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Nurturing Strong Leadership: An Approach to Professional Development in Skilled Trades

Strong leadership is essential for the success and well-being of a company. Effective leaders play a vital role in setting the course, motivating employees, fostering a positive work culture and making critical decisions that steer the organization toward its goals.

In our industry, leaders face significant challenges due to substantial growth, an aging workforce and concerns about the impact of both on operations. The need for professional development is a crucial item for workers in the skilled trades who will assume leadership roles. This development is necessary to help the next generation of leaders attain safe, reliable and fiscally sound operations.

Two Clear Opinions
The best path to leadership in utility operations has been debated for years, with two clear, conflicting opinions. There are those who believe a person can only be an effective leader if they have come directly from the craft, while others feel that leaders need higher-level education to successfully steer an organization. The reality is that our organizations will employ people who entered the workforce from both the skilled trades and the higher-education path. A great professional development program will include support for both paths of entry.

The more variety in experiences and backgrounds that a safety team has, the better. This can be easier to achieve in large organizations that have the resources to develop and maintain a safety team. The leader of the organization has a strategic vision that is aligned with the vision of the executive team or board of directors. The mid-level leader is a manager at heart but has experience in the technical aspects of safety. The safety manager is supported by a mix of technical experts ranging from industrial hygienists and safety analysts to credentialed safety professionals and field-level safety coordinators. This may not be an exact representation of a large company’s safety department, but it’s close.

Now, consider a smaller company where the person responsible for safety is also the project manager, the fleet manager and the equipment department. In such a setting, technical safety experience is typically limited, and safety is just one of many responsibilities the individual has. For such workers, upskilling in basic safety management techniques is essential. This includes learning how to conduct a safety meeting; respond to and investigate a safety incident; maintain compliance with regulatory and customer requirements; and develop safety programs to prevent incidents from occurring.

Eventually, this smaller organization may decide to hire a dedicated safety professional, but who is the right person? That is not an easy question to answer. The organization must look inward and identify where gaps exist. Promoting a journey-level worker into safety is one approach. This person will know the work, the procedures involved and – perhaps most importantly – the real-world challenges faced by the crew. However, a journey-level worker sometimes lacks safety management skills and knowledge. To compensate for this, the employer should send the worker to OSHA outreach courses, get them involved in safety-focused industry teams and committees, and encourage them to seek professional safety certifications. Another approach is to hire a person who is already trained in safety and health concepts but may lack the field experience needed to relate to the crew. For these individuals, giving them some time with a trusted field leader will be helpful. Accompanying a field leader during crew visits, while scouting work locations and when meeting with customers is a great way to provide context.

These examples represent both ends of the spectrum. Ideally, the safety professionals you hire will possess a mix of experience that makes it easier to broaden their skills in either direction. Having a professional development program in place at your organization helps to target areas for improvement on an individual basis.

Learning Needs Assessments
What does leadership development look like in the skilled trades? Organizations can answer this question by first completing a learning needs assessment. Such an assessment involves gathering relevant information that identifies gaps between the existing knowledge, skills and competencies of the workforce and the desired level of performance. This is commonly done through various methods, such as surveys, interviews, focus groups and performance evaluations. To be effective, this assessment must support and contribute to the organization’s mission and goals. Organizations that do this well spend time defining the outcomes they want to achieve before moving forward.

As part of a needs assessment, organizations should explore the different aspects of leadership development, which can include items like communication skills, team management and problem-solving abilities. In their book, “The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results,” authors Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock and Andrew Jefferson offer some questions that can help define our goals, including the following:

  • What is the gap between our current performance and what it needs to be?
  • If the training is a success, and we were to watch how people perform their jobs afterward, what would we see them doing that is different and better?
  • How can we be sure the initiative is producing the desired results? Who will notice the changes first? What will change or be observable?
  • What are the specific criteria for success?

At the end of the assessment, the leaders in the organization should be able to answer these simple questions:

  • What will we see people do that is different?
  • How will we know?
  • How will we consistently measure it?

The answers will put the organization on the path to creating a successful program. Here is an example of how this could work with a single opportunity identified in a needs assessment. The example is related to an organization’s incident reporting requirements. For each role, the expectation and what the learner should be able to do are described in the chart below.


Role: Lineworker
Expectation: Report incidents
What the person will know and do:
  • Understand the importance of incident reporting in maintaining a safe work environment.
  • Demonstrate the ability to promptly and accurately report incidents, including relevant details and documentation.
  • Follow established protocols and procedures for incident reporting, ensuring consistency and adherence to organizational guidelines.
  • Identify potential barriers or challenges to incident reporting and apply strategies to overcome them effectively.
  • Collaborate with supervisors and colleagues to facilitate incident reporting and contribute to a culture of safety and accountability.
Role: Crew Lead
Expectation: Notify crew and leadership 
What the person will know and do:
  • Recognize the role and responsibility of a crew lead in incident reporting and communication.
  • Demonstrate effective communication skills to notify the crew about incidents, ensuring clear and concise information sharing.
  • Coordinate with supervisors to report incidents promptly and accurately, providing essential details and documentation.
  • Implement protocols and procedures for crew members to report incidents efficiently and securely.
  • Foster a supportive and responsive environment within the crew, encouraging open communication and participation in incident reporting processes.
Role: Supervisor
Expectation: Notify customer and company leadership
What the person will know and do:
  • Understand the significance of incident reporting and its impact on safety, compliance and organizational reputation.
  • Demonstrate leadership skills to promptly notify the appropriate individuals and stakeholders about incidents, including the client and the company.
  • Ensure accurate and comprehensive incident reporting by reviewing and verifying incident details and documentation.
  • Implement protocols for proper escalation and follow-up actions in response to reported incidents, ensuring timely resolution and prevention of recurrence.
  • Foster a culture of transparency, accountability and continuous improvement within the organization regarding incident reporting and response.

However, defining the outcomes that the program should achieve is not enough. Once you have agreement on the performance that the organization wants to improve, the design of the program must deliver an experience that helps the learner apply what they have learned and supports the learning once they return to their normal work.

The next step in the assessment is to determine the learning priorities of the organization. From this, a training plan can be built that aligns with the improvement the organization needs to make as well as the specific needs and preferences of the learners. This will help to ensure relevance and engagement when the program is delivered.

In-Person Learning
There are many training delivery options in our industry. This article focuses on one: in-person learning.

One approach an organization can take with in-person learning is to create a boot-camp-style training event. This type of event is generally an intensive and immersive learning experience designed to provide focused and accelerated training in a specific field or skill set. When developing leaders, these boot camps can provide the opportunity to learn from a mix of lectures, practical exercises, group projects and sometimes even simulated real-world scenarios. The emphasis is on hands-on learning, problem solving and collaboration, typically facilitated by experienced instructors or industry professionals.

Using the same incident reporting example from earlier in this article, here’s how a boot camp designed for supervisors would include a module on the incident reporting outcomes that were defined.

Incident Reporting Protocols and Procedures Module
This classroom lecture will cover:

  • The importance of incident reporting and its impact on safety, compliance and organizational reputation.
  • An overview of incident reporting protocols and procedures, emphasizing consistency and adherence to organizational guidelines.
  • A review of role-specific expectations that includes understanding the roles of lineworkers, crew leaders and supervisors in incident reporting and the required information and documentation.

Classroom exercise: Case studies and examples highlighting the consequences of inadequate incident reporting. The exercise includes facilitated discussion about the impacts of following and not following the system.

Scenario-based application exercise: This is an interactive discussion that includes practical exercises on following the established protocols for incident reporting, with a roleplay exercise intended to engage trainees in simulated scenarios that familiarize them with the process. The trainees will also practice notifying the client and the company about incidents and completing the required company documentation.

Here’s what the roleplay exercise can look like: Using simulated incident scenarios, participants are given specific roles within the system and asked to play their assigned roles. Role tasks are based on the incident they were given. The person playing the lineworker simulates reporting the incident promptly and accurately; the crew lead notifies their crew members about the incident and communicates the event to the supervisor; and the supervisor notifies the customer and their leadership.

Once each person completes their part of the scenario, the team meets as a small group and reflects on the roleplay exercises, sharing lessons learned and receiving feedback from instructors and peers. In larger classes, the groups then meet as the full class and share their learnings and feedback. The facilitator then closes the session with a summary of key takeaways and actionable steps so that participants can implement the incident reporting best practices in their roles.

It is important to remember that not everyone in our field enjoys the formal classroom setting. As we build programs, it is critical that we include hands-on training and other non-lecture-based approaches as part of the complete learning experience.

Organizations should also keep in mind that they are not alone; there are many trade groups and learning providers that will work with them on their learning needs. Within our industry, one example of this can be found with the National Electrical Contractors Association, which created a program that partners with institutions of higher education on degree and certificate programs. They have jointly created specially curated programs for individuals in electrical construction firms. The intent of these programs is to allow people across firms to grow in their roles. These programs can easily be integrated into a company’s professional development plan as one module in the overall program.

In closing, a well-structured professional development program addresses operational, safety and financial responsibilities as well as team trust. By assessing needs, defining outcomes and prioritizing interventions, organizations foster strong leadership, support employee growth and achieve goals.

About the Authors: Nathan Boutwell, M.Eng., CSP, SMS, CIT, CUSP, is the business unit manager for Powerline Training Consultants.

Mike Starner, CUSP, CHST, has 30 years of experience in the electric utility industry and currently serves as the executive director of outside line safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association.