Mentoring at the Executive Level

By Tod A. Gates

Mentoring has been going on for hundreds of years in the fire service, but most is concentrated on the technical aspects of the job. This technical transfer of knowledge occurs both formally and informally. Most of us were mentored by veteran firefighters who were willing to share their accumulated knowledge as well as practical experiences sitting around the kitchen table of the fire station over a cup of coffee as well as on the drill field. This is an effective and appropriate method for these aspects of the job, but it can’t stop there. We must continue to develop people as they progress through the ranks if they are to be effective leaders.

“Mentoring at the EFO [executive fire officer] level is different from that used to teach tactical decision-making or technical skills. What we are talking about here is mentorship provided by an organizational leader with the specific intent of creating a future leader.”1

Mentoring, the process by which organizational knowledge and the experiences of senior executives are transferred to others in the organization, is a valuable learning mechanism widely employed in the private sector but is almost nonexistent in the fire service. This lack of mentoring programs has serious implications, as the EFO of the present and future is asked to manage in an ever-changing and increasingly more complex environment. Mentoring is a tool that can be used to bridge the gap between the knowledge required for the management activities and the skills needed for a leadership role. Some of the benefits of mentoring at the executive level include clear succession planning, institutional knowledge transfer, improved management skills and capabilities, and increased job satisfaction.

Traditionally, the managerial training processes at the executive levels of the fire service have been focused on formal management classes, which are the technical duties of the modern EFO—duties such as budget preparation, incident command skills, report writing, and plans review (management activities). These are legitimate and important tasks, and training for these activities is necessary; however, the modern EFO has additional responsibilities that encompass the nontechnical duties—duties such as labor-management relations, visioning, personnel administration, and team building (leadership activities). These activity classifications are not exclusive to the fire service, and in private industry the same gulf exists regarding the disparate focus on formal management education vs. formal leadership education.

To serve our constituents in the present and future, we must look for ways to capitalize on the experience base of those in senior and mid-level positions now and institute a mechanism for transfering the body of knowledge to those who will follow. Most people are not born with innate leadership skills; this is where the mentoring process could provide invaluable support for today’s EFO. How do we fulfill our obligation to our stakeholders—internal and external—if we don’t commit to raise the bar and develop our leaders to their full potential? The EFO of today’s fire service is required to use business acumen far more than fireground command skills, spending most of the time in nonfirefighting activities, but the bulk of the training received as he climbed up the ladder was geared to emergency response. This leads to a period of adjustment to the business environment, with significant interaction taking place with those in city staff and outside agencies. It is clear that the interaction between a seasoned EFO and one with less experience not only can reduce the learning curve but can also smooth out the bumps along the way. “Mentoring programs are an effective means of increasing political savvy, exposure, and visibility middle managers need if they are going to succeed in top management positions.2

So why hasn’t mentoring taken hold long ago? There are several valid reasons for this. The fire service has been viewed by many as a horse of a different color. It has taken quite a while for us to get the recognition from the outside world, reshape our own paradigm, and view ourselves as a business entity, with professional management teams, fantastic employee teams, and customers whom we serve with pride. Modern fire executives are given multimillion-dollar budgets, performance targets, quality assurance goals, government oversight, and a multitude of other things that go along with running our “business.” Being held to high standards and being expected to perform along with the MBAs at city hall, the EFO of today and the future needs to be ready to face these challenges.

Another reason for the slow institution of mentoring programs could be the lack of awareness of the benefits, coupled with a poor understanding of the goals and methods of this type of knowledge transfer. The reasons for this lack of participation are still present, and some are formidable. Time constraints were cited, with many senior executives just hanging on to the knot on the end of the rope! Time available to managers and others is valuable, however, and how it is spent is an indicator of the characteristics of the senior managers and the organizations they serve.

Mentoring programs are often perceived as projects that require significant management and financial resources. The fire service generally has a smaller senior staff than many of the large corporations that have instituted formal mentoring programs and is fairly flat at the top of the organizational structure, with little turnover. Therefore, many fire departments just have not seen the need to adopt mentoring programs.

There is good news! New mentoring research has revealed some interesting approaches that should offer the fire service practical formats. Keep in mind that you must assess your particular needs and match them with an appropriate methodology, identifying what the structure in which mentoring activities take place will look like.


“There are four basic format combinations: formal or informal and one-to-one or group/peer mentoring. Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, and the goals of the individual and/or organization should drive the decision of which combination(s) to choose.” (2)

Formal programs are common in the private sector and almost nonexistent in the fire service mainly because of the need for program management and financial resource allocation. With the new approaches we will discuss, this obstacle may be removed. The advantage to fire service organizations is that programs can be shared with other departments and modified to the organization’s needs.

Informal mentoring is the most common format; the mentor and mentee choose each other outside the boundaries of a structured program. Much informal mentoring goes on without conscious awareness that a mentoring relationship is present. This method is the common choice of fire service organizations. The fire service is steeped in tradition, and so it follows that organizations would predominantly use the traditional method. Other choices are available and perhaps more suited to those at the EFO level. Once an organization determines whether to structure the program formally or informally, the management must look to the mentoring methods available.

One-to-one mentoring pairs an experienced EFO with someone who has less experience. While effective, this type of mentoring is time-consuming for both partners and limits the number who can participate. “While still quite popular, one-to-one mentoring is no longer viewed as the only or best approach.” (2) Additionally, there are inherent problems to carefully consider with formally structured, assigned relationships. They include forced (mandatory) selection and personality conflicts. This model has been used successfully in formal and informal contexts.

Peer mentoring uses the knowledge and experience of two officers of equal rank within the confines of a mentoring relationship. Practically speaking, it can be used successfully if there are more people interested in being mentored than mentors available, regardless of the format in place in the department. “Peer mentoring offers mutually challenging partnerships of coequals and is marked more by reciprocal influence and less by notions of downward influence and role-defining relationships. The peer mentoring model has significance in that it encourages lateral exchanging of ideas between coequals rather than downward dominant roles.”3.


Group mentoring involves an experienced EFO (or civilian specialist, as appropriate) as a learning facilitator who takes on the role of the group mentor. “Each of the participants is then a mentor to the others as well. This format uses small groups joined together to support and pursue one another’s goals. This mentoring method leverages the power of group motivation and knowledge exchange.” (2)

The group process capitalizes on the strengths of the participants and avoids overreliance on the leader. In his book, Leadership without easy answers, Ronald Heifetz says that all too often, especially in public organizations, too much time is spent looking at the head of the table for answers. He asserts that people at the foot of the table quite often are those with the capacity to let the organization see through the blind spots.4 This may prove to be very effective in the fire service, as it places much of the burden on the group members; consequently, they feel ownership of the results. Additionally, if a senior chief officer was reluctant to enter into a mentoring relationship because of time constraints, he may see this as a viable alternative. Departments with even one willing mentor could begin to develop a program using this new method.

The peer mentoring model and the group mentoring formats are of particular interest for several reasons. First, the fire service is group-oriented, so the group format may be a natural fit. Second, peer mentoring is already a common occurrence at the lower ranks and would be a practical alternative if a willing or suitable senior mentor were not available. Finally, the synergistic effect of both methods may produce higher levels of satisfaction for the participants.


Determining the mentoring program criteria—whether one-to-one, peer/group, formal or informal, or voluntary or mandatory—is important to the overall success of the departmental program. The following are some potential program criteria:

  • Formal senior staff support for the program, preferably with some budgetary allocation for startup.
  • A diversified approach to include both EFO personnel and appropriate civilians as mentors.
  • Short-term administrative rotations for EFOs and candidates for promotion.
  • Short-term pairing (shadowing) of senior/junior EFOs and EFOs with those on the promotional roster.

Leaders can develop without this process, but succession-planning initiatives and the preservation of and passing on of institutional memory will be difficult, if not impossible. If mentoring programs at the EFO level are to be embraced, there must be recognition that value is attached. In the short term, informal and unstructured mentoring relationships can continue or begin to have an effect; however, in the long term, it will be vital to the success of fire service organizations worldwide to engage in formal mentoring at the executive level. This is the true value created for the individual chief officers and the fire service organizations they serve. It is through this process that the American fire service will establish itself as a professional organization ready for the challenges to come.


1. Bramblette, D.M. Mentoring—Ultimate Leadership Role. Responder, May 1996. 5.

2. Kaye, B. and D. Scheef. The ROI of Mentoring. Info-line ASTD, April 2000, (2), 1-2.

3. Darwin, A. Critical Reflections on Mentoring in Work Settings. Adult Education Quarterly, May 2000, 50. 207.

4. Heifetz, R. Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1994, 184.

TOD A. GATES is district chief for the Corpus Christi (TX) Fire Department.

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