Leadership

Touchstone Management for the Fire Service

By Larry Mullikin

Do you have a set of management touchstones? Odds are you do, although you may not realize it or have not taken the time to list them. In any case, you should.

A touchstone is simply a test or a criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of an organization; a service; or, in this case, the setting forth in very specific terms what you, as a manager, believe in. If someone asked you what your touchstones are, can you describe them with clarity?

The Salina (KS) Fire Department has just a few less than 100 members in the organization. Like many organizations in today’s world, it faces mounting pressures for increased efficiency in the face of dwindling or stagnate resources. Like the hot Kansas summers we’ve been having, there is no relief in sight. The organization you lead will benefit only if you identify and maintain your focus on what is really important to you as a professional. Bu, you have to go way beyond that in educating, teaching, and reinforcing your touchstones to the organization or group you lead. As an example, I want to share with you my six management touchstones; yours will probably be different, but you probably have them, nonetheless.

1. Employees need to know the mission.

There are hundreds of thousands of organizations with mission statements. Many of the statements ramble on to the point where nobody remembers what they say or can tell you what they are when asked. Without focus–without simplicity–a mission statement is meaningless.

Oddly enough, our mission statement was not written by the fire department. It was written by the citizens we serve. Don’t get me wrong. Our department did have a multi-paragraph mission statement that glorified every facet of the fire service and made us look as if we were all things to all people. However, when we asked the citizens through customer surveys what they thought and valued, they consistently responded with one to four items–sometimes all four. The citizens valued the fact that we

1) Responded quickly

2) Performed professionally

3) Saved lives and property

4) Were caring and compassionate to all.

That is our mission statement today; to those four items, we added a fifth: “Everybody goes home.” I would challenge anyone to walk into any of our fire stations and ask any of our firefighters what the mission is and be met with a blank stare; they all know the mission statement. Further, they are expected to execute it in every contact we have with our community. The firefighters also have the latitude to go further and deliver exceptional care without asking permission from anyone.

In one instance, we had a medical shift supervisor who responded to a diabetic patient who had no food to balance his insulin–and no money to boot. The medical officer personally went to the food bank, obtained two bags of groceries and delivered them to the patient. That act (1) delivered exceptional customer service and fulfilled the mission statement on several levels, and (2) kept us from having to repeatedly go back to the residence for the same situation.

2. Employees need to know what workplace principles are important.

The workplace principles for our department began to take shape in our strategic plan in 2008 and were reinforced by the city manager when he distributed them as a challenge to all city departments. They are the following:

1) Establishing clear ethical and cultural standards

2) Creating a performance-oriented environment

3) Establishing implementation capability

4) Allowing for open, multi-dimensional communications

5) Empowering those who execute

6) Building capability in the workforce

7) Building capacity in the workforce.

Let’s diverge for a minute and address cultural standards. I have seen many newly appointed leaders announce that they were going to “change the culture” of their organizations. In reality, they don’t get very far. Why? The reason is they do not understand what makes up a culture and how to subtly change it. Drastic changes rarely, if ever, work.

Sociologists have identified dozens of characteristics that are part of a culture. Of those they have identified, I think the following are the most important.

1) Signs and symbols

2) Unique language

3) Ethical and/or cultural standards

4) Rites and rituals

5) Myths, legends, and heroes

6) Norms of behavior (formal and informal).

Believe it or not, you have every one of these in your organization, group, or club. If you want an eye-opening experience, find out who the organization remembers in mythic proportions and legendary tales and who is seen as a hero for today and tomorrow.

If that person is someone who showed up for work every day for 30 years, executed exceptional work, treated others kindly, and taught everyone everything he knew, then I would say you have a pretty solid foundation. On the other hand, if the person was always a stumbling block to every change initiative, cast supervisors above and subordinates below as less than intelligent, and departed in some wild crazy manner–if this is a person the rank and file see as a legend and a hero, your organization will never progress beyond the bickering. If this is the case, you have to help them create new heroes through rites and rituals, through new norms of behavior and fair treatment, and through a renewed emphasis on ethical and cultural standards.

3. Employees want to know the Boss.

Everyone wants to know for whom they are working. There is nothing that I do, read, participate in, or show interest in that the firefighters don’t pick up on. More importantly, they want to know who I am in a genuine sense. They want to know what I value, what is important, and how I view the world around us.

One of the ways I try and accomplish this is to author and e-mail a simple one-page “Keys to Leadership” to every firefighter. It gives me a chance to step out of my formal role and just talk about what I observe as really good leadership inside and outside the organization. I will also touch on personal items and challenges I face and from which I think they can learn. In that way, they know what I value and how I will approach various subjects.

Also, I meet with all the firefighters about every five weeks in a group setting. I have always told them that, short of questioning my heritage, they can ask me any question on any subject they would like. They may not like the answer, but they gain an understanding of why and how a certain decision or action was arrived at. But, you have to be thick skinned to make this work–that is, if you want complete honesty. Sadly, some supervisors and managers don’t, to their detriment.

If you’re not doing something along this line, you are making a big mistake on the impact you can have on your organization’s culture and performance. But make no mistake, if you say one thing and do another, you won’t be the first boss who was vilified by the organization for a lack of integrity and ethics.

4. Employees want to be part of something Big.

I tell groups I visit that the worst thing an organization or a supervisor can do is to make someone feel small in the job or task they perform. We have no small jobs in the fire service. All of the jobs are big and important. From the day new recruits walk in the door, they are told they being given the opportunity to execute the most important job–the job of firefighter–and that they are part of something big.

Every person is vital to the success of any organization, group, or family, for that matter. Honestly, in today’s world, you just can’t afford a supervisor who makes people feel small. I have come to realize that this behavior becomes self-perpetuating in the way that the abused becomes the abuser. We teach people how to be successful. If the employees see a “belittler” as a successful supervisor, they will be more than likely to adopt that attitude and behavior when they become supervisors.

5. Supervisors need to know critical skills to succeed.

Do you know the critical skills your employees and supervisors need to have to be successful? I have a really short list of three.

  • Know the five characteristics of functional teams.
  • Know how to build and reach consensus
  • Know the five steps of how to create change.

Fully fleshing out the three items above would take too much space to do them justice in this article. Suffice to say, all three could apply to your organization.

It’s important to know that firefighters are part of a team from their very first day on the job. They are exposed to all of the five characteristics of functional teams almost on a subliminal level.

The five characteristics are 1) trust among team members, 2) productive and constructive conflict, 3) commitment of team members to the goal, 4) individual accountability to the team, and 5) clear focus on goal attainment. Lacking any one of these can spell disaster for a team effort. Since your employees may not have significant team experience, you must build these characteristics within them and help them move forward and be successful.

6. Allow employees to self-select themselves out of advancement.

Your business or organization may be different from the fire service, but I doubt it. We have a rules-and-regulation book that is two-inches thick and has just about every rule that was written because of one or two people who did the wrong thing or exhibited bad behavior or judgment. As people in the organization rise to strategic positions, all they ever did was not break any rules that applied to them. When they reach that strategic position where most of the rules fall away, all of a sudden the train leaves the tracks and they get embroiled in an abuse of trust, loyalty, power, integrity, or any one of a number of things we read about in the paper. They had these weaknesses within them; we just never allowed them to show us.

By empowering those who execute, it doesn’t take long for them to tell you what they are best suited for and when that climb up the ladder of success should come to an abrupt end. By writing processes so strictly that no one can do anything without advanced permission, you lose the ability to spontaneously resolve issues or to have those who are in the best position to do so increase the capacity of the organization. So, there you have it – those are my six touchstones that I repeatedly front to my organization. The firefighters hear and see them time and again. It just has to be that way to engrain it in the organization and effect a cultural change. You may find these six useful. But, whether you do or not, define your touchstones. You will be the better for it.

Larry Mullikin is the fire chief for the Salina (KS) Fire Department.