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Leadership Forum: Advice for the new chief officer

August 22, 2023 
By Chris Harrow

Over the Canada Day weekend, someone asked me if I were to give advice to a new chief officer in the fire service, what would I say? The question caused me to stop and think about lessons I have learned in over 17 years as a chief officer and what to me has been valuable in shaping my career.

Go into the position with a clean slate: Don’t assume that all previously strained relationships with allied agencies, other municipal departments or other fire departments will remain the same. You are a new voice and outlook that can change a lot of previous misunderstandings. You may be brought into the new position to improve these relationships. You can take the position that what happened previously is in the past and you are beginning anew. Fixing or maintaining good relationships can be an excellent tool for a new officer to have in their arsenal. Starting any new position with no or limited “silos” can be a huge benefit to moving your department forward. Really strive to make this a priority.

Take advice where you can and find competent mentors: You will never enter a position knowing everything there is to know about it. Never be scared to seek out advice or ask questions of people in similar positions or who have experienced the same thing you are going through. It is not a sign of weakness for anyone, new or experienced, to ask for advice. It would also benefit any new officer to find a couple of trusted mentors. Surround yourself with people who hold the same values as you do. When you are trying to be a progressive leader, you will get flak from some of those around you. Having mentors who are going down the same progressive path will significantly help you. Bouncing ideas off others gives you the confidence you are doing the right thing.

Be confident in your abilities, but at the same time be humble: There will be people both inside the fire fighting industry and from outside who will doubt your abilities to do the job. Depending on your background, or lack of background, there will be challenges thrown at you, especially if you are trying to make changes to a department. Doubters will say you don’t have the experience or knowledge to make major changes. As long as you are well prepared and have done all of your homework, stick to your guns and push ahead. Surrounding yourself with a good network of people will greatly aid you in this process. This skill is a fine balance though, because you also need to remain humble. When something you have pushed for is successfully implemented, do not gloat or brag. Internally you can celebrate, but externally stay even keeled and move on to the next project. In the end, this will benefit you far greater when you push for the next great change.  Believe it or not, the fire service does not always take right away to change. It tests your fortitude and willingness to stay the course. 

Pace yourself: It is natural to be full of vim and vigour when starting a new position and wanting to prove yourself right away. Take your time and make changes at a pace your organization can endure. By going too fast, you will lose those around you that support you. Many times, change takes twice as long as you anticipate. A tip I learned was to appoint someone close to you as a “traffic cop” to let you know when you are going too fast. This person can be extremely valuable to you in your career. They are your reality check person; someone that isn’t scared to be bold with you and give you an honest answer. They can tell you when you need to slow a process down and give those affected time to catch up.  They can also let you know when you need to back up and ensure everyone has completed step one before moving on to bigger and better ideas.

Listen and don’t be scared of feedback: Listen to what those around you are saying, good and bad. Many times, we get caught up in the processes that you need to get completed, processes that many others in the organization don’t understand.  Failing to get out and listen to those within all parts of the organization can be a career ending mistake. One practice I have tried to adopt is when completing performance appraisals on our staff, I ask them to bring at least three things they have observed that I could improve upon. It makes the process a two-way street and allows me to hear some feedback to help me to improve upon my skills and my relationship with the other team members. 

These are all things I wish I would have known when I started as a chief officer over 17 years ago. It would have helped me early on in my career.  I am still working to improve.  No matter how many years of experience you may have, there is always room for improvement.  

Chris Harrow is the director of fire services for the Town of Minto and Township of Wellington North in Ontario. He is a graduate from fire programs at Lakeland College and Dalhousie University and holds a graduate certificate in Advanced Care Paramedics from Conestoga College. He can be reached at 

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