Great news: You've just been promoted to officer. It was your first time taking the test, and now you are one of the youngest new company officers in your department’s history.
Not so great news: As part of your first crew, you have been assigned with Tom, who tested against you on the promotional test and failed to make the cut. It was Tom's second attempt to become an officer, and he has nearly 10 years of seniority on you. Most people on the job — including you — agree that Tom should be an officer.
So here you are, going into your first assignment as a company officer, and you will be working with a guy who is disappointed, a bit disgruntled in general, and possibly resentful toward you personally. How will you handle this situation?
Although avoidance is tempting (maybe someone would be willing to trade assignments with you?), the reality is that you and Tom will be working together, and you will need to make the best of it. Your own future as an officer depends on it.
Some new officers might approach this challenge by using their new authority as a shield. You're the officer, and Tom will just have to get over any issues he may have working with you. As far as you’re concerned, there is nothing to discuss. If Tom behaves inappropriately or tries to undermine your authority, you will simply use your rank to impose consequences and discipline.
Or you might take the opposite approach: as Tom is already recognized as an informal leader among his peers, just let him take a leadership role once you are working together. Why not? He’s good at what he does, and it will allow you to take your time getting used to your new position as officer.
Benefits and risks
Both of these approaches have potential benefits and risks. It is true that as an officer you must embrace the authority of your position, but to take a purely authoritarian attitude toward Tom will certainly alienate him, as well as others, and do nothing to build an effective team.
On the other hand, you certainly want to recognize Tom’s abilities, but giving away your authority entirely is not the way to do it. You are the officer, and everyone, including Tom, expects you to do that job.
Dealing with Tom does not require going to extremes. Your better option is to see Tom’s presence on your crew as a potentially beneficial partnership — for you, for Tom, and for the department.
You are still the officer — you can never give away your responsibilities in that role — but it is absolutely appropriate to treat someone as experienced as Tom differently than you would a firefighter right out of recruit school.
You can initiate this partnership soon after you begin working together. Take Tom aside where you can talk privately and let him know how much you respect him and value his experience and knowledge on the job. Let him know that you will be looking to him for guidance in some situations.
Tom may or may not be open at first to such overtures, but will certainly appreciate your effort in making positive contact. Such initiatives will plant the seeds of trust between you.
Then keep the conversation going. Over time, let Tom know that you also think he would be an excellent officer. Ask him how you can help him to achieve his goals. It is common for someone in Tom’s position to become cynical, saying that he will never go for promotion again. Let him know that you believe this outcome would be to the department’s detriment.
If Tom is as good a firefighter as everyone believes him to be, he will rise to the occasion if you give him the opportunity. The key is to start from a place of trust and respect. Now that you are in a position of leadership, it is your responsibility to make the first move. As always, you will need to demonstrate leadership at all times in both your words and actions.
As a new, young officer, it is always a bit intimidating to work with someone who has a lot of seniority on you. Beating that person on the test just makes the situation more complicated. But ultimately, basic values of service, trust, and teamwork go a long way toward building relationships. In this case, building a genuine partnership with Tom could be the best thing that ever happened to you as a new officer.