as a whole company? They said, Well, we still have work to do. And that recognition, we haven’t earned it. The sea change from them when they applied last year and won our highest award at WCI was phenomenal from when I had started working with them. It wasn’t just the tangibles of employee retention, and the employees absolutely raved about their involvement in the safety and health program. It wasn’t just the increase, the better performance in terms of their lagging indicators. It was the fact that safety and health have become an absolute obsession with the company, whereas before it was, as I said, a priority. Now it was something that they strove for 24 seven. It was something that was at the forefront as a core value in everything the company did.
Lee Kantor: [00:18:17] Now, any advice for maybe other association leaders out there that are like you? You’ve been in this space for a while, but now you’re taking over a new association, how you can kind of, you know, maybe your first hundred days, how you kind of went about joining this association and kind of making a plan to make the largest impact you can.
Chris Williams: [00:18:42] That’s a loaded question, Lee. It’s like I said, I started here about a month ago, but in reality. Started when I was announced that I’d accepted the positions that was back in May. And so some of my advice is that when the opportunity arises, seize it for those out there looking to take that that top seat, that CEO, that executive director position, but start laying the groundwork for success even before you start that. That’s engaging with the executive committee and the board, getting to know what their goals are for the association, getting to know what the rules are, speaking with staff when the opportunity arises. Being able to really explore that relationship and build that relationship from a foundational standpoint with them from the outset. Because I can tell you when I started, I started July 1st and it was a half day and then July 4th was a monday. So all right, I’m in the office for 3 hours and that’s it.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:31] You eased into it?
Chris Williams: [00:19:32] Yeah, I remember. I won’t remember any any faces or names the next week because there’s there’s three and a half, four days in between. But because I had gotten to know everyone, because I’d had those conversations with both volunteer leaders and staff, it really sets you up for success and what you’re looking at, especially in the first 100 days. One of the things I’d recommend for anyone that’s interviewing for a position like this, the question always comes from the interview committee, the nominee, the committee, it’s what would you do in your first 30 days or 60 days or 90 days? No, it’s the first six months minimum, because the first 90 days in this position are spent learning. It’s that that old that old adage of children should be seen and not heard. Well, executive directors and CEOs, in the instances where they can they should be seen heard only on occasion, but absorbing as much information as they can. Because if you go into it with why I’m going to change X, Y and Z immediately, that’s that’s not possible in associations. I think we we all know the pace that associations move and on change, it’s it’s not quick and that’s fine. But we also when you go into it with that mindset, I’m going to make these changes immediately. In my first 90 days, you start to lose staff the buy it in. It’s critical to earn the respect of your staff, your team from the outset and also their buy into your vision for the association. That’s a more long term goal. So never, never go with that first 90 days. So it’s the first six months because it takes six months to build those relationships up.
Lee Kantor: [00:21:03] And you have to manage the expectations of the board in that regard as well, I’m sure.
Chris Williams: [00:21:08] Absolutely. It’s unfortunate. Vpas is in a really good position. Obviously with the pandemic coming out of this, there’s still uncertainty around many associations or is included in terms of attendance at our upcoming safety plus event, in terms of how things will look when we’re fully out of the pandemic, knock on wood. And so keeping that in mind, it’s it becomes one of those challenges of you don’t want to say, oh, we’re going to have 3000 people at this event realizing that the market conditions simply won’t support it. Or, again, coming out of a pandemic, there’s still uncertainty and there’s still travel restrictions. So it’s it’s not necessarily the old under-promise, overdeliver, but be realistic in your expectations. Don’t. My advice is don’t don’t go into it as I know I can make these changes and we’re going to do tremendous work and we’re going to succeed right off the bat. No expect that. As I said, you’re learning as you come into it and especially that first six months, make sure that the board understands that. Yeah, you need to take that six months to really be integrated into the association. And that’s not just the operations but the history of the associations, what the association has done before, and then laying out that vision in conjunction with your board of where you want to take the association, what you see the opportunities as being.
Lee Kantor: [00:22:22] Well, Chris, if if there’s people out there that want to learn more about the association, what is the coordinates or the best way to connect with you and your team?
Chris Williams: [00:22:31] Absolutely. I can always go to our website VP dot org. It’s got all of our contact information and if any, any aspiring leaders want to reach out to me. I’ve been on this journey now for 22 years and it’ll never stop because I love associations and also safety and health and they like advice and in this position they can always reach me. My email address is C Williams at VP dot org.
Lee Kantor: [00:22:52] Well Chris.
Chris Williams: [00:22:53] Remember three.
Lee Kantor: [00:22:53] Ps three PS V three PS in an A. Exactly. Well, Chris, thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re doing such important work and we appreciate you.
Chris Williams: [00:23:02] We appreciate the opportunity. Thank you very much.
Lee Kantor: [00:23:05] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see y’all next time on the Association Leadership Radio.