By Denis Pilon
Talk of succession planning in the fire service often elicits a lot of blank stares. There is considerable confusion about succession planning – what is it, how to do it, and even where to get information about it. Succession planning is often misunderstood by senior managers and entry-level employees. Fire-service tradition dictated that if you hung around long enough you would eventually be the chief. Not only does this no longer apply, but it was a bad practice and is almost entirely responsible for fire being perceived as the outsider in municipal senior-management circles.
In most municipal departments, the senior-management team is made up of people with degrees in administration, engineering, finance, recreation, municipal planning or some other discipline, and many of these are at the master’s level or higher. In the fire service, the senior leaders are often the most experienced firefighters; although this is changing, more needs to be done to prepare our future leaders.
So what is succession planning and how is it done? Let’s first address what succession planning is not: it is not supplementing the pension of senior employees during their final years because they have put in years of good service; it is not a reward for long service or good service; it is not about hand-picking your successor. Some of this confusion can be attri-
buted to the term succession planning, which often leaves chiefs thinking they should plan who will succeed them when they leave. I prefer the term succession program as it is more holistic and applies to all members of the organization, not just a select few.
I remember conducting an interview with a new hire a number of years ago and when asked what his goal in the fire service was he replied, “To sit in your chair.” I hired him. I am often asked why I would hire someone who wants my job. My answer is that I know I won’t be here forever, and someone needs to take over when I leave. A succession program needs to start at the initial interview with entry-level candidates. The sooner you identify those who aspire to higher positions, the sooner you can start to support them.
Succession programs are about creating opportunities for members of the organization to advance to senior positions. These opportunities must be applied fairly and consistently throughout the organization. This is sometimes very hard to do as we all bring certain biases to the table and we like or dislike certain members of the department based on past or current events; this cannot be allowed to cloud the program or it will not work. Everyone must be given the opportunity to progress; the selection process will allow the cream to rise to the top.
Most fire departments have good succession programs in place for the lower ranks. There are courses and standards set for promotion to the next position, everyone is given the opportunity to complete the training, and the selection process allows the higher-quality candidates to move into the next positions. This works great up to the rank of captain, and even to the battalion-chief (or platoon-chief) level, but the system seems to break down beyond that.
What’s the solution? First, it’s important to identify what the job of fire chief really includes and determine the qualifications needed to do the job properly. Then, identify the programs that will meet the needs of the position and offer these programs to the senior members of the department – this may range from Fire Officer IV to a master’s degree, depending on the size of the department. The courses required to attain the necessary level of management or leadership skills must be made available during individuals’ careers so that when the time comes to replace the chief, there are a number of trained and qualified candidates available to compete for the position.
A succession program won’t have a formal list of steps you must take to reach the top, but more of a direction pointing to the top. Regularly read the ads for chief-officer positions to see what requirements municipalities seek in their new chiefs. Get a handle on the disciplines in which municipalities want their chief officers to have degrees. Start offering courses that lead to these degrees – start at the certificate level and move to diplomas, then degrees. Make these courses available to everyone – those who don’t make chief will have more to offer the department and will be a major asset over time.
Education, though important, is not enough. Your people need time to practice their skills in real-life situations under supervision. This is the mentoring phase, which many chief officers find difficult. Too many senior managers use the excuse that “it is quicker to just do it myself.” That may be true once, but the next time and the time after that it puts a great drain on your time if you haven’t taught someone else how to do the required tasks. Chief officers need to assign the jobs, and then get out of the way. Be available to assist if needed, but don’t step in to do it. The chief’s job is to observe, guide, correct and assist as needed. It is quite possible that your expectations won’t be met the first time, but with guidance, they will be met in the future and you will have a new resource at your fingertips. It is also possible that your expectations will be exceeded.
The requirement to pay a competitive salary to management employees is probably the most challenging aspect to developing a succession program; unfortunately, in many cases, it is also out of your hands. Management salaries have become a major issue for fire departments in areas that have removed indexing of out-of-scope salaries – salaries of those not included in the bargaining unit. This has closed the gap between the salaries of the highest-level unionized employees and the low-end salaries of the non-unionized employees to the point at which it makes little economic sense for a member to leave the floor to take a management position that may be less than secure in terms of one’s career. The situation can only be solved by the fire chief negotiating a salary agreement with the municipality that will survive his or her retirement.
Part of a good successful succession program is mandatory vacation time for you – the chief. I have known numerous senior managers who have retired with five to six months of vacation saved up. I know of many situations in which municipalities have had to force their senior managers to take their vacations or have paid them out. Paying out vacation does no good for anybody. Vacation has two benefits in a succession plan; first, it provides you with the opportunity to get away from the pressures of the job – to relax and unwind. This time away is very important for any manager. The other benefit of vacations is just as important; your senior employees are forced to take control of the whole operation and make the decisions you would normally make, without your input or oversight. Your staff must take responsibility for these decisions, and you will likely be surprised by how consistent their decisions are with yours.
To ensure that your staff members make these decisions, turn off your phone, leave it in your hotel room, and, if you want to follow your emails so you know what is happening, read them, but do not reply to them; you are on vacation. Give your staff the opportunity to lead, choose, decide and take control of the department. Let it be theirs while you are away.
Finally, get your proteges involved in the associations that represent the fire service provincially, nationally and internationally. At association events, these potential successors will make contacts with whom they can share and gain knowledge, learn how issues are solved in other departments and find a shoulder to cry on when things go bad. Remember, you are not alone; numerous people have gone through the same situations in other municipalities and they are more than willing to help you. Over the years I have learned more from peers than from any book or classroom.
It is a wonderful feeling when you set people free and watch what they can accomplish. That is the true purpose of a succession program – letting people learn and improve on what you have done in the past.
One of the greatest pleasures in life is watching young people grow into the leaders of the future. The purpose of a succession program is to support that growth.
Denis Pilon is the chief of the Swift Current Fire Department in Saskatchewan and is the chair of the CAFC’s resolutions, bylaws and constitution committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @DMPilon