(Appeared in print as "Know before you go")
The fire service is steeped in tradition and pride in public service. As there are so many commonalties across departments, the fire service has a tendency to miss the differences in the institutional culture between departments.
In this sense, culture does not mean race, religion or other personal attributes. Instead, institutional culture refers to shared basic assumptions that were learned by a group as it solved its external problems, such as dealing with fires, the public, the police and more, and internal relationships that have worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.
For a new chief, recognizing the little differences between departments’ cultures can be the difference between success and failure when trying to make an automatic-aid agreement work. It is even more important when a career fire-department manager takes an executive-level job in a different department. The differences between the two departments’ internal cultural expectations can be vast. A new chief who fails to assess and properly approach this cultural difference is setting him- or herself up for a difficult transition.
Do your homework
When accepting an executive-level position, a prudent manager first will attempt to understand the bigger picture of where the organization is and what he or she can do to leave a positive impact on the organization. In many cases, an executive recruitment profile will identify the problems facing the department, its assets and the community’s expectations of the new chief. While this may be useful in giving the prospective chief a place to start, don’t assume that a recruiting consultant who interviewed the elected officials and a few firefighters can give a complete picture of where the department is, and where it needs to go.
Instead, new chiefs should conduct their own departmental cultural assessment, identifying the needs and expectations of the community, balancing the observed culture with those needs, and looking at how to change the culture through organizational design and employee socialization.
It is important to gather intelligence about the past and current performance of the department prior to arrival. This may help the new chief establish a preliminary sketch of the agency. He or she can begin this process by speaking with past managers, reviewing news articles about the organization, and even by perusing the website of the agency. Things like comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFR) and council meeting minutes usually are available via open-records requests, and often can be found on the municipality’s website.
When I took my first chief position, I made the move from a suburban department to a rural agency several hours away. As I was primarily focused on getting a chance to guide a department and build its professionalism, I did not visit department heads from surrounding public-safety agencies, nor did I dig too deeply into the department’s history. This soon proved to be a mistake, because there was a world of difference between the suburban community’s expectations and the department’s operational mindset and that of a rural department. Frankly, I was not prepared for the drastically different approach to the same profession. As a result, I was unable to have the positive influence I had hoped for. It turned out that the department wasn’t even doing its basic annual training and was a revolving door for personnel because of internal politics and financial problems. A little bit of research and some visits to the surrounding jurisdictions’ department heads could have prepared me for this.
The new chief needs to come prepared with a baseline understanding of the types of leadership the organization had in the past: For example, is he or she replacing a corrupt leader who lost his mind after being given the ultimate authority position, or a beloved grandfatherly man who lead the organization for the past 20 years? I learned my predecessor was investigated for corruption when the ethics instructor in a state training class flashed newspaper clippings from my city up during his PowerPoint presentation. Each of your predecessors will have taught firefighters to relate to management in a specific way. This understanding needs to then be counterbalanced with the needs of the department and the chief’s own management style, so any changes can be planned to work within the system whenever possible — hopefully earning the buy-in of the department.
While this initial investigation may not identify the full character of the organization — and the leader should take care not to hold too tightly onto published reports and media coverage — it still provides some neutrality in conducting a cultural assessment. However, one sure method to make the new job more difficult is to come into it assuming that there is no difference between fire departments and their imbedded institutional cultures.