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Opening doors - interview with new Council Member, Callum Irvine

New IIRSM Council member Callum Irvine, Director, Deloitte LLP, on why thinking beyond boundaries has been so relevant throughout his career

In common with many risk management professionals, Callum’s career in health and safety began by accident. A chance encounter as the ‘available manager’ when an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) came calling sparked the beginning of Callum’s ‘proper career’, which has since seen him rise to senior risk management positions in various industries.

“I’d not long started life in the leisure industry combining personal training with management of some leisure facilities, swimming pools, gyms, and so on,” he recalls. “Working in the leisure industry was something of a new beginning in itself, having parked ‘Plan A’ to continue teaching rock guitar – my first paid job – which at the time I presumed was the first step towards my destiny as a future rock star.”

Back to that chance EHO visit, Callum continues: “Given our leisure facilities were relatively new to the area, the visiting EHO was very interested to hear about all manner of things which were foreign to me at the time – acts, legislation, risk assessments. I wasn’t totally naive though, and I proudly thrust modest effort to show I knew what I was doing.

“The visit sparked an inevitable realisation that there was space for someone to help bring some focus to health and safety. As a result, I had the opportunity to undertake my NEBOSH Certificate. That’s how I got started.”

The initial injection of training, and some responsibility to start ‘doing’ health and safety, triggered an important thought process for Callum, who describes a realisation that he didn’t see himself working in gyms for the next 45 years as a trainer. “Having been exposed to a really diverse bunch on the NEBOSH training, for the first time I realised that health and safety could be a career – at the earliest chance, I decided to jump on board and invested my own time and money outside of my full-time role to complete the NEBOSH Diploma, to give me a better platform to build a new career on.”

Making a difference

Callum was energised about risk management and health and safety. “Not least because I was aware of the stereotypes relating to the profession, and believed that there was real opportunity to stand out from the crowd by being engaging and causing people to challenge those stereotypes,” he says.

Callum has always been open to the possibility of working in any industry, and as a result his CV features various different sectors and risk management disciplines.

“Whilst I don’t live by this advice, the words of a former CEO are etched in my mind: their approach was to ‘never walk past an open door – the least you can do is push it and see what’s there’.

Throughout my journey I can recall times where I’ve used this as my reference point – building a career doesn’t mean waiting for stuff to come to you.”

Callum’s job history stretches across a number of industries and organisations with their own unique challenges, which has seen him champion risk management in relation to tasers in policing, advise on safe use of private water supplies in rural hospitality through to strategy facilitation in heavy industry.

Work smart

The cultural diversity of the organisations Callum has worked in has been invaluable experience in developing a strong appreciation of how varied stakeholder approaches to risk can be. “You have to be interested in the perspective of those around you as an essential first step to achieve your objectives,” he notes.

“Some of my most formative experiences have come from times where I’ve stepped outside of my role as ‘subject matter expert’, for example chairing the senior management team for the Youth Hostel Association,” he says, which he joined as Head of Safety, Health Environment and Quality after a brief period working for the British Transport Police. “Some of the work I was involved in at YHA really pushed me to develop – there wasn’t any option to hide behind technical expertise – it was all about managing experienced leaders well.”

Callum continues: “In many ways, I think that’s analogous to the broadening of responsibilities health and safety specialists have; being asked to take on adjacent topics with more limited experience puts some of our profession’s people in the same position, and has to be someway attributable to the trust that our specialism has now built up with business, and progress in turning the tide on some of the stereotypes.”

Keen to broaden his experience, Callum followed his position at the YHA with a spell at Amazon working in the logistics health and safety function – a role that was, not least from a culture point of view, the polar opposite of the YHA set up.

“Amazon was a phenomenal experience,” Callum explains. “Culturally, it was so unique to anything I’d ever experienced, and there was a massive sense of momentum about the organisation – the pace of both day-to-day operations as well as change was incredible. A real distinction from previous organisations I’d worked for, was a near total reliance on data to drive decisions, which I found very different coming from the YHA in particular, where people exercised greater discretion and brought a great deal more personal judgement and opinion to the table. I wouldn’t credit one approach as being right or wrong, but they were certainly opposites in style.”

Moving on

From Amazon, Callum moved to the position of Director of Safety, Security and Environment at Millennium and Copthorne Hotels – before a chance conversation took him to his current position at consultancy Deloitte. He had been talking to a recruitment agency to fill vacancies within his team at Millennium Hotels when the agency invited him to discuss a role at the professional services provider.

“I joined Deloitte to grow the client facing health, safety and environment advisory practice. I hadn’t really put much thought into how the next decades of my career might play out, but it’s fair to say, for me personally, it felt like there was only limited growth potential in the work I was doing in-house”. 

That chance conversation with the recruiter led to a dream opportunity for Callum – to grow a consultancy practice backed by the resources of one of the world’s most renowned professional services firms.

Leading a team which advises organisations across all industries, Callum speaks with real enthusiasm of his current surroundings. “At Deloitte, there’s uncapped potential in terms of career development and how far we can take the practice. One of the most rewarding parts for me is that as we expand, we’re creating new opportunities for like-minded professionals to establish roots and grow their own careers,” which is clearly something important to Callum.

“In industry, often the conversation has been ‘how can we deliver X more efficiently’ – and rightly so – but for a support function such as HSE, this often means reducing resources. In my role now, it’s more focused on how we can best continue to grow in order to support more clients on their most challenging HSE issues.”

The Deloitte role offers a rich variety of client challenges: one day Callum and his team might be working with a mining client in the US, while the next might be a public sector organisation in the UK with far more modest safety risks.

“What you notice working globally is the very different appreciation of ‘risk’ that exists,” notes Callum. “Anyone who has worked in risk across the US, Europe and the Middle East can probably testify to this – it really does reinforce the need to listen, and be interested, before moving to problem solving. You can’t just turn up as an ‘expert’ with a list of 10 things you think all companies should be doing and expect your ideas to have traction.”

Real risk

As for the future of the profession, and how it can sell itself better, Callum notes that people’s negative perceptions of health and safety managers “are based on real experiences of us”. He argues that contrary to the cries that ‘we don’t have enough engagement from leadership’, his recent experiences tell me different, at least in the context of innovation.

“Often in conversation with someone at C-Suite level, there’s genuine excitement about the opportunity to innovate in HSE. But the same conversation with an HSE specialist, more often than not, creates a reflective response as to why new ideas won’t work,” he concludes. “As a profession, sometimes we could do more to help ourselves by not being so bound to custom and practice.

“I think we could be doing more to find the balance between risk management processes which are ‘textbook’, but which business doesn’t engage with, compared to a process which might feel ‘less robust’, but has great engagement and makes a real difference. Reaching this point has to start with the confidence to challenge how, and why, we’re currently doing things the way we do them.”