12 tips to build trust as a new company officer

From setting clear expectations to sharing feedback, simple actions can go a long way to establish yourself as a trusted team member


By Joseph Leonard

Building trust as a new company officer starts long before the promotional process, before any official announcements or lists come out. It starts the day you are hired and continues every day afterward following your promotion. Your reputation is like currency in this profession. It will take years to build it but can take only seconds to destroy it.

Most of us don’t go into this job for glory or other superficial reasons, so we may not think too much about reputation. “Why should I care what people think as long as I can do the job?” You should care because your reputation can and will take you far – if you do things right.

Teach your members new things, while giving them ownership in training evolutions.
Teach your members new things, while giving them ownership in training evolutions. (Photo/Joseph Leonard)

That being said, reputation should not be your primary motivation. Your motivation should be to excel at your job, to perform at the highest level possible, to provide the best level of service to the public, and to be the most reliable person on your team, not for your own ego or your reputation, but because this job has very high stakes and a low tolerance for failure.

Being “that firefighter” – the one who is always learning, showing initiative, going above and beyond, and always giving their best – will earn you trust. By earning the respect of your peers and supervisors, you will already be well on your way to being a trusted company officer before that promotion ever comes.

A personal story of trust-building

My department isn’t very large, and we typically run with less-than-ideal staffing. I’m talking 3-4 on a good day, handling around 1,300 calls per year.

I’m in my mid/late-20s and have been in the fire service for close to a decade now. Typically, that would be considered too young or too inexperienced for a company officer – a fair assumption and valid concern.

When several of our senior officers left in short succession, there was an immediate need to fill those vacancies. So even with my limited time on the job, I became a senior firefighter. That inexperience can quickly become an obstacle to building trust when you get promoted, but it is not insurmountable.

The good news: I had been building a solid reputation before the promotion. I was trusted by my peers, my officers and my chiefs. I was decisive on scene, I maintained my skills, I sought out new classes, I put together proposals, I ran programs, and I took on the acting company officer role whenever the opportunity arose. I constantly strived for better, for myself and for my department.

I also held my peers to high standards. I encouraged them to strive to be the best they can be, I taught them whenever I could and shared my experiences – a form of informal leadership. Practicing this concept as a firefighter is the first step to building trust when you become a company officer.

When the announcement was made that a promotional process was going to happen, my peers encouraged me to put my name in the hat. That foundational trust was there. They wanted to see me in that role, trusting I had what it took to take on the challenge.

I was ultimately promoted to captain, placed in charge of an entire shift with multiple areas of responsibility as well as being the lead incident commander on most incidents. Now that trust I had built not only had to be maintained but rebuilt at the same time.

Show your members that you are not above doing the dirty work, and that you are also one of them. Nobody likes an officer who hides behind a screen all shift.
Show your members that you are not above doing the dirty work, and that you are also one of them. Nobody likes an officer who hides behind a screen all shift. (Photo/Joseph Leonard)

How to build trust

Being new to that position, all eyes are on you. From the administration to the duty crews, your mutual-aid partners, and so on, everyone is watching. Some people might not want to see you succeed. So, the challenge begins. Following are 12 steps to build that trust:

  1. Set clear expectations: Day one, start by establishing clear expectations of your crew, and find out what your crew expects of you as their officer. Don’t make drastic changes unless absolutely necessary. You may have the rank, but you may not have the buy-in of the crew just yet. That takes time, and they need to trust you first.
  2. Learn the crew: Take time to see how the crew works together, how they perform on calls, how the dynamic is on the shift. Integrate yourself into that and become part of the team.
  3. Train, train and train some more: Teach them new things, give them ownership in training evolutions, and motivate them the same way you motivated your peers before you. Use training to share your passion for the job, and remind them of our purpose, our mission and the importance of both.
  4. Be transparent: When you have to make a decision or set a standard, explain the “why” behind it. For example, on day one, one of my new expectations was that Class B uniforms must be worn during business hours. I explained the reasoning – it is important to look professional, it instills a sense of trust when we respond to calls, and it shows a sense of pride in your uniform and what it represents.
  5. Follow through with your expectations: With the previous example, I wear my Class B every day, not just during business hours but until bed. Not to show the crew I was serious about making them wear it, but because I truly believed what I told them when I explained the “why.” I lived the “why,” and they never had to doubt my explanation or intent. That follows for every other expectation I set. If I expect it of my crew, I expect the same from myself first. They will notice.
  6. Have their backs: Support your crew, advocate for them, be their voice. If they know you would go to bat for them, and back them up when needed, they will reciprocate that and trust you that much more.
  7. Be decisive and stick with your decisions: When it comes to making decisions, be confident in your decision-making. You are entrusted with your rank for a reason. So when you make a good call, and you know it, stick with it. But be open to input and feedback. Your senior members can teach you a lot, and it’s important to listen. There are plenty of times when I have changed a decision on scene because the senior firefighter had a better idea. I fostered an environment where they feel comfortable telling me, and I don’t feel insulted or let my ego get in the way of doing what is the best decision in that moment. This gives them buy-in, and they feel like their voice is heard. The flip side of this is that my crew knows if I stick by my decision after they give me feedback, then that’s what we are doing. If they have an issue or disagreement further, then we handle that back at the station and we can discuss why I made the call. This rarely if ever actually happens in practice.
  8. Seek feedback: Seek feedback from your peers, from your team and from your senior leadership. Part of striving to do better includes taking criticism and soliciting feedback. It’s in our nature to not always see our shortcomings, so it’s important to get an outside look. Ask around, see if anyone sees any areas you need improvement. Learn your shortcomings and improve on them.
  9. Reflect: Sometimes our own shortcomings may be obvious. Maybe you made a mistake or simply aren’t doing something right. Spend some time doing some self-reflection. Ask yourself if there is anything you could be doing better. Take a good, hard look. Set your ego aside and be honest with yourself. The answers may surprise you.
  10. Pick up the brush: Wash the trucks with your crew. Help load hose after a training evolution. Wash dishes. Show them that you are not above doing the dirty work, and that you are also one of them. Nobody likes an officer who hides behind a screen all shift.
  11. Look to learn: Take classes, read books, take any opportunity you can to improve. Inspire your people to do the same. We owe it to the public to be the best of the best.
  12. Be humble: Never forget where you came from or what it was like to be the new member. As a new officer, you are operating in a different world. Be a sponge and take advice from those who have been in the position. You still have a lot to learn – never forget that. There is always an incident waiting around the corner to serve you a piece of humble pie if you ever get too confident.

Take these tips to the real world

Leadership is a skill that takes years to master, and I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have half of them. But these 12 points are valuable tips I’ve picked up along the way that have helped build a solid team and build trust with my crew during my first year as a captain. I hope you can take some of these and apply them in the real world.

About the Author

Joseph Leonard is a career captain at Mason County Fire District #4, also serving as the department PIO/social media manager. Leonard has served the Mason County community for 9 years as both a firefighter and an EMT. He also serves as a rope rescue technician on the Mason County Special Operations Rescue Team.

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