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Profile: Grainne Matthews, Ph.D.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a super consultant!

grainne matthews qseGrainne Matthews, Ph.D., QSE’s Senior Vice President, Special Projects, was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, but almost 30 years ago a series of events precipitated her departure from her home country. She’s been a world traveler ever since. No one can say if life’s pathways are guided by fate, serendipity, or both, but Grainne’s career in psychology seemed almost a family tradition.

Her mother, now retired from a successful career as a clinical psychologist, was the head of the psychology department in the largest children’s hospital in the British Isles. Today, one of Grainne’s three younger sisters is currently the head of psychology for the pediatric cardiology unit in that same hospital. As a teenager, Grainne had a plan for seeing the world that was dismissed succinctly by her progressive-for-the-times father. “I wanted to be an airline stewardess, but he said, ‘No daughter of mine is going to serve people. If you’re working on a plane, you’ll be flying it,’” she recalls. “I was infuriated at the time, but I was very grateful in later years for his attitude. Later, I actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but I eventually landed up in psychology. I don’t regret it. It was actually one of those happy coincidences in my life.”

Grainne earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in clinical psychology at University College Dublin (UCD), but discovered after graduation that no positions were available in Ireland. “The economy had been bad for so long and psychological services were provided by the state through the Health Department. They only funded one position per region and they were filled. Unless somebody died or retired, nobody was going to get a job. So I was at a loss,” she explains. That’s when another “coincidence” occurred. Grainne just happened to spot a notice on the school bulletin board. The notice offered a fully funded master’s in behavior analysis and therapy. Master’s students worked at Project 12 Ways, a behavioral program to help abused and neglected children with in-home services for their parents. It seemed a promising possibility, but one in a different world—America. Grainne applied and at the ripe old age of 21 left for Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.  “I had no idea what behavior analysis was but this was a way to take a next step. So I got my master’s in behavior analysis and therapy, and loved it! I just totally fell in love with the objectiveness and the practicality of behavior analysis and the scientific approach. It was just so refreshing after traditional psychology,” Grainne states.  Luckily again, Grainne met several other Irish students in the same program which gave her a comfort-zone enclave to stave off home sickness.

Up until this point, Grainne had worked in a series of jobs to support herself through college. However, she began the first position in her new career at Pressley Ridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a school and facility for troubled children, adults and families. She soon found that even though she was to devise treatment programs for the entire population there, her main charge was to get the staffs of group homes, foster homes, special-education classrooms, and sheltered workshops, to actually implement the programs.  “I found myself in a management position. I wasn’t doing psychological services; I was managing other people doing them and I had no idea how to do it! I knew that I should be applying the same principals to the behavior of the target person, but I just didn’t know how!” she confesses.

Grainne hit the literature, often reading articles in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. She established measurement and feedback systems for the staff, but she wasn’t satisfied. Tired of the long winters in Pennsylvania, she relocated to Houston after acquiring a job there as the chief psychologist for three counties in the community-based Mental Health/Retardation Services (HMRS.) She stayed with the organization managing the treatment program for about three years, but realized she needed more. That’s when she pulled up anchor again and headed to Western Michigan University (WMU) to earn her doctorate in organizational behavior analysis. During the five years of completing the program, Grainne once again grew tired of the harsh winters, but she soon received several offers for positions with behavioral safety organizations. “I never regret making the decision to join Quality Safety Edge,” she says. “Terry’s [McSween, president] integrity just comes through in so many ways.” 

That was 15 years ago and Grainne remembers with fondness how the late Wanda Meyers mentored her when she first joined the company. “Wanda taught me everything I know about relating to frontline employees. Every frontline employee that she has ever worked with loved her, loved her! They would have gone to the ends of the Earth for her. I started working with her on the Citgo project in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in a 1500-employee refinery. She had worked there for ten years implementing behavioral safety in area after area and they planned for her to just keep working with them until the cows came home.” 

What was the primary lesson that Grainne learned from her mentor? Grainne answers: “To treat every single person as a potential best friend, to regard each one as an individual not just a person on the staff who needs to get in line with the program. Wanda always took time to learn everybody’s name, information about their family, their wives’ names, their children’s names, their health situation, and even their hobbies. She treated people with the respect that behavioral safety tries to inculcate into an organization. She modeled the principals that are behind behavioral safety. And she always gave positive feedback.”

These lessons stayed with Grainne, not as a strategy, but as a value. Doing so has brought many rewards. “I always look for the smallest, smallest improvement and acknowledge that. Grown men, great big oil refinery workers and chemical plant workers, all bulked up in their PPE have said, ‘That was the best training I ever had. You actually embodied the principals that you are trying to get us to use,’ or ‘You’re the only consultant who ever talked to me as a human being,’” she explains. “That’s why I keep doing what I do.”

Grainne also credits Judith Stowe, QSE Co-founder and Senior Program Director, with teaching her an important skill. “What I learned from Judy that is much harder to implement is to learn as much as possible about the work that the people do every day: the tasks, the equipment, the tools, the structure of their work, and their schedules to really understand their situation. That way when I’m talking to them, I’m using examples that make sense. I’m talking about how we’re going to apply it to their schedule, their work rhythms and tasks. Becoming that familiar with multiple industries and many companies is very difficult for me. It’s very interesting, but it’s really challenging to go from a utility to an oil company to a manufacturing site and then rotate back– and still remember the names of the equipment, the ins-and-outs of the schedules, and the specific work done by each team,” she says. 

However, Grainne seems to have acquired that skill. She has helped people successfully implement behavior-based safety in refineries, construction sites, manufacturing sites, and utility plants. In fact, she has worked with so many utilities—among them Manitoba Hydro and Enmax in Canada; CenterPoint Energy in Houston, Texas; and Tucson Electric Power, in Tucson, Arizona—that McSween has dubbed her the Vice President of Utilities.  Grainne also specializes in construction after developing an approach that addresses the special structure of that industry.  “In the construction industry, they go from zero staff to a big project where they bring in one crew after the other such as cement workers, then iron workers, electricians, and plumbers. You have to figure out how you’re going to involve subcontractors and rotating crews and how you are going to quickly train people in a way that doesn’t break the bank and allows them to participate during the duration of their work on that project site,” she comments.

Today Grainne is an official resident of Houston, but one would hardly know it, as she spends an average of half the year on the road . . . or in the air. She isn’t flying the plane, but she’s a passenger with a purpose: helping organizations around the world implement behavior-based safety. Grainne tries to visit her family once or twice a year as she did when working in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. She recently made several trips to Slovakia implementing behavior-based safety in an international company’s manufacturing plant. She has also worked with Spanish-only employees in Texas, prompting her to study Spanish.  Her free-time activities include practicing a form of martial arts called Cha Yon Roo and caring for her African Gray parrot, Bogart. “When I come home, as soon as I put my key in the door he says, ‘Where are you?’ And then when I walk in the room, he says ‘I love you!’” Grainne says.  Since learning Spanish has become one of her focused goals, who knows? One day Bogart may greet her with the words, “Te Quiero!”