By Frank Viscuso
“Change” has become a very familiar word in the fire service. The majority of high-level officers agree that this is the most difficult time in history to be a fire chief. Most firefighters in America would say that one or more of the following statements relate to their organization.
- Tax revenues are down.
- We are not keeping up with technology.
- Our staffing level is the lowest it has ever been.
- Our operating budget is shrinking yearly.
- We are not replacing the experienced firefighters who retire.
- Our department is looking into regionalization (shared services).
- We can get the equipment we need only through grant funding.
- We are constantly asked to do more with less.
- Our new management staff is leading us in the wrong direction.
- Newly appointed politicians are not supportive of our organization.
- Our standard operating procedures are insufficient, outdated, and in need of revision.
Every day, leaders have to deal with so many issues that the fire service has become a pressure cooker of stress. Still, our industry’s strongest leaders remain calm despite all that is going on around them, focusing on the solutions, not the problems. They learn to embrace and even create change. One of my favorite quotes is, “If you don’t create change, change will create you.”
Most Firefighters Hate Change
Early in my career, I learned that most firefighters hate change. When an ambitious team member proposes an idea and asks why we are doing something that isn’t working, we need to stop responding with the terrible answer, “Because that’s the way we have always done it.” We must consider different options and embrace change, even if it disrupts the way of the dinosaurs. Robert Kennedy once said, “Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.” If you are leading a team, change can be frightening. You may be wondering if you are making the right decisions. Perhaps you are spending so much time weighing your options that you aren’t making any decisions at all. If either of these statements applies to you, ask yourself, “Am I getting the right people involved in the process?”
Don’t make the mistake of trying to do it all by yourself. You are surrounded by people who should share the same common organizational success goals as you. Maybe you are not the head of the organization but the head of a team within the organization. This doesn’t mean you should sit back and wait for change to occur. Instead, show others that you and your team are willing to show initiative.
Whatever position you hold, your attitude toward change can tremendously influence the outcome. If your organization is like most others, it’s full of smart, talented people with flaws in their leadership skills. We all have flaws because the majority of people in our industry have never had any leadership training. Even those of us who have had training will have to get past our own temptations to resist change.
What do you do when change, and especially “tough” change, is inevitable? Since this is happening more frequently than ever before, it’s important to understand your role as a leader if you expect to survive and thrive in today’s world. Change will mean that you will have to deal with various people in and out of the organization in different ways. Because of this, you must play several roles to successfully lead through change. Leaders of change are self-educators, advocates, role models, decision makers, communicators, motivators, unifiers, commanders, and counselors.
Change Can Be Good
I received a call one Christmas Eve from a friend and veteran firefighter who was distraught because he had just found out he was being transferred from one shift to another. He had been working with the same group of firefighters for almost 10 years. When he received his notice, the fear of the unknown began to take over. To make matters worse, he had somewhat of a bad history with the man who was about to become his new superior officer. During our conversation, this firefighter said, “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen to me in my life.” Considering the fact that he was married with children, I thought that statement was a bit extreme; however, it was clear that he was not open to this forced change.
I spent time talking to him about looking at this from a different point of view. I explained that this could be a great opportunity to break out of his comfort zone and grow as a firefighter. Those of you familiar with my books know that I believe that a person and team cannot grow inside their comfort zone. Growth occurs only when you step away from familiarity and into uncharted territory. After a long conversation, he finally agreed to go in with an open mind.
About two months later, I ran into this firefighter at a social event. I asked him how it was going. He told me that he approached the situation from day one as if there was no negative history between the two. He showed his new officer nothing but respect and, to his surprise, he was given the same in return. He went on to tell me that the two had genuinely become good friends, but nothing could have prepared me for when he said, “Honestly, it’s the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” I reminded him of our conversation just a couple of months earlier, and we shared a laugh.
Most of us fear change because we don’t know what is going to be required from us. By changing, you may have to learn new skills or meet and work with new people. These two possibilities alone can result in elevated levels of stress and anxiety, and justifiably so. We fear change because we fear the unknown, but we can’t let fear stop us from taking the steps needed to move forward.
The fact is, if you are not achieving your desired results, change is the only option. It’s an absolute necessity whether you like it or not. Change may not be easy, but if you don’t like change, you will surely like failure and irrelevance even less.
When change is in order, get to the heart of what needs to be changed. Don’t just change what is easy; change what’s necessary. It’s one thing to recognize when change is needed, but as the leader of a team, it is your responsibility to inspire that change. Here are some tips to help you lead others through changing times.
Leading an Organization Through Change
Focus on the critical few. I once heard a colleague jokingly say, “Change would be easy if it wasn’t so hard.” Although I don’t fully agree with the statement, I do believe that leading a team through change would be easy if it weren’t for a select group of stubborn people who resist change. It may be true that most people don’t like change, but it’s also true that for every 10 people on your team, there will generally be one who has the ability to influence the other nine. One of the keys to change is to first recruit your top influential team members and use their ability to influence and inspire others.
Paint a crystal-clear picture. You want to be clear about what needs to change. Bring your team together and as clearly and as concisely as possible tell them what you intend to change and why it’s necessary. Emphasize the benefits not just for the overall team but for the individuals who help you accomplish the goal. Remember, people have needs, and they will be more excited to know that their efforts will help them accomplish their personal goals as well. Make it clear to all that new worlds emerge when old patterns are broken, which leads to the next tip.
Bury the game ball. Forget about past failures. Your rearview mirror is smaller than your windshield for a reason. Where you are going is more important than where you’ve already been. Don’t dwell on what hasn’t worked. If you do, you’ll end up wasting valuable time and energy that would be better used working toward the solution. Move on with the intentions of winning and continuously remind yourself that your team cannot stay in one place; it will move either forward or backward.
Keep it simple. Have a simple plan, and lead with a simple message. The jazz musician Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple—awesomely simple—that’s creativity.” Don’t make the common mistake of overcomplicating a simple task. Simplexity is an emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity. It describes taking a simple change and making it more complicated than the previous broken system. This concept, which has been adapted in advertising, marketing, and other industries, has also found its way into the fire service lexicon. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the better way always has to be the more complex way.
Encourage your team. To encourage is to empower. When a salesperson makes 50 calls without closing a sale, that person needs to know that number 51 may be the one that makes all the difference. The same goes for an athlete who missed a game-winning shot or the firefighter who failed to contain the fire. Nobody has a 100 percent success rate. Even the best major league baseball hitters fail to make it on base seven out of every 10 times at bat. Prepare your version of a game-day speech, and remember that true stories of triumph over adversity inspire people to believe the impossible is possible. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes on the Internet to find stories of teams that have overcome adversity and achieved the type of success you are trying to achieve. Share them with your team as examples of the good that can come from change.
Take action. Don’t wait for the iron to be hot; make it hot by striking. When you take action, great things can happen. If you are hesitant to jump in with both feet because of a fear of the unknown, take the advice in Frederick B. Wilcox’s book Unicorns and Tadpoles, “Progress involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”
Measure your progress. Without a mechanism for evaluation, you cannot measure your progress. When you meet with your key players, determine how you plan to evaluate the new methods your team initiates. After initiating your plan, compare the past results with the present results. Review every aspect, evaluate your options, and revise your methods if necessary.
Keep in mind that if you are not achieving the results you desire, you are doing either the wrong things or not enough of the right things. Once you determine which it is, you can work on changing your tactics and moving forward. Before the things around you change, you have to change. Don’t be afraid of change, because when you really take a moment to think about it, change is the only constant.
Frank Viscuso retired as a deputy chief from the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is an international speaker and the author of four books, including best-sellers Step Up and Lead (Fire Engineering, 2013) and Step Up Your Teamwork (Fire Engineering, 2015).