FORT WORTH, Texas—“I’d rather fire you than bury you.”

John Lee has had to tell that to an employee on occasion. As CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative in Chase City, Virginia, it's his prerogative.

"That sends the message that no matter how good you are at what you do, and how much people like you, if you don't follow the safety rules, you've got to go," Lee told the session "Leading with Safety—A CEO's Perspective" at NRECA's Safety Leadership Summit.

He was joined on the panel by Wendy Sellers, CEO of Washington EMC in Sandersville, Georgia, who said that when there's a major safety violation, and someone has to be dismissed, other employees are "looking at the CEO to say, 'Are you going to follow through with your end of this?' "

"Sometimes it's the last person in the co-op you ever thought would do something," said Sellers. It's never easy, but it comes with the territory.

"You know when you accept the CEO role that you have got to be the bad guy sometimes," she told the Nov. 17 session at the Radisson Worthington.

And when it comes to safety, both CEOs walk the walk, spending time with crews.

"It sends a couple of messages," said Lee. "One: You care. Two: You wouldn't ask them to do anything you wouldn't do yourself."

When there are big outages, "I'm out there, doing what I can to help," he said. "I tell our supervisor, 'When I'm out there I'm working for you, however I can be of assistance.' "

Sellers said she is "often on the loading dock and linemen's room when they come in in the afternoon. I also show up on job sites."

"Get to know your folks—talk to them," Sellers urged fellow CEOs. "I don't tell them how to do their job every day. They're experts at what they do. But I want to be part of what they're doing."

Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer for NRECA.