Leadership Forum: November 2014
By Les Karpluk and Lyle Quan
Fire-service leaders have many responsibilities; developing talent in the fire hall is a responsibility that chiefs should take seriously given that one day all chief officers will move on to retirement or other opportunities. Leaving a solid foundation of internal talent is paramount to the stability and growth of the organization.
The level of talent demonstrated within the fire station is a good indication of the organization’s leadership. When firefighter talent appears absent or is lacking, it’s a strong indication that the leadership has either stalled out or, in some cases, is unable to keep up with the growth of the department. In cases such as these, the fire chief and senior officers need to regroup and change things.
There are various views on the subject of talent development, but one thing is certain: every fire department has talent, and it must be developed, otherwise the future looks grim and the community loses respect for the department.
Firefighter talent is a commodity that increases in value as it develops. This commodity improves the fire department, enhances public safety, increases firefighter professionalism and boosts morale, which is why talent development must be the focus of all fire-service leaders, regardless of the size of the department.
Many readers might believe that, by default, it is the fire chief’s responsibility to build department talent; we agree to a point, but only to a point.
Yes, it is the responsibility of the fire chief to acquire the resources to develop firefighter talent, and this is typically accomplished at budget time by presenting a carefully laid-out plan that identifies the short-, medium- and long-range goals for talent development. But, for the most part, this is where the chief’s job ends. Now it’s time for the real talent-builders to roll up their sleeves and do what is needed. In our opinion, the real talent-builders are the frontline officers. Let us explain.
Who is in the best position to know the skills, competencies, personalities and experiences of firefighters? The frontline supervisors. And who is in the best position to lead by example and set the bar high for talent development? The frontline supervisors. Frontline officers have more face time with the firefighters and therefore they are in a better position to understand individual strengths and weaknesses. Frontline officers can determine ways to best use firefighters’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses, which is, ultimately, building talent. Frontline officers are also in the best position to mentor and coach firefighters and to encourage them when they get stuck in a rut.
Building talent requires frontline supervisors to understand the importance of firefighter talent; they must lead by example and set the bar high for not only firefighters, but also for themselves. In other words, the frontline supervisors must continually take steps to better themselves. To lead by example, these officers must be the example; when it comes to training and education, frontline officers should be the first to sign up for the course. We cannot expect others to buy into talent development if the frontline supervisor doesn’t buy into it.
Building talent rests on the shoulders of every firefighter in the department; it’s a team effort. Who determines firefighters’ attitude toward building their own talent? You guessed it: the firefighters. Firefighters must value talent development and be active supporters of meeting department and/or industry standards. Firefighters may need to juggle their vacation periods to accommodate training, attend seminars on a weekend, or spend time doing homework in order to build their own talent. They need to have some investment in the game.
Building department talent can be a challenge as firefighters likely have their own opinions regarding talent-building priorities. Regardless of what comes first or what comes second, successful leaders realize it takes the combined effort of every person in the department to develop this precious commodity.
Basketball star Michael Jordan summarized this team effort quite nicely: “There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. Most of the time, those players aren’t willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. The funny thing is, in the end, their unwillingness to sacrifice only makes individual goals more difficult to achieve. One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
It isn’t a matter of wanting to build department talent; rather, it is a matter of making it happen. We recommend you take steps to make it happen sooner rather than later.
Les Karpluk is the retired fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. Contact Les at Genesis2020solutions@sasktel.net and Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Les on Twitter at @GenesisLes and Lyle at @LyleQuan