The power of self-reflection: Conversations with Cindi Nandlal

March 24, 2021



In this podcast, I speak with Cindi Nandlal, a close friend who serves as a HSE manager in a reputed organization in Trinidad and Tobago. Cindi shares her unique position as a senior HSE manager who is also appointed as a board member on three different boards. As I listened to her, I realized how much she has transformed from being who she was at the start of her career (a very ‘black and white’ person in her own words) to becoming an influential and successful leader. In every experience she narrates in this podcast, I observed an immense sense of self-reflection, empathy and humility – the traits of leadership.

What struck me most was her sensitivity to the business context (including the use of language) and the need for business leaders to understand how the organization operates at different levels before attempting to influence change. It reminds me of a beautiful quote from Stephen Covey – ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

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[00:00:00] Nippin Anand: Welcome to another episode of Embracing Differences with me Nippin Anand. This podcast series is meant to bring you different perspectives and concepts in safety. The idea really is to create space for thinking and reflection, not to reinforce any grand theories or our prior knowledge on a subject. The aim is to learn and grow, not to remain stagnant. And of course, as I keep saying there is no reason for you to believe me or any so-called expert but keep an open mind and be prepared to challenge your beliefs if you truly want to learn more than what you knew yesterday.

[00:00:38] I speak with Cindi Nandlal, another close friend who serves as a HSE manager in a reputed organization in Trinidad and Tobago (as you will soon discover from her accent). In this podcast Cindi shares her unique position as a senior HSE manager who is also appointed as a board member on three different boards. As I listened and reflected on this podcast, I found how she has transformed from being who she was to a very reflective, humble and empathetic person – all signs of a great leader. One of the reasons she has been so influential and successful in her career is her ability to listen and understand the business context (even down to the language) before making any attempt to influence change – something all of us as safety professionals can learn from. I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I liked talking to her and if you wish to contact her, she is on LinkedIn – Cindi Nandlal.

[00:01:54] So, tell me a little bit about yourself before we get to the topic.

[00:01:57] Cindi Nandlal: I live in Trinidad which is in the Caribbean. I’ve been the health and safety field for about 21 years. But I have to say that my safety journey really started about 15 years ago when I experienced a work place fatality at my job. I think until then, I was not clear what being a safety professional meant. To me, it was a job about policing and you know, you go outside on the plants and then you tell people what they have to do and you correct them. But that was such a rude awakening to what safety is about. It has changed so much in the last couple years. I may have mentioned this to you before, I feel so uncomfortable with my knowledge and what I did. Looking through the lens of human and organizational performance I feel a little bit almost guilty sometimes because that new knowledge brought such weight to me that when I reflected on my practice and how I operated or how people saw me. I felt as if I was not doing the discipline justice.

[00:03:07] Nippin Anand: Wow! What was the transformation? Talk me through that, what was so different about it?

[00:03:14] Cindi Nandlal: You know in my younger days I would have to say I was very black and white. It was either, or, it was either breaking rules or discipline. During plant turnarounds, I was known as person, that if I caught you breaking the rules, especially significant rules, you would be walked out the plant, be barred from coming back in without any explanation and then I did have that reputation.

I would not try to put myself in other people’s shoes, I would not think that they were human and I believed that it was very black and white.

[00:03:55] Nippin Anand What happened then?

[00:03:57] Cindi Nandlal: There’s pivots in your career when you start to see change. I remember myself involved in a little incident and it started sort of was my awakening. So, when I worked at a process plants at the time used 98% sulfuric acid so very potent stuff and they kept all of it behind a plexiglass so that it’s enclosed. One day, I was walking to another part of the plant because we had a problem and I was trying to figure it out in my mind that how are we going to resolve it.

[00:04:33] One of the operators came to me very quickly and he said, “Come quickly! We have a problem and we want you to see it.” So, I followed him but still thinking in my mind and did not pay attention to where he was going. I happened to follow him to the bonded area, where the acid and tank was. The doors were opened and to get into the area you need to put on an acid suit because of the hazard. As I proceeded with him, I looked and thought to myself – Wait! Where are we? I was like we’re not supposed to be here without an acid suit. So, I left and went to resolve the problem, went back to the control room, and the operator says to me “Well, that’s our little secret, right? Because if you get into trouble, I get into trouble”.

[00:05:26] Up until then, I was seen as the person on the pedestal or the queen of safety on the site. And I thought – no, this is not me! So, I went and reported myself to the shift supervisor and had to put an incident log on the system which then dispatches to the site which is a near miss or potential exposure to acid. I had to go through the incident investigation and the question was, “Didn’t you know that that wasn’t a safe area?” In my mind I thought like – Yeah, but I was distracted and really didn’t think about where I was going and then it dawned on me how I was judging other people.

[00:06:06] So that was the start and the shift gave me a very difficult time. They made me feel really bad about it and made me present on how it would never happen again which in itself was humiliating. Truth to be told, 6 months later the shift supervisor came to me and told that me that they respected me before and they respect me five times now because I was willing to put myself on the line, I admitted that I went into that area where nobody would have known if I did not report it and now, I understand how they feel.

[00:06:45] The next pivot was when I saw Todd Conklin talking about the ‘New view’ in a conference and I didn’t know what he’s talking about. I thought to myself In a conference and I didn’t know what he was talking about and I thought myself to be very up to date in HSE thing and I thought ha so I bought his book, a couple of more books including Sidney Dekker, where my performance as you know we connected last year as well and that has also helped the truth tremendously because you know like you I believe language sets the tone for the organization and I think it’s a powerful either medium for culture or you know something that could damage your culture.

[00:07:26] Nippin Anand: Fascinating what a beautiful story, Cindy.

[00:07:29] Cindi Nandlal: Truth to be told, I don’t tell that story often (laughs).

[00:07:31] Nippin Anand: Well, now it’s all up in the air. What stands out to me is the immense sense of self-reflection. Many of us have been on this journey where we have been caught not following the rules. But what did we really learn from that? Here’s someone who has transformed out of that experience. You also mentioned that you witnessed a fatality, isn’t it? Do you want to talk about that as well?

[00:07:56] Cindi Nandlal: Yeah so, I was a new fighter at that time working in a high hazard plant. So, I’ve been in high hazard my whole career and basically what happened is that this plant was not a common technology found. So, at the time we made something called steel brackets which is taking molten metal and making brackets. The plant was down for a week where everything was opened except for one vessel that was not opened and we had guys working on all floors.

So, it was those grated floors and they decided to test a valve on a vessel that was not open and basically direct reduced iron ore, which is pyrophoric sort of like, black sand came down. As it’s coming down, because it’s pyrophoric it ignited into like a ball and I remember it because I’m walking to the plant and I see this black dust coming and then this fireball.

[00:08:59] There were three guys working in different floors and there was one guy immediately below and it landed on him. It heats up on hundreds of degrees right so it’s really hot to the point his helmet was melted and got significantly burned and he ended up dying couple days after. I remember since these things stick in your mind as we were taking him down because it was about 10 floors up so we had to walk him down in a stretcher. His co-workers who had already evacuated, they stood in a line and they were basically threatening us. I remember hearing a few of them saying that, “You want police PPE and you want tell us what to do and look what has happened!”

[00:09:49] You’re just sort of in a robotic mood at that time, you’re just trying to kind of get through the moment. When we got to the hospital, the family of course was very angry and very upset. Lawyers get involved so you’re not allowed to talk to the family at that point. But it was a really traumatic event and one of the things that stood out in my mind that then he had a two-year-old daughter. When he died a couple days later, in one of the front pages of the paper was a picture of his daughter that I kept filled with the comfort in her mouth standing I’m next to his coffin.

[00:10:31] I cut it out and I still have it because I look at it and I reflect on it thinking that – Is what we do? This is what our profession has to stop or prevent and that is always in the back of my mind. That drove the passion at which I did things and that passion may have come out when I look back as regimented this way and how it occurred to people was not the way I think I could have been successful but it was as a result of experiencing something so traumatic. I went to the hospital every day because we had two other guys who were burned and it really humanizes you.

[00:11:14] You’re there with the family and get the news when the person passes. For that particular fatality we weren’t allowed to go to the funeral but I have experienced that more often and it is traumatic. I don’t know their family or anything but I know what it would be like if I didn’t have a father and that’s how I relate.

[00:11:38] Nippin Anand: Yeah, this is interesting because what you’re pointing towards is this whole idea that one of your roles as a safety professional is to end all the suffering in the world and Dekker puts it in a very beautiful words. This existential need to put an end to sufferings, but how useful is that emotion to bring about the transformation that you want to achieve? Now, I’m just trying to understand and one of the things that got me was that when the workers as you were negotiating your way out of that space with the dead worker or heavily injured burnt worker and other workers came in the way and then said something I’m interested to hear. What was the deeper message of that? What is it that they were trying to tell you?

[00:12:25] Cindi Nandlal: Yeah, that’s a very powerful question if I reflect on that looking back with what I know now it was basically saying that we did not do what we all could prevented from occurring. We’re looking at these things that are superficial or surface level and I would admit that would be the case because at the time PPE was, though not considered as a hazard control but it was the most visible thing that you would see.

Back then as well, having significant injuries on a plant like that was normalized. It wasn’t abnormal the way it is now but you know it drove a guilt. I’ve had another experience. I had another one recently in the last five years, and there’s a guilt that you always think what could I have done differently with that particular fatality? I had actually passed through the area about 2 hours before and I also think what if it was me, what could I have done differently? That is always in my mind. So, any opportunity or job that I have and I’m outside and I see something I don’t walk past it because I know that if I do, I’m kind condoning or I’m time blinding to the fact that I need to do something even though that I know that something may be difficult or may cause people discomfort or more work. I can’t just walk away because I’m so guilty and I know what that guilt is like.

[00:14:10] Nippin Anand: I’m just playing the devil’s advocate here, Cindy. Implicit in what you are trying to say is that this this goes back to the same idea of behavioral intervention that if you are vigilant enough and if you can spot the error and if you can spot the unsafe practices that you can somehow avoid accidents.

What I’m trying to see is that how useful is that approach you know wearing with that kind of mindset, going on site visits, looking at spot trying to spot unsafe practices to make the system safer because where do you draw that line between what is unsafe and what is unsafe in an inherently unstable environment?

[00:14:50] Cindi Nandlal: Yeah, so when I do visits, I’m not looking for adverse behavior necessarily I’m looking at these signals that I could trace back to a potential issue. For example, as simplistic as a contractor not wearing his safety glasses leads me back to how the contractor company provides PPE for their workers and of what quality or how often? So, I don’t I focus only worker you know before because I know when I understand now because of my experience, that context could be generated from how the business is set up, how they spend money, where they don’t spend money, how they train, how they don’t train. So, if anything that I would have noticed like maybe 10 years ago on unsafe behavior, I would have been very harsh. But now I recognize that that behavior comes from either accepted practice, lack of interventions by the company or overall philosophy that that particular contractor does not value life and limb the way that I do.

[00:16:08] When there’s a mismatch in values, then having incidents injuries are almost a given after that, because being an operating plant or a contractor company, if you have mismatched values, and I’ve seen it happen to some significant events that you don’t have the requisite intervention mechanisms to say that this is not what we value, this is not our approach depending on whose side you are on. If you’re on the operating company side you have more power and influence as opposed to if you are on the contractor working for an operating company you can’t say, “Well, you don’t have value to safety so I’m not going take this job” so it’s a little more complex. For me that has been one of you know kind of a distinct difference.

[00:17:00] Nippin Anand:  What I take from this conversation is that with all that experience including the ones that have transformed you in your life, I understand what you’re trying to do is, you’re trying to connect the micro with the macro. So, you see those behaviors and you try to put them in some sort of a structure the way you describe. It is less for context and more structure that how is the organization that actually facilitating the worker to do the right thing? So, this goes back to my mind at least in the way you explain it is, Andrew Hopkins work that you know what incentivizes people in the organization to do the right thing or otherwise? Somewhere down the line they become too bogged into the idea of context drives behavior.

Yes, the context does drive behavior but is something beyond that context. You’ve listened to Andrew Hopkins podcast too and had some great ideas there but what do you think about, Cindi?

[00:17:52] Cindi Nandlal: I think he’s right on how structure drives safety. Like it’s not advisable for example for me, I think the HSE manager should report to the most senior person in the organization and not necessarily for example, a plant manager who manages operation because you want an independent connection into the most senior person organization.

[00:18:22] One of the topics we talk about it boards, whether the board is structured with the safety subcommittee or operations committee that talks about safety that that structure from the top of the organization dictates what safety looks and feels like all the way down including the culture of the organization. So, very much agreed with Andrew on that and he uses BP quite a bit in his books as an example of the whole complexity in structure can greatly impact safety as well.

[00:18:58] I mean I’m very much a fan of his work and he understands at a pragmatic level because sometimes you hear all these nice concept of error, blame and you have to figure out that in your organization how do I make that work in a palatable way that aligns to the organization, so that people don’t see it as this nebulous thing that I’m talking about and they can’t relate to it and that is a challenge of the practitioner on how do you change these terms and these philosophies and get them down into the organization at a cellular level that is practical and unworkable in the organization. That is the challenge I’m no longer a believer of ‘best practice’ because I believe an organization is like a living organism.

You cannot take one thing from one organization and plug it into another organization and expect the same results. it just doesn’t work.

[00:20:07] Nippin Anand:  Absolutely! One of the reasons for having you on this podcast is that you are a living example of a person who actually sits on that board, isn’t it? Very rarely safety practitioners get the opportunity to sit on that board. Bringing it back to our discussion about your experiences with field visits where you try to connect the micro with the macro where when you see something you try to relate it with something systemic. For example, somebody not wearing safety goggles or the right PPE and how does that relate to the bigger questions here. I just felt that it would be a remarkable opportunity here, where you can reflect on how do you relate this discussion with your unique position of sitting in the boardroom as someone who is so uniquely positioned in that in that role. How do you influence that through your unique position of being in the world?

[00:21:02] Cindi Nandlal: I was on the board level at my previous organization so I sat on at least three boards of subsidiary companies and it really came from a few things, Nippin. One is for me sitting on a board as a person with an HSE hat, what is allowed to me to do first is listen and understand the whole board operate without me first putting any judgment, trying to figure out on how do I get to that point that you speaking about because it was all new space to me. On contrary sometimes I felt like a bit of an impostor sitting in a boardroom talking about strategic direction of a company. So, these conversations were new. But what it did for me was help me understand how boards as a collective thing can operate and what are the sort of governance structures and stuff they operate within. It also helped me listen for the language of the board as it relates to decisions that could impact safety one way or the other.

[00:22:17] Whether it was, for example, you defer capital expenditure because the company just didn’t make enough money and a deferral could impact upgrades of equipment later on. So that’s the kind of conversation that you have to sort of listen to and try to figure out – OK how is this going to impact the frontline workers? Companies especially in these times are losing a lot of money. Business is difficult, you don’t have the luxury of huge profit margins to be upgrading equipment and buying new technologies and you have to be able to work with either what you have or try to adjust your controls as you can because that’s how companies operate.

[00:23:15] So, by sitting on the boards, by listening by understanding the governors, what it allowed me to do is then create very small nudges into the board structure and pre-reads. Now what do I mean by that? A lot of boards have periods where board meetings are very structured, time sensitive meetings so you want to read your material before you even get to the boardroom so you understand the backgrounds whether it’s financials or whatever. So, I started to build in as a part of the HSE section, nothing long or big in layman’s terms because you have finance people, engineers, you have people who just don’t understand the way you do and then by the time we get to the board and you have your time slot it is really – what did you take away from the meeting and how do we apply this in the organization?

[00:24:18] So, using those sorts of forums and formats to build in a little bit of knowledge because one question that was in my mind before this was who educates boards on safety? Where do they get that knowledge and training from? Who tells them when there’s something new and emerging or this practice is no longer done? I didn’t have an answer for that before. I started to see it even more discussions when people for example, where they look at leading and lagging indicators, they would look at financials, there was no context behind the numbers so when the numbers look good it’s like – yes he’s doing well and I said well no green checks don’t mean we’re doing well, we need to ask different questions.

So that was just so many ways that I kind of use my knowledge and in the beginning, I used to have a corporate secretary always tell me, “Will take off your HSE hat and put on your shareholders hat but still keep the HSE lens” so that you are representing the shareholder but you are still looking through the lens of a practitioner.

[00:25:45] Nippin Anand:  Fascinating!

So, board has one way of communicating, one language or one kind of priorities and then what is it that you actually did or do to influence the board to invest in safety?

[00:25:59] Cindi Nandlal: So, the best example I could give was for companies that had incidents and fatalities. There was no better business case to say here’s why we want to invest in safety. But being a conglomerate where you have subsidiaries that don’t relate to your business but they’re all part of your family, you can use examples to say, “Here’s what could happen to us.” A lot of times you find companies that do very well from a safety perspective, and when I say do well, it is optics wise, numbers look good they don’t have incidents you know you may be in a position to think well, all is well here.

[00:26:40] But that’s not the case. High hazard business that I’m in where investments and upgrades things like process safety always has to be in the mind of the board of directors because if things happen, it’s going to go wrong in a very bad way. What we do is, we use case data from international cases, podcasts like yours or Todd to share how things could unravel really quickly. So those are some of the ways that I would convince. But luckily for me, the chairmen of these companies and even in my current job, they were aligned to the value that safety is not a priority because priorities change but safety is a prerequisite for how we operate. So, I always have that on my side because it’s an uphill battle if the senior people, chairman, the board, does not share that view, that won’t for me.

[00:27:42] Nippin Anand:  Fascinating that many levels but mainly because here’s a living example of somebody who sits on the board or who has set on the board and have an advantage to influence. What I’m hearing is that you need to strike a common language that can be easily discernible. I think it’s in most organizations, at least, from my experience that common language does not exist because there are not many safety professionals who sit on the board and even if they do I think the beauty of what you did was you took time to absorb how the board actually interacts before you start to intervene. In a way, you were trying to understand the business context before you start to influence something and I think this is something which is just sadly missing in the safety world that they are too quick to judge, to be understood, to control, to manipulate things without taking the time to actually understand things and I think this is something very unique about your position.

[00:28:33] Cindi Nandlal: Being up a board of directors, made me feel equal at the level of a CEO. A lot of times when you have HSE people report to the CEO. So, there’s power distance ratio, there’s all sorts of dynamics that go on there but being a board of director means that when I had a voice, it was not this safety person crying out in the wind it was as an equal weight of a board of director especially when there was a fatality. I would have shared with you I was on the board when there was a fatality and I was advised by a lawyer that I had even a higher burden on me as a board director because I was a safety person and a subject matter expert so therefore it did it carry a bigger burden which I also respected and unrecognized.

[00:29:42] It’s not just about the title or package but there is a massive burden that comes with wearing that kind of hat at that level when something happens in the organization. But on the flip side wearing that hat and changing culture of the organization by changing the language of the board, or influencing the chairman and having the board influences the CEO is a powerful place to be and I saw it for myself. It’s not something that I see often so that’s also something to think about.

[00:30:20] Nippin Anand: Fascinating! I think there’s an element of ignorance in many organizations that I see. That boardrooms are so disconnected from control rooms and of most people lose hope. I think what I learned from this from this session with you today was if there is a proper representation of a safety professional who has the empathy, who has the understanding, who takes time to understand the board’s concerns before they superimpose their own knowledge and experience then I think there’s a huge opportunity to create a level playing field where either party kind of listens to each other.

[00:30:54] Also, what is also interesting was what you said about how those difficult moments when you have a fatality or an injury, how that becomes such a transformational movement for somebody in the position to leverage that into a meaningful change, because then you use the word burden but you have the accountability and without accountability comes that desire to do something to change things. Time and again we see that this opportunity is lost because that knowledge and that expertise is not available in the board room to be able to speak in a way that doesn’t threaten people but brings them to do a level of understanding.

[00:31:25] Cindi Nandlal: Yeah, I think that you’re right. To be in a boardroom, at the level of different board of directors and sit with them as a peer. I can also relate to their topics whether there is an accountant background or the things that they are subject matter experts in and I could also see how safety impacts their areas and how they areas impact safety. I think I was ignorant to the fact that sometimes boards or businesses are so constrained to operate within such constraints but you really have to be almost innovative sometimes to manage safety because you don’t have all the resources or the business isn’t doing well at the time. So that helped me a lot as well to understand business context pretty.

[00:32:29] Nippin Anand: Very powerful! This is one of the things I keep saying that safety professionals of the future, needs to have a very thorough understanding of how the business operates, what is the business context, where is the revenue coming from? If you do not understand where the revenue is coming from how are you going to put any meaningful constraints? This is what safety is all about isn’t it? How do you put controls on profitability if you don’t know where that revenue is actually coming from? So, you need to have that meaningful conversation. What a beautiful insight! Thank you, Cindi, really enjoyed that!

[00:33:00] Cindi Nandlal: I always enjoy having conversations with you, Nippin. You force me to also think differently so that I can reshape in my mind and bring out of the experience. So really appreciate that. It was a really good conversation.

[00:33:19] Nippin Anand: Thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast. I hope the time you spent was worthwhile. If you think the podcast has made you think, slow down and reflect, I have achieved my purpose. Please share it with others in your community so that messages reaches far and wide.

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Thank you for listening!