By Scott Goodwin
You have just left the office of the chief, who just told you that you are being promoted to company officer. Initially, you feel pure joy and excitement. However, if you are like me, this is followed by extreme fear and terror based on this realization—you are now responsible for more than just your own personal actions and safety. Even though you have always been concerned with your crew, now you are responsible for their actions and safety as well. This can be overwhelming if you have not prepared yourself for it, and oftentimes even if you have.
In addition to the responsibility the organization has given you, you also receive certain items to help you with this process: a badge, authority, rules and regulations, and an opportunity.
Responsibility is a large part of being a company officer. There are many areas for which you are responsible and a multitude of people to whom you are accountable. Those to whom you are accountable include the citizens you have taken an oath to serve and protect; the elected officials who govern your organization; the administration and management of your jurisdiction; and the last and the most critical group, your company and yourself. It is your duty and obligation to ensure that your team goes home at the end of the day, having fulfilled its mission without incident.
A badge identifies individuals within the organization and their responsibilities. The badge of an officer, a captain, or a lieutenant identifies you as the formal leader of the company; as such, you have the authority to direct the actions of the crew. What the badge does not give you, unfortunately, is all the answers. Being the leader does not mean you have become omnipotent and all-knowing.
Authority is the mandate you have to carry out the desires of the chief, and the organization’s mission identifies these requirements. You are now a supervisor accountable for the rules and regulations.
Rules and regulations are the most important tool the organization can give you. Some clearly define and identify the specific behaviors and requirements of the positions you supervise. They may also identify specific penalties for behavior outside the accepted norm. If this is the case, consider yourself fortunate; the most difficult element of discipline has been established for you. Conversely, there are organizations that do not set clear parameters identifying specific behaviors and requirements of each position. If your organization is in this category, don’t panic—your world will not come to an end. Although challenging, this situation allows you an opportunity to create and communicate your own expectations for your crew.
Opportunity. Let’s be honest here. What follows is not your actual oral interview answer. In reality, I took the test because I want to make some decisions and control some of my fate. In addition, I really did not want to work for some of the other guys/gals who might have been promoted instead of me. Perhaps this is a bit different from the way you answered this question during the promotional process.
This promotion gives you an opportunity to control a bit of your own destiny. Although a rigid schedule guideline may exist, there is always a little flexibility for the company officer to control. On the fireground, there are opportunities to lead and guide. In nonemergency situations, you have an opportunity to have a positive effect on the lives of your co-workers.
Thus, what do you do with the “gifts” the organization gives you when it decides to promote you? The best advice I can give you is to take the badge, wear it with pride, and recognize the organization has faith and confidence in your ability to be an effective leader. Embrace the rules and regulations of the organization, and administer them consistently and fairly. Accept the responsibility and authority that come with this prestigious position. Take the opportunities presented to you and use them to develop the potential the organization realizes in you.
In contrast, there are also specific tools that the organization has not bestowed upon you that may be helpful in the transition to company officer. Nevertheless, these issues are of equal importance: knowledge, skills, ability, integrity, leadership, and respect.
Knowledge, skills, and ability are tools you must develop. If you ever assume you have mastered them, you will be sorely mistaken. An old salty firefighter once related to me, “Son, every day is school day. During your career, if you are not learning something new every single day, then it’s time to find a new profession.” What an amazing and accurate statement—the fire service is an ever-changing profession. If you have any doubt, speak with a firefighter who retired in the 1970s. Ask him about SCBA; I would not be surprised if he proudly states that although he had one, it was in a box on the rig, and amazingly enough, he never used it. Proceed to discuss with him a few changes over the past few decades, such as thermal imaging cameras, PASS devices, and mobile data computers. Observe his astonishment. Incredibly, the fire service may be just as unrecognizable to you in 10 years as it is to him today. Therefore, when you receive your badge, it is imperative to keep up with the new knowledge, skills, and abilities the rapidly changing fire service demands.
Integrity is defined as an adherence to a code of moral, artistic, or other values. My definition of integrity is doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do even if no one is watching. In today’s society, the idea of right and wrong is eroding. For that reason, always remember that the values an officer represents to his crew will immensely influence the behavior of those crew members. If the officer allows behavior that is inconsistent with the values of the organization without consequences, predictably that conduct will be repeated. The more often it is permitted, the more difficult it will be to obtain compliance. The rules are the rules—enforce them consistently, no matter who is involved. This steadfastness will pay huge dividends in the future.
Leadership completely depends on your behavior. How you present yourself and treat others will determine how you will be considered and treated. There are leaders, and there are managers. Leaders have the ability to get others to produce results because they are motivated to do so; in contrast, managers only achieve compliance. Two incidents described below will illustrate the difference. These events actually happened; the names have been changed to protect the “guilty.”
“Joe,” a newly promoted captain with eight years of experience on the job, walks into a station as the new officer. The crew has been together for several years, and the man with the least seniority on this crew has 15 years on the job. Joe has been contemplating his first assignment for years. He has done his research, and he knows exactly how he wants the station to run. For each crew member, Joe has created 3 2 5 cards that outline and detail their duties and his expectations. He assembles the crew, distributes the cards, and says a few comments on the way he expects things to run. There is minimal interaction between Joe and the crew. The crew goes about their normal routine until it is time for a coffee break.
The firefighter is the first to arrive at the coffee table. Joe is next, but he needs to use the restroom. While Joe is in the restroom, the phone begins to ring. Joe assumes one of the crew members will answer it. The phone rings twice, then a third time, and a fourth. Joe begins to wonder why no one is answering the phone. Finally, on the sixth ring, Joe rushes from the restroom to answer the phone, and the firefighter is sitting at the table reading the newspaper. Joe is puzzled after taking care of the phone call. He asks the firefighter why he failed to answer the phone. The firefighter reaches into his pocket and removes the 3 2 5 card Joe had given to him earlier. The firefighter looks at the card, glances up at Joe, and says, “It’s not on my card.”
Joe directed the crew without consideration of their routine; more foolishly, he did not validate their experience. He acted as a manager, not as a leader. What you must always keep in mind when establishing new relationships is that a leader is not a leader unless others choose to be led. Joe entered the station and did not use leadership skills; therefore he did not give the crew a reason to give more than compliance.
The second example involves “Andrew,” also a newly promoted captain with six years on the job. Andrew is assigned to a station with a crew makeup similar to Joe’s. The crew is well seasoned, and Randy, the engineer on Andrew’s crew, had also competed for the position Andrew has just achieved. In fact, Randy has been an engineer for 12 years; more importantly, he has been on three preceding captain lists. He has achieved the highest grouping of candidates, and yet it seems he always finishes just out of the money.
Andrew enters the station and has a crew meeting. He asks the crew what their normal routine is; they explain what has occurred with the previous captain. Andrew deduces that under his predecessor’s leadership, the system worked well for the crew. It may not have been exactly what Andrew had in mind, but he decides to leave it alone and reevaluate as the need arises. He also decides to make any needed adjustments when the crew becomes more comfortable with him and his style.
Andrew begins to notice, however, an issue developing with Randy, the aforementioned 12-year engineer veteran. Randy begins to ask directions on every run; he asks where to park at every scene, and so forth. Andrew decides it is time to deal with the issue. While returning from a call, Andrew asks Randy to pull to the curb and stop. Andrew begins to discuss the situation. The first thing he says is, ” Randy, you have been an engineer in this department longer than I have been on the job. On top of that, you are one of the best engineers in the department. You know the engineer’s job, the district, and the apparatus positions better than I do.” Andrew continues, “What I would like you to do is take the route you think is best, position the apparatus where you think it should be, and if I want anything different, I will let you know.”
Andrew tells Randy, “What I really think is going on here is that you are testing me.” He says to Randy that they both took the same test, they both did the best they could, and yet the organization chose Andrew to be captain. He relates to Randy, “I didn’t pick me; they picked me. Did you expect me to turn down the promotion?” Andrew tells Randy that he believes that he should already have been promoted and he doesn’t understand why he hasn’t been thus far. He also tells Randy that he would help him in any way he could to achieve his goals, but for now, they have a job to do. Andrew finishes, saying, “The best way to accomplish that job is for us to work as a team. Do you think we can do that?”
“Absolutely,” Randy replies.
Andrew has validated Randy and his worth to the team. After this, Randy became Andrew’s biggest supporter. Randy also became the informal leader of the crew. Andrew, by luck or by design, created confidence in Randy and reassured him that he had the best interest of the whole crew in mind. This created a relationship where the formal leader and the informal leader worked in concert. Andrew then operated in a leadership role as opposed to a manager role.
As you can see by the stories I have related, most people would rather work for Andrew than for Joe. Joe will continue to achieve compliance but, in contrast, Andrew’s crew will do almost anything he asks of them. By validating the worth of your crew and including them in the decision-making process as team members, they have ownership in the organization. When a person feels ownership in the organization, he will be motivated to create success.
Respect is something that you have to earn. There are no shortcuts or magic formulas. The best way to get respect is to give respect. When you gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities, use this expertise to develop people around you. By accepting the responsibility of creating clearly defined expectations, you will begin to gain respect. If you are able to create a situation where you are a leader who enforces the rules and regulations with integrity and fairness, you have taken another big step. Respect your coworkers and subordinates, believe everyone has the desire to create a better organization, and allow for their meaningful inclusion in the process. Respect will be just around the corner.
One final piece of advice: People who work for you are looking for a leader who has confidence in them. They are looking for a leader who will set consistent boundaries, enforce the rules, and subsequently take corrective measures to prevent a recurrence of violations in the future. More importantly, they are searching for someone on whom they can depend when the world is crashing down around them.
With all the responsibility you have been awarded, this is undoubtedly the greatest job in the world. Congratulations!
SCOTT GOODWIN is a battalion chief with the Santa Fe Springs (CA) Fire Department. He has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in administration, and a master’s degree in public administration from California State University-San Bernardino. A state certified company officer and certified chief officer, Goodwin has completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, and the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.