5 notable traits of high-performing management teams

These performance attributes have been consistently seen whether in the private business sector or in the fire service.


First published in IAFC On Scene on July 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. 

By Lane Wintermute

It's safe to say that each management team is unique to its organization. In spite of the unique nature of each team, there are a number of consistent attributes and best practices seen in high-performing management teams that are worth noting.

The business dictionary defines management as "the organization and coordination of the activities of a business/agency in order to achieve defined objectives."

Furthermore, the functions of effective leadership and management are undeniably integrated. One without the other produces little benefit and marginal results. Leadership is the fuel for the management engine that gets things done.

Countless articles have been written and classes conducted regarding the management cycle, traditionally defined as:

  • Planning
  • Organizing
  • Directing
  • Controlling
  • Evaluating

While studying this theory, understanding the individual elements and participating in these functions is important, I'd like to focus on the application and observation of these elements. At ESCI, we've observed five performance attributes consistently seen in high-performing management teams. These attributes consistently result in optimized performance, innovation, growth in capabilities and influence and measurable results.

1. High-performing management teams have a leader who has taken the time to develop and distribute a vision.
Fire service leaders generally have a good idea of why they've pursued and accepted an executive leadership or fire chief position. The process to reach these positions frequently requires a short-, mid- or long-term perspective on how they'll manage and lead an organization. Once in the position, they assemble their team, but far too often, they don't provide a clear and concise vision for the team.

Management teams will only be as effective as the unified and defined vision of the team. High-performing management teams frequently operate under a set of vision statements from the fire chief or executive leadership.

These vision statements are separate from organizational vision statements (e.g., strategic-plan vision statements) and represent the specific vision of the fire chief or executive leadership as to what they plan to accomplish at a policy level.

These vision statements should represent the priorities, in part or in whole, that have been presented and approved by the hiring/governing authority. They should speak to how the leadership wants the organization to be viewed and what they want it to look like. The following is an example of a vision statement by a fire chief:

"We will be an organization that prepares our members to assume future leadership roles with the skill set and training necessary to take the organization to the next level."

2. High-performing management teams are assembled around a common vision ~ support the leadership's direction.
A consistently observed failure point is when a leader inherits a team or builds a management team out of forced or regulated considerations that aren't in sync with leadership's vision and direction. While it's rare for fire service leaders to bring or handpick their team, consideration must be given to team dynamics, buy-in to the vision and the management team's capacity and ability to manage change.

Executive fire service leaders must carefully evaluate their management team's capacity and competency and align their vision and expectations accordingly. The plan that isn't realistic or implementable is just another binder.

It's not rare to observe a hard-charging, high-performing fire chief who out-runs the management team and experiences bad outcomes. This frequently leads to frustration, hurt feelings and, in the worst-case scenario, loss of the team and organization.

Fire service leaders should not be afraid to move at a speed and complexity level the management team and organization can handle. Over time, as opportunity presents itself to increase capacity and competency, speed up and add complexity as appropriate. Remember it's a marathon and not a sprint.

3. High-performing management teams work in a way that ensures inclusiveness, participation at all levels, have the right stakeholders at the table, and have organizational input measures in place.
On occasion, fire service leaders have a hard time reconciling the paramilitary needs of fireground operations with the need for an inclusive and transparent management style for the organization. It should be a rare event in the modern fire service that the fire chief and inner circle make impactful decisions for an organization without appropriate input, feedback and participation.

High-performing management teams understand the need for inclusiveness and participation. In most cases, these teams have a participation-based policy-development process that provides opportunity for input from the organization. They utilize a significant number of committees (such as training, apparatus, operations, special ops and safety) and develop and maintain a robust labor-management collaboration and communication system.

Being a high-producing management team is all about getting things done through others. None of us were hired because we had all the answers. We most likely were hired because we provided a positive, desirable vision and emphasized the need to work collaboratively as an organization to meet the needs of the communities we serve. Always remember, "We don't know what we don't know."

4. High-performing management teams innovate and manage change with enthusiasm.
We live in the age of social media. If we don't like the way things are, we just check Facebook in 10 minutes, and we're on to something else. You're most likely managing a work force that welcomes change and really enjoys asking why. It's a very different time from when most of us started several decades ago.

High-performing management teams understand the need for change and innovation. When you open the organization up to input and feedback, you're going to get a lot of suggestions. Combine that with the ever-expanding mission of the fire service and technology that changes every 10 minutes, and you will quickly realize the need to innovate and manage change in a way that continues to advance and develop the organization.

It's not uncommon to see these high-performing management teams identify an innovation officer or primary innovation-proposal point of contact.

This is a single position identified to review and refer ideas to the appropriate management team member, ensure they're vetted and processed appropriately and close the loop on the outcome with the member making the suggestion. Frequently these management teams adopt and strictly adhere to a problem-solving and change-management process.

5. High-performing management teams measure outcomes, are transparent, celebrate success and address deficiencies.
In today's fire service, you're inundated with data and outcome-driven services. Whether it's administrative key-performance indicators, realtime situation status displays, EMS outcomes, billing services, mobile integrated healthcare or a comprehensive community risk-reduction program, the era of outcomes is here.

High-performing management teams understand the importance and complexities of conducting business as a results/outcome-based organization. These teams tend to take a consistent approach to this large and robust system design with five key practices:

  • Identify what they should and can do and avoid the inch-deep, mile-wide syndrome. Very few agencies can do it all. (Break it down into bite-sized pieces that can be done well.)
  • Adopt performance and outcome standards that clearly define performance objectives, measurement methods and desired outcomes.
  • Create standardized, easy-to-understand reporting formats/situation-status displays that provide transparency and easy understanding of performance and compliance.
  • Identify gaps and provide a standardized approach to planning and improvement plans.
  • Celebrate and market successes and system improvements.

While there are countless management tools and perspectives that can be of great help to you and your organization, these are a few best practices that have been observed throughout the United States and Canada. This is in no way intended to be a definitive roadmap to a high-performing management team, but it can serve as a great starting point for your journey.

Lane Wintermute is a senior associate for Emergency Services Consulting International. First published in IAFC On Scene on July 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. 

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