Change Agent: May 2015
By Tom Bremner
You’re the chief. How did you get to your position?
In days gone by, if you stayed in the service long enough, you became chief. Or perhaps you won a popularity contest.
To be a chief today requires you to be all things to all people – a public relations pro; a human resources manager; a budgeting and finance expert; a fund raiser; a social worker; a labour negotiations expert; a mentor; a leader; a succession planner. You report to a body, whether municipal/city or provincial, that may offer you little to no support. And don’t forget the taxpayer – who is sure he knows that all a firefighter does is drive a truck and aim a hose.
You may be misunderstood and are certainly criticized. How do we, and our departments, get a handle on this? As chief, you are the leader of your department and it is incumbent on you to ensure that you provide the atmosphere and venue in which your men and women can have the complete and complex training required to protect themselves and their communities.
Start with yourself. Sit down with a paper and pencil; draw a line down the centre of the paper and head one column “strong” and the other “less strong.” Be brutally honest. Think about how you might organize your time more effectively. In some of the areas where you are strong, can you mentor one of your team members to learn about and take on some tasks? Strong leaders are not afraid to share knowledge and responsibility.
For decades, chiefs were groomed to be fixers and in-house managers of everything. Are you one of these leaders? If so, are you exhausted and running out of internal options? Why not look for other solutions within your own community or nearby? Budget managing is always the No. 1 leadership challenge and has worn down many good leaders. In many cases, locating and chatting with outside (and inside) resources brings the light at the end of the tunnel. Trying to handle everything, every day, in house, with limited or no expertise is dangerous.
Do you dread writing reports? Think about drafting what you want to convey in point form, and then let someone edit your thoughts into a coherent report. Maybe you can find these people outside your department. You still own the budget or the report, but accepting expert help is not weakness; it is the mark of a strong leader.
This same process can be applied to your department. In areas in which your department and its members are strong, acknowledgement and praise go a long way to maintaining those strengths. Where you are less strong, involve trusted senior members in the initial steps of planning how to make things better. Do not be afraid to involve your whole department. Sometimes a really good idea will come from a new, fresh set of eyes. Let someone else talk about why you do certain things the way you do. What a great teaching and leadership opportunity. Consider having a professional lead a brainstorming session with only two rules: all ideas are welcome, and there is no evaluation or criticism allowed. It takes courage to do this, but it can pay real dividends. Members are more likely to buy into a new plan if they feel involved in the process.
Two cautions: first, don’t try to do everything at once. Have a three-year plan. Then ask yourself, “To accomplish this plan, what do I need to do in one year? In six months? In three months? This month?” Secondly, you are still the boss. Ask for and listen to input from members, accept help in drafting your plans, but in the end the buck stops at your desk.
I have left the most important point to the last. Look to your fellow chiefs for support. Attend all of the conventions and courses that you can. Get to know colleagues. There are some very talented, supportive chiefs in Canada who have done the legwork, and they are always willing to chat. Chiefs often hold back on asking for help because of a fear of appearing weak. Being open and vulnerable in the right setting and with trusted colleagues is a good skill to have.
Hence the column title “How much can our service handle?” This is not only about the level of service we provide members and communities, but also about us as humans beings and leaders. No community or service should let its leaders drown in an overwhelming workload. If you are caught up in a stream of endless challenges without support, it might be time to make some calls to trusted colleagues.
Be wise enough to understand and value yourself and your service before you take on a tough challenge. Education, communication and having trusted mentors will assist you tremendously if you choose to use them. And please feel free to connect with me.
Tom Bremner is the fire chief for Salt Spring Island, B.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org