Managing AI and Tech Innovation: Insights from Sysco's EHSS Leader

February 19, 2024

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Kevin J. Thomas

Vice President, Global Environmental, Health, Safety, Physical Security (EHSS), & Asset Protection, Sysco


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This viewpoint is a guest post created by Kevin J. Thomas. Thomas is Vice President, Global Environmental, Health, Safety, Physical Security (EHSS), & Asset Protection at Sysco, the global leader in selling, marketing, and distributing food products to restaurants and other customers. A passionate champion of EHSS, Thomas has more than three decades of experience in optimizing the protection of people, assets, brand, and profitability. 

It's undeniable that 2023 was a big year for AI, but 2024 is poised to be even bigger. Now, leaders not only need to understand what AI is, but also how to use it most effectively within their organizations. The potential of AI to change how we work is astronomical, and we're still in the early days of evaluating the opportunities that AI will bring.

As an Environmental, Health, Safety, and Security (EHSS) leader at Sysco, it's clear to me that AI will transform the way that we assess risk and proactively address it. AI will empower us to analyze behaviors and course correct with different work methods, training, and technology. We'll be able to see where we'll need to invest—from a people, technology, and capital perspective—all at the same time so employees can be more engaged and do their jobs more safely.

This will be a game-changer, but in one key way, it's no different from any other innovation. Organizations are always searching for the next "big thing," but as a mentor said to me years ago, you need to be able to look around the corner before the corner is looking at you. The ability to stay ahead of what your organization should be investing in is one of the most important factors that will help you succeed.

Staying ahead, however, is also harder than ever before. Today, the economy remains uncertain and the pace of technological change is accelerating. With this in mind, here are three strategies I use to plan for the long term, even when it's difficult to get a clear view of what's coming around those corners. 

1. Listen to your employees and never fear feedback.

One of the most important things you can do to plan for the future is identify emerging issues today that may grow into larger challenges tomorrow. At Sysco, we do this by always ensuring that our operators have a direct line of feedback to management to flag any concerns and escalate them if needed. You should never fear feedback, and open communication about potential issues is a key way to make sure your team—and organization overall—don't develop tunnel vision. 

It's also essential to lean on your tactical practitioners to help you understand and triage the data you currently have to find what's relevant. It's a mistake to rely on one person to parse data and flag areas of concern. We need multiple brains to look at things from diverse viewpoints and find our blind spots. 

Here’s where technology can also provide added value. As organizations continue to be challenged by a lack of staffing, technology can help analyze trends and find insights.. This will ultimately lead to cost containment and the ability to respond to risk gaps quickly.

2. Pay attention to what your peers and partners are doing.

If you're facing a particular challenge, there's a good chance that you're not the first person who has encountered it. That's why I often look at what other companies are doing to use new technologies in innovative ways, or address specific issues with new tools. 

In my field, I read as often as I can about security and related topics, and I am constantly talking to colleagues and counterparts at other organizations about the challenges they face and how they are solving them. To be an effective leader, it's important to build trust and influence so when challenging times do come, you have the credibility to drive change within your organization both upstream and downstream. By staying up-to-date on the latest trends, you can build trust and influence with those around you, and in turn, be a more effective leader.

3. Understand executive appetite for technology within your organization, and make a clear case.

At almost every organization, executive leadership plays a critical role in driving technology initiatives. They must ultimately sign off on any investment, so it's important to understand what their priorities are. Some executives and boards, for example, are not proactive about implementing new technologies, since they may fear the financial and other impacts to the business. 

This is why it's critical to create a strong case for any new technology you want to implement, and ensure that it delivers a clear return on investment. One way that I do this at Sysco is to make sure that any new technology is aligned with customer success. When I advocate for a new tool, I always do so to create systems that ensure we're helping cross-functional internal customers, mitigating any losses, and helping them have the best—and safest—possible experience with us.

Over the course of my 30-year career in security and EHS, I have never been more excited for what comes next. I look forward to glancing around the next corner and seeing a future where we can help more employees stay safer on the job, and deliver better service to our customers.


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