Advice for Newly Promoted Officers

BY SAL SCARPA

Newly appointed fire service leaders have a huge opportunity to effect change, but that change, although desperately needed, will not come easily. These company and chief officers will have to lead the fire service through today’s economic turmoil and past the uncertainties of the future. If the recently appointed officers are to be effective in their new capacity, they will need to translate their positional rank to leadership.

There is a wide array of theories on what leadership is and is not. Most people will say they know it when they see it and, conversely, they know what leadership is not! Consider that members in your organization now look to you for leadership and direction. You, as a company or a chief officer, are “in charge” of other people and are expected to lead them sometimes in the most dire of circumstances. What kind of leader will you be? Will your people follow you because of your rank or because they want to? What makes for a true leader?

LEADER CHARACTERISTICS

Among the characteristics identified in effective leaders are the following:

• Vision to see “over the horizon.” Being a visionary enables a leader to anticipate the challenges that may come about to impact the department. International Association of Fire Chiefs President Jack Parrow believes that the fire service will experience 50 years of change between 2010 and 2015—changes in technology, the economic climate, and global unrest. All of these factors will force the fire service leaders of tomorrow to look beyond the curve and visualize their organizations in the future. Such uncertainty will force our organizations to identify new ways of doing business and challenge our traditional approach to problem solving in our communities.

A visionary looks past the immediate challenges and plans strategically to position the organization for that future. Engage your staff members in organizational planning that will put you ahead of the curve and in a position to manage the inevitable changes instead of just reacting to them. What value is it to a fire department if the chief can anticipate changes but does nothing to prepare the department for them? Strategic planning coupled with an organizational awareness will be critical factors in determining whether an organization survives or thrives in the future.

• Charisma. A leader cannot be effective without followers. A leader with a cause will have to rally those around him to support the cause and see it through to realization. Charisma draws people to you; it ignites a passion in people to act. Is charisma an innate personality trait, or can it be acquired? I would argue that individuals passionate about their cause can develop the ability to attract others to them. A charismatic leader who can effectively engage others and gain commitment to the mission will generate positive and lasting results for the organization. Get in front of your organization with a topic you are passionate about, and work on your message. You may be surprised at how effective you will be at recruiting a following.

• Persistence. Leaders are doomed to fail if they cannot see their plan through to fruition. Persistence is the key. A journey is not worth taking if there is no destination. Effective leaders need to be persistent and unyielding in their efforts to achieve goals. Despite distractions, challenges, and seemingly improbable obstacles, the persevering leader will see it through and realize the end result. How many projects has your organization undertaken that have died on the vine? What effect does that have on morale? How excited do you expect your members to get the next time you announce a new initiative?

Every good leader needs to be able to multitask. But if you take on more projects than you can effectively devote your energies to, all of them will suffer, along with your credibility. Complete a project, or get one well underway before you start a new one. Effective leaders stay the course and finish what they start.

• Accountability. Invariably, you will have to engage a host of stakeholders, internal and external to your organization, particularly if the project you wish to undertake is significant. If you are to take on EMS transport, for example, it is likely much too large a project for one person to tackle. For the end result to be realized, you as the leader will have to keep everyone engaged and accountable for their task (piece of the puzzle). If one person or group falls behind or fails to deliver its component, the entire process falters. Accountability is not just a responsibility of leaders; it should be a cultural aspect of leadership in your organization. Failure to follow up will generate a passive disregard for consequences that will be systemic to the organization. Ultimately, the results will be failing morale and the collapse of faith in your organization’s leadership.

• Stay “involved.” Never plateau. Don’t allow yourself to bask in the feeling that you have “arrived” and there is nothing more to achieve in your career or for your organization. Continue to take on new challenges, and seek new ways to improve the department. The officer who doesn’t want to rock the boat has hit a plateau. The officer who is satisfied with the status quo, doesn’t stay on top of the latest fire service trends, and is not interested in training or education other than for what is required to maintain licensure has hit a plateau. Such officers are no longer effective for their organization and essentially have failed to demonstrate leadership.

Leaders who lose interest in leading are taking up a promotional spot for another candidate who probably still has a vision for the future and wants to be an effective organizational leader.

OFFICER AS CHANGE BROKER

Most aspiring lieutenants, company officers, and chief officers have one thing in common: They want the promotion to effect change. They may not know it or be able to articulate it in an interview process, but they want to get promoted because they see and experience things being done that they believe can be done better. However, having a desire to influence change and being successful at it are two different things.

Although the good intent, enthusiasm, and sometimes blind luck of the aspiring company and chief officers are enough to get them into the position they sought, they probably won’t be enough to help them stay the course. It’s very easy to relax, become stagnant, lose focus, and forget all the reasons you wanted to become an officer. As junior officers become senior officers and assistant and deputy chiefs become chiefs, they meet resistance to change along the way. That resistance comes in many forms and sometimes from the places and people you’d least expect. Following are some pointers that can help new officers to navigate the pitfalls and roadblocks that will challenge them along the way and to help ensure they’re successful, at becoming what Atlanta (GA) Fire Department Chief Kelvin Cochran describes as a change broker.

Observe and Learn

You’ve been promoted! You’re excited about the position and the challenges and are intent on “fixing” those things you’ve had in mind as you promoted up through the ranks. Now what? Before you start off to set the world on fire (not literally, of course), take a breath! Take in the subtle differences of your new position. The obvious changes will be easy to spot: You ride up front instead of in the back; you’re in the chief’s buggy in charge of an entire shift instead of in the engine entrusted with a crew; you’ve got a lot more administrative work to do, and you have less “down time.”

Take in the more subtle changes that, while less obvious, are equally as important. Your cell phone stops ringing after you put on that white shirt. Those invitations to hang out with the crew at the lake on your days off don’t come anymore. You’ve become one of “them.” Your words carry a lot more weight now. When you talk at the dinner table with your shift or crew, your statements become policy or at least the talk on the engine room floor about what the new lieutenant thinks of Administration. You’ll be forced to spend less time doing the things you like to do and more time heavily engaged in the things you’re forced to do. Your paradigm has changed.

Before you realize it, you will have more things to do or manage than you care to handle. Take a moment to assimilate these differences into your goals and objectives. Take the time to listen to your personnel and understand what the hot topics, frustrations, or problems are. You probably won’t have to ask. Just sit back and listen to the conversation taking place around the kitchen table. Your approach to a problem may have to be different, or you may have to engage different players to meet your objectives. This may require a change of plans or, at the very least, a delay in pursuing some of your interests.

Build Alliances

Identify critical players, allies, and collaborators who will be key individuals throughout your career and who may be instrumental in helping you achieve your objectives. They are those persons internal and external to the organization who share your ideals and will support efforts to effect the changes you seek because they are mutually beneficial and support the organization overall. These folks may be stakeholders outside your department who will benefit from a fiscally sound city service, such as the fire service, and do not want to see it diminish under the harsh realities of the economy. Or, they could be other officers on your shift or in the department who can collaborate with you on projects and committees so that the changes you collectively achieve are embodied throughout the organization and are not unilaterally employed on a single shift or company.

When I was assigned to procure new bunker gear for our department, I sought committee members of all ranks across all shifts. I surveyed the entire department to see what was important to them in structural firefighting gear. My goal was to ensure that everyone truly had a say and felt part of the process and readily embraced the end product. Regardless of their position, finding and making allies will go a long way toward helping you transition into your new position and getting things done.

The critical allies can help you in other ways as well. You may want to tap the experience of more seasoned members. Gleaning from others’ experiences and insights will help you identify the pitfalls and challenges you are likely to face in undertaking your efforts. These other members, if sympathetic to your cause, will not only lend assistance but may also lend credibility to your efforts. Their very presence in your meetings, their vocal support of your ideas, their intelligence about anticipated obstacles—all of these intangible variables are critical assets derived from building alliances with key individuals that will pay huge dividends in the future. In addition, the ability to gain input from a variety of individuals and have multiple eyes looking at a single goal not only spreads the workload but allows for multiple points of view to be shared and debated. You may find that someone else thought of something quite important that you hadn’t even considered.

Plan of Action

A change broker must establish a plan. Many leaders want to enact change right away. They are passionate about their cause and feel vindicated that others see enough value in them to promote them. But, not many changes come easily. You might be able to relocate the mailboxes within your station for easier access fairly easily enough, but changes that are of any significance or that have long lasting impacts (i.e., taking on EMS transport or adding a third station) are going to require careful planning and probably are not going to get done quickly. That’s okay, because if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it right, and that sometimes takes a little time and often a lot of effort.

My organization recently went through a realignment process to more appropriately staff our apparatus and provide sufficient resources on the emergency scene. The process involved a serious look at the deployment of our shift personnel on existing equipment. Essentially, we were cross-staffing two apparatus with the personnel for one piece of equipment. This resulted in some equipment going out the door with only two people on it. The chief (and many in the department) felt this was inappropriate and unsafe. After months of debate and discussion and experimenting with different potential solutions, the chief ultimately decided to shut down an engine company and beef up staffing on the ladder truck. We were able to save the officer and driver positions and staff our apparatus more adequately. This was a major organizational change for a department of 60 members and will have long-term implications for how we do business.

In the end, I believe the careful planning and collaborative efforts produced a workable solution that has been beneficial to the organization and the community. (It should be noted that this process was an effort that included many discussions between union personnel and management. Collaboratively, both sides worked together to determine a path forward that has led us to our current state. This is just another example of not only effective planning but also of collaboration among a variety of stakeholders that has produced a positive result.)

When seeking to make changes in your organization, consider what it is you want to accomplish. Maybe your goal is to update your department’s outdated standard operating procedures (SOPs) or instituting a vigorous fire prevention program for your community. Maybe your organization is expanding and you need to look at adding fire stations to outlying parts of your district. Each of these endeavors is going to involve perhaps a different set of skills and different stakeholders to pull it off. It’s important to understand this up front and plan accordingly. Start with solving a few of the small problems that are hot topics around the station to build trust and respect and to show you can produce results.

Updating SOPs may sound like an easy task, but it may require approval from the chief officers who wrote those original SOPs. The desire to add a fire prevention program is certainly admirable; but in times of diminishing budgets and doing more with less, you may have to be creative and opportunistic to pull it off. A public/private partnership may afford the opportunity to pull it off, but growing those critical partnerships will require an investment in time and people. Certainly, locating fire stations to expand your district will have long-term ramifications for your community. It will be important to identify and engage your community stakeholders to achieve maximum return on this significant organizational investment.

Action, Not Words

Don’t sit and dwell on your ideas for an unreasonable amount of time, or you may lose the courage to act. Solicit input from critical stakeholders, align yourself with some allies, identify key players, and get moving. As a new leader, your subordinates will be watching you and what you do. It is imperative that whatever mission you tackle first is achievable. Remember, you cannot change the world overnight. Take on a project that can achieve some tangible results in the short term. If you get immersed in a long-term project right away, you will fail to give those around you the opportunity to see you succeed. Trust me; they want an effective leader, someone who can get things done. However worthy the long-term project may be, getting bogged down in something that doesn’t yield (relatively) immediate results will hamper your ability to show them what you can do. Look for something with a potentially quick turnaround, and get it done! Your troops want action, not words.

You need to be successful in your mission and accomplish some things for your members along the way as well. Take the time to find out what irks them. What are some operational obstacles that affect their job that you can do something about? Maybe it’s a simple thing that has to do with logging calls, perhaps an outdated computer or a problem with the dispatching system. Whatever it is, if you can devise a solution that’s relatively easy to implement and can do it fairly quickly (and, of course, it is within your sphere of responsibility), then get it done, and tell your troops about it. It’ll help you; it’ll help your department; and you’ll score some points with your members, who will rally around other efforts you may engage in.

Recently, I found out a newer firefighter had been issued only a single set of station pants. Somehow in his hiring process, some of his pants were returned to the vendor and he was left with a single pair. When I found out, I put him in my car, drove to the store, and bought him some duty pants. It was a no-brainer for me but something a rookie might not complain about. Remember, your members are watching you and want to see if you’re going to be successful and an advocate for them as well. Choose a “doable” project that you can reasonably accomplish fairly quickly and produce tangible results that benefit everyone.

•••

The first few months of being a new officer—whether a company officer or a chief officer—are a little harrowing. The anxiety of the testing process is over, but the overwhelming desire to be successful in your new position is daunting. Some organizations do a poor job of preparing future leaders to be successful. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the knowledge, skills, and abilities to do your new job didn’t come with the shiny new badge. This article outlines steps you can take right away to help establish your footing. After the novelty of your new position wears off, remember where you came from and why you wanted to get promoted in the first place—to be in a better position to effect change. You’re there now, so do it! You are now a change broker!

SAL SCARPA is a battalion chief for the North Kansas City (MO) Fire Department. He has served for 20 years in career and volunteer fire departments. He is an instructor for the Western Missouri Regional Fire Academy and has begun providing training programs on leadership in public safety. He has an associate degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program at the National Fire Academy and has been recognized as a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) by the Center for Public Safety Excellence.

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