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Leadership Forum: The perplexing path to promotion

A year has passed since my last column and I want to discuss some interesting lessons learned as a senior officer. In January 2016, I was promoted to director of emergency services – fire chief – from deputy chief in Barrie, Ont.

February 7, 2017  By Bill Boyes

The debate about switching organizations to expedite or facilitate a promotion is not unique to the fire service. The path to a senior-officer position is often non-linear and varied, depending on a number of factors. An upward career trajectory through organizational transitions is extremely common in the private and public sectors at senior-management levels. Anecdotally, the fire service is adhering to that maxim.

The contributing factors to this phenomenon occur at individual, organization and industry levels. For example, the willingness of an individual to move organizations, the perceived de facto competencies at the time of an opening, and the state of succession planning contribute to the complexity of career planning. Navigating these factors is a challenge; the information I present is just one perspective.

I was promoted to deputy chief in a different fire service than the one in which I gained my firefighter and captain experience. This involved a move from a unionized position to a non-union, five-days-a-week schedule. Moreover, it represented a shift from an operational position to an administrative role with a number of responsibilities including labour relations, budgeting, procurement, strategic planning, chairing committees and myriad emergency-response related responsibilities (including being on call after hours). In all honestly, the challenges in moving departments was not fully realized at the time I accepted the job offer. However, the challenges are difficult to pinpoint as they are intertwined with the challenges of leading the suppression and training branches of an urban fire service. Untangling the challenges presented to an internal candidate versus an external candidate is difficult and dependent on issues within the local service; most likely those who change departments will spend a lot of time dealing with challenges or projects that have been ongoing for years. Every new senior officer experiences many of the same challenges regardless of being an internal or external candidate. Internal candidates are not immune and must lead people who were their former superiors, peers or subordinates. In retrospect, I believe coming from another department makes one a stronger leader and brings a fresh perspective, but is neither necessary nor without challenges.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with the deputy chief I was replacing. There are many instances in which this is impossible due to the challenges of hiring candidates in a timely manner, salary-gapping policies, or unexpected organizational departures, but any opportunity to make this happen should be seized.


Remaining in one organization throughout a career provides significant organizational capital that is difficult for external candidates to gain. Moreover, you understand the inner workings of the organization. Also, you have developed relationships with most, if not all those you will supervise and with whom you formerly worked. This can be advantageous and problematic: How will those who watched you progress through the organizational hierarchy react to your decisions and ideas? The only guarantee is that no matter what you do, there will be supporters and detractors.

It is important to note that being an internal or external candidate is only one aspect that contributes to the change you most likely will find with your work-related relationships. The nature of a new management position fundamentally changes your role and your relationships. This does not mean you cannot or should not build strong work-related relationships, but you need to be cognizant of how things can change in your life, personally and professionally.

The book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins outlines how to create a road map for succeeding in a new executive position. We all have incredibly ambitious plans when undertaking a new role and this book puts things in perspective.

I recommend all aspiring chief officers sit with and learn from a wide range of senior officers; we all have different opinions and most likely you will pick up something from each person you talk to. This is similar to the station visits you all found time for when trying to join the fire service as a recruit firefighter.

For all of you thinking about becoming senior officers, do your research, invest the time and help shape the future of our fire service.

Bill Boyes is the fire chief for Barrie Fire and Emergency Service in Ontario. He is working on a PhD in human resources management, which supplements his master’s degree in public policy and administration and bachelor’s degree in public management from the University of Guelph. Contact him at

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