9 traits of a good company officer candidate
Look for these nine traits when evaluating which firefighters have the potential to move up in the ranks
This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Winter 2016 issue, click here.
By Robert Avsec
Probably the biggest leap any firefighter makes in his or her career, be it paid or volunteer, is to a company officer position.
That first promotion is akin to a shoot from a seedling bursting through the soil and stretching toward the sun. With the proper groundwork and care, those shoots reach full potential. But without it, they fall prey to the forces bent on uprooting them.
So how does a chief officer assess the potential for a firefighter to take on a leadership role in a fire department? The best place to start is with a good understanding of what qualities a competent and proficient company officer possesses. Here are nine traits critical for company officer success.
1. Tactical leadership
These officers have a good understanding of the necessary strategies and tactics for managing a wide range of emergency situations. They have the ability to lead, guide and direct their people in accomplishing assigned tasks.
They effectively and efficiently provide emergency services commensurate with fire and EMS certifications. They effectively use the incident command system to manage emergency scenes.
2. Influence management
They know how to manage upward in the organization. When they feel their employees are right, they definitely go to bat for them with their supervisors.
They are sensitive to and usually act in support of their supervisor's interests. They have the ability to present bad news in a strategic way. They establish good relationships with superior officers.
They know how to manage external relations. They resolve conflicts with external customers in a collaborative manner. They appropriately involve other supervisors and divisions in their planning processes.
3. Team management
Good officers are good at teambuilding because they know how to find and select well-qualified and capable people. When making assignments, they make the best use of the individual's skills and abilities.
They are good at maintaining the team. In work group meetings, they make sure there is a frank and open exchange of ideas. They emphasize a team approach in accomplishing work. They face up to and attempt to resolve conflicts constructively between their direct reports.
4. Promoting involvement
Good company officers communicate in a frank and open manner. Their goals, objectives and responsibilities are clearly defined and shared with their team members. They promote two-way communication in the workplace by soliciting the appropriate information from their team members — facts, opinions and concerns about their work.
"Above all, a good officer is a good communicator," said Chief Susan Tamme, division chief of training with the Tampa Fire Rescue Department. "They have the ability to listen and understand/comprehend the messages that are given from above and communicate them downward."
This works in the other direction as well.
"They have the ability to listen to what their subordinates are saying, both verbally and non-verbally, and then communicate the right message to their superiors," said Tamme.
5. Managing people
Good company officers are people-oriented. They build supportive relationships with their firefighters and fellow officers rather than remaining distant and impersonal. They establish trust and mutual respect in relating with their direct reports and take a personal interest in individual team members and their welfare.
They are effective at managing group relations by emphasizing cooperation as opposed to competition among team members. They understand the points of view of others because they seek to understand rather than seeking to be understood when communicating with their team and individuals.
6. Managing performance problems
Good company officers encourage their employees and team members to be completely open in their communications. They encourage their team members to come to them with good news and bad news. They face up to and take appropriate action regarding poor performance on the part of their direct reports.
"I would look for a good sense of ethics in a firefighter," said Tamme. "I remember a firefighter who everyone said was so awesome. He was stationed with a female co-worker that was being targeted/hassled by another firefighter. The 'awesome' firefighter never said anything or stood up to the harasser."
7. Flexible and encourages innovation
Good company officers have an adapting approach that allows them to modify their management style or practices so that different situations can be handled in the most effective manner. They also know how to admit when they've made a mistake.
They effectively solicit reactions by giving their direct reports the opportunity to openly express their disagreement or to voice objections to the officer's proposed actions and decisions. They will listen with an open mind to suggestions from their direct reports on how the officer might improve their performance.
A good company officer encourages their members to submit new ideas and suggestions for improvement. In fact, they do more than encourage; they champion those ideas with their superiors and colleagues and give those members full credit for their ideas.
"I look for the person's initiative, their ability to anticipate or be aware of areas that could develop into problems in the future and then act to find solutions," said Tamme. "For example, while on a medical call for a minor laceration, the firefighter treats an obese patient that could in the future be problematic in the event of a health emergency. After returning to the station they reach out (to other resources) to find assistance for the situation. This goes above and beyond the scope of the initial call and shows initiative."
Good company officers project themselves as being good leaders. They are paragons of clarity. Their members get clear-cut decisions from the officer.
Good officers set high standards for their group and work within established time limits to reach those goals. They establish organizational work group goals and strive to accomplish those goals.
Good company officers are perceptive. They perceive how their direct reports view their actions and statements. They demonstrate awareness of unspoken and significant issues in their relationships with others. They see the big picture, which enables them to anticipate controversial issues and political questions and deal with them effectively.
9. Teaching people
Good company officers understand and appreciate that in their position they are part supervisor and part teacher. They have a strong desire for self-improvement. They seek to diversify their knowledge base through study and experience.
The good company officer realizes that learning is the key to helping others improve their job performance and works to create a work environment that is conducive to learning.
The good company officer actively seeks out teachable moments in the workday and encourages and champions the efforts of their direct reports in their pursuit of educational and training opportunities.
Finding these traits
It's easy to see firefighters exhibiting these characteristics and behaviors as they fulfill their role as a firefighter. Also be on the lookout for enthusiasm for the job, as it's one of those intangible traits that you either have or you don't.
Look for those individuals who have a smile on their face and a spring in their step, even when the going gets tough. Those firefighters will be doing jobs, little things not necessarily in their job description, without being told around the station and on the emergency scene that just seem to make things run more smoothly.
Also look for commitment to the department and their peers. The way someone works within the structure of your organization and the way he or she interacts with peers will tell you a great deal about how that person will do at the next level of the organization.
Interaction with the public is also important. Whether it's how they conduct a fire and life safety education program or answer questions from residents while conducting a fire safety inspection or answering a telephone inquiry at the fire station, they project a positive image of themselves and their department. Those firefighters who project a caring attitude and a willingness to help people are candidates for leadership.
Also look for firefighters who seem to have a good balance between their fire service commitment (career or volunteer) and their commitment to their family. While many firefighters openly express their desire and intention to pursue higher rank, some of those individuals might not be the type of future officer the department needs. In some cases, it's the "strong and silent" types who can wind up being a diamond in the rough.
The department's incumbent company officers and other officers should be taught how to be talent scouts who are constantly on the lookout for those firefighters who have the potential to move up in the ranks. There's much to be gained regarding human behavior and interpersonal dynamics through observation. But more than just observation, those current officers have to provide leadership, guidance and direction that support individual motivation.
Growing future leaders
We frequently hear three terms regarding leadership and management of our people: responsibility, authority and accountability. These are not synonyms, but rather distinct terms that when effectively combined create the fertile ground necessary to grow future leaders.
To incorporate all three, fire chiefs need to create and maintain accurate job descriptions and performance expectations for all positions. Use those documents as the foundation for all training that a person receives for the position he or she will fill. Don't assume that because a person earns the state firefighter or EMT certification that he or she knows what the job entails in your particular organization.
Chiefs also need to create and maintain an objective process for each position in your organization that requires the employee or member to demonstrate that he or she has the knowledge, skills and abilities to meet the job responsibilities. You need a system of progressive discipline so that from the moment the employee or member assumes the position, he or she understands the potential consequences of not fully carrying out their authorized job responsibilities.
We are all products, in part, of our environment, and that's very true in the fire service. So if your department is looking to grow its future leaders from within the organization, a good place to start is to ensure that you're planting good seeds in fertile soil.