How to create a local leadership program geared toward public safety professionals

A new leadership program in Georgia offers a model for fostering career development


Finding new ways to bring out the best in others through leadership development is one of the aspects that I enjoy most in my role as deputy fire chief and deputy emergency management agency (EMA) director. I was therefore incredibly honored for the opportunity to grow my skills in this area.

In 2017, I was selected to participate in Leadership Cobb, a program offered through the Cobb Chamber of Commerce in Marietta, Georgia. The eight-month program is designed to enhance personal and professional growth while participants gain awareness of current issues, community resources, and the social, political and economic needs of the community.

The networking opportunities and leadership resources presented in Leadership Cobb were a breath of fresh air, and I saw an opportunity to extend those same resources to our industry. I knew that our frontline supervisors could benefit from seeing how top-performing CEOs and community leaders inspire others and move their organizations forward in an ever-changing business climate.

With the help of Dan Stotz, assistant dean of strategic partnerships at Kennesaw State University’s College of Professional Education, the United Leadership Program officially launched in August 2019 with its first cohort of 24 fire service professionals.
With the help of Dan Stotz, assistant dean of strategic partnerships at Kennesaw State University’s College of Professional Education, the United Leadership Program officially launched in August 2019 with its first cohort of 24 fire service professionals. (Photo/Kennesaw State University)

DEVELOPING A FIRE SERVICE-FOCUSED PROGRAM

I reached out to Andrew Cox, the chief of staff and vice president of leadership development at WellStar Health System, and we met for lunch to discuss how the program could work. We envisioned a unique leadership program that would unite all fire service agencies in Cobb County around three common training goals:

  1. Develop meaningful relationships;
  2. Build leaders who can adapt to changing priorities and situations; and
  3. Learn and implement leadership techniques that are successful across industries.

The result of that vision and planning is the United Leadership Program, an eight-month training program designed for fire service professionals who are committed to career advancement and enhancing the fire-EMS service through their leadership. With the help of Dan Stotz, assistant dean of strategic partnerships at Kennesaw State University’s College of Professional Education, the program officially launched in August 2019 with its first cohort of 24 fire service professionals. 

Going beyond a traditional classroom experience, the program involves travelling to organizations located throughout the Atlanta-metro area, such as WellStar, Truist and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, for monthly training sessions. On-stie learning gives our participants the opportunity to speak directly with leaders of these organizations and see them in action. The leadership curriculum teaches skills that every person needs to master on the journey to becoming a highly respected leader. Building relationships, setting goals, thinking creatively and other soft skills are addressed during the program.

HOW TO CREATE AND RUN A SIMILAR PROGRAM

As I reflect on the success we’ve had with the United Leadership Program, our two graduating cohorts, and the industry professionals in our community who have made this program possible, I’d like to share the partnerships and processes that helped us create meaningful learning experiences. I hope that fire departments across the country can use our model to implement their own leadership programs that enhance community relationships and increase public safety. Following are a few of the steps I recommend for creating and sustaining a vibrant leadership program.

  • Partner with a local college or university

Leadership development is essential in today’s changing workforce. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need new strategies to address safety standards, talent recruitment and how public safety professionals interact with their communities.

Colleges and universities are at the forefront of learning technologies and offer certificate training courses through their professional education departments. They can assist you with creating a workshop, a training session or even an entire leadership course. Working with a college or university also lends credibility and name recognition to your program, making it more exciting to market and highly appealing to your employees.

  • Align with your local Chamber of Commerce

Some people may know the names of their community leaders and CEOs of local corporations, but they rarely have an opportunity to meet them. Inviting these influential leaders to share their experiences and insight with your program participants will help ensure that your leadership program has a lasting impact. Your local chamber of commerce can connect you with business leaders in your community and may even have a program that can provide inspiration and a framework you can build on.

  • Connect with local public safety departments

While our roles in the community may look different, professionals across the public safety spectrum often face the same challenges. This leadership model can be effective in all areas of public safety. When designing the curriculum, partner with local departments or even those in neighboring communities.

Not only will this strengthen relationships, but it will also have less impact on the budget of any one department. For example, the United Leadership Program is a partnership between four local fire departments: Austell, Cobb, Marietta and Smyrna.

Focus on soft skills

As public service professionals, we have a unique opportunity to connect with people. To build meaningful relationships that begin in our departments and extend to our communities, we need to find creative ways to meet people where they are and establish trust over time. Focusing on soft skills training – communication, problem-solving, adaptability, conflict management, decision-making, resourcefulness and other similar areas – helps frontline supervisors bring the best out in people and help them become community advocates. 

  • Invite high-potential performers to participate

Participation in your leadership program should be seen as an honor and a recognition of the contributions made by dedicated professionals. By extending an invitation to your high-potential, solid performers, you are actively recognizing their capabilities. That invitation is akin to you saying, “We recognize the value you bring and want to invest in you by honing your leadership skills, which will take our department into the future.”

As the program progresses, share updates, photos and relevant takeaways with other employees in the department to build excitement for the next class of program participants. 

VALIDATE LEARNING AND COMMITMENT

When the program draws to a close, hold a graduation ceremony and present each participant with a credential that can be documented on a resume and displayed in a prominent place in the department.

This is where our partnership with Kennesaw State University really comes in. Each graduating participant of the United Leadership Program receives a certificate from the College of Graduate and Professional Education, which carries a lot of professional weight in our community.

AIMING FOR EXCELLENCE

At first read, designing a program, creating buy-in, and successfully executing this program may feel daunting. That is because it is a big commitment! Nevertheless, I can say without question that if you are aiming for leadership excellence throughout your department, it is worth the effort. The cross-pollination of industry best practices from leaders all aiming for excellence will add a value unique to any traditional leadership training.   

Note: Would you like to learn more about creating your own unique leadership development program? Please feel free to reach out to me at bmarcos@smyrnaga.gov.

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