What is in this article?:
New and seasoned fire chiefs can become overwhelmed by unanticipated and unexpected intra- and interpersonal dynamics of running a fire department. Learn how to avoid pitfalls and build trust.
Most fire chiefs enter their new position with visions of increasing service to the citizens, changing the department for the better, and putting their stamp on a new era. They are ready to make a difference and have prepared themselves in fire-ground tactics, emergency management, firefighter safety, and numerous other command-and-control issues of today’s fire service.
But what most new fire chiefs find as their biggest challenge after assuming the corner office is not found on the emergency scene but rather in the offices and hallways of their organization and beyond. The sometimes unanticipated and unexpected intra- and interpersonal dynamics of running a fire department can overwhelm and even blind-side even the most-seasoned fire-service veterans if they aren’t prepared, derailing their vision of success.
Surround and Build
All fire chiefs when starting out want to demonstrate to their department that they are capable of doing the job and show the mayor or city manager who selected them that they made the right choice. Some will try to prove this point by going it alone, rather than reach out to those in the department, city government and community that can provide support for their success. This is a big mistake.
Smart leaders surround themselves with the brightest and most gifted people they know — both inside and outside the organization. Their abilities and intellectual capacities, when matched with equally capable people into affable teams, present an unmatched benefit to the organization and to the fire chief.
Some leaders mistakenly believe that surrounding themselves with talented people somehow will make them appear less capable or intelligent. Quite the contrary is true. Leaders who take this team approach demonstrate significantly more confidence in their own abilities by realizing their limitations, than those who choose the older and ineffective top-down management style and thinking they know everything. Additionally, self-assured leaders who place faith and confidence in others have the added benefit of building trust and ownership within their organization — and that only will lead to better relationships in the future with staff, firefighters, union leadership and the community.
When you assume your new role, it is important to establish and to demonstrate early and often your vision, leadership style, and expectations through clear and consistent communications with your membership and others affected by your office. These internal and external “contact” opportunities, which will be abundant in your early days when everyone wants to see and to speak with the new chief, should be developed and routinely scheduled to remain consistent throughout your tenure as fire chief. In other words, don’t make a big splash in the beginning of your new role by being highly visible and accessible and then do a slow fade into the wood paneling of your office where your firefighters and the public seldom see you.
Take advantage of every opportunity to have face-to-face dialogues with your firefighters, command staff and union leadership through formal and informal meetings, station visits, ride-out days with the chief, social events, and more. Also, having an open door policy, where non chain-of-command issues of operational improvement and innovation can be brought straight to your office — no matter the rank on the member — promotes creative thinking and eliminates barriers of isolation between administration and the fire-line. Other communications mediums such as inter-office memos, internal e-mails (to and from your office), video messaging and social networking also should be employed to regularly reinforce your vision and strengthen your relationships and mutual trust within your organization.
As part of the city’s management team, within the boundaries and scope of your authority and responsibility, meet early in your tenure and then often with elected and appointed officials as well as other city executive team members (outside of weekly department head meetings), particularly those that form the public-safety pact (police, emergency management, and the like). Elected and appointed officials want to know what is going on with their fire department and having the opportunity to speak with them regularly not only keeps them abreast of your operations but provides a great opportunity to speak about future needs, which may require their support down the road.
New fire chiefs need to understand that their agencies are not islands unto themselves, and their success or lack thereof is directly tied to other city services. It is no longer acceptable to “get all you can” while showing little concern or regard for challenges and struggles going on elsewhere in city operations — particularly during tough economic times. Being a good and conscientious team player for your city manager or mayor, as well as a good teammate to other department heads, is just as essential as being the strong leader and champion for your department. In your conversations with other executive team members, your first question should be, “What can the fire department and my office do to make your operations more effective and efficient?” Then follow with, “Here’s how I think you and your department can help my organization to strengthen our overall city operations.”