Shift in perspective: From churning out tasks to developing quality members

Why supervisors should consider replacing a micromanagement-focused structure to one based in helping members thrive


“Do everything.”

That was some career advice given to me when I first joined the department. The highly motivated, committed and involved members of the fire department were the successful ones. These were the team members who used their second job skill sets and reinvested into the department. The carpenters, the painters, and the appliance fixers. The ones who routinely volunteered to take on additional department duties and responsibilities, often without compensation. The men and women who joined every specialty team and committee in order to be an important cog in the department’s machine.

Become valuable, be adaptable, be successful, do everything.

As a supervisor, dealing with organizational change because of generational leadership characteristics can be a stressful process. However, you can stay on target by doing what works.
As a supervisor, dealing with organizational change because of generational leadership characteristics can be a stressful process. However, you can stay on target by doing what works. (Photo/Pat Travers)

Go-go-go: Surviving in an ultra-competitive environment

As an older millennial in the fire service, I found myself easily accepting and appreciating the inherent routine of the working-hard-to-stay-busy days around the firehouse. I heeded the “do everything” pointer that was imparted on me almost nearly as fast as the daily chores list. Most of the officers embodied this mindset, too.

This was the accepted generational norm that existed throughout the members of department. They quantified being busy and the number of tasks completed as a successful day. They approached the daily grind as a competitive and measurable process among one another.   

The problem: Too often, this approach contributed to a micromanaging and box-checking leadership philosophy. A pressure-to-perform culture was immediately infused into the new firefighters. The more you did, or appeared to do, added to the magical formula needed to garner a good reputation and achieve a great merit score on your yearly evaluation.

We were all moving as fast as we possibly could. We were led by the old-generation officers, who had either comfortably conformed to the established system or were pressured to do so. At the end of the day, it seemed we were just chasing our tails in order to have something to enter into our monthly reports to the powers-that-be.

This pressure to perform had also spilled into our promotional process. Very rarely would you see an individual holding the rank of firefighter after 10 years. It felt rushed and ultra-competitive. The promotions were viewed as career benchmarks for everyone during this time. For those who did not actively participate to fulfill the department’s requirements, well, they weren’t the ones who had bought into the system. These members were perceived as not involved and lacking work ethic.

This mindset contributed to some significant leadership weaknesses, as advancing members were not necessarily promoted solely based upon their ability. Instead, they were often skipping through the ranks because of their capacity to successfully contribute back to the organization and endure the fast pace, objective completing, generational culture. “Doing everything” had built their status into nothing more than a fake leadership façade.

Finding a different approach: What are you good at?

I admit, I flourished in this system. I stayed one step ahead of my supervisor and kept them over-informed. This seemed to be one of the best ways to function in a micromanagement-focused and centralized command system. I quickly joined committees, specialty teams, and took on new projects to the pleasure of my officers.

This was the generational leadership paradigm of my early years as a career firefighter. I found myself perpetuating the cycle and repeating the advice to the members joining after me. “Do everything.” That was, until one day when I asked myself, “What am I good at?”

I found myself without a real answer. The existing system had produced quantity, but I significantly lacked quality. Maybe I, too, had only built up a leadership façade.

Now a new company officer within the organization, I began to realize and acknowledge weaknesses. Personally and professionally, I had a few. The organizational pace had pushed me into being marginal at almost everything I did.

I stepped back to look at the members of the company whom I had the responsibility of leading. I decided to slow down, re-engage, re-learn and focus on company training. An emphasis was placed on conversations and immediate feedback among my teammates. I also supported recognition and valued relationships with my coworkers. I wanted to be more than a micromanaging pace-keeper simply asking my subordinates if they got their tasks done.

Very soon, I found myself implementing some new supervisor-to-subordinate changes in order to increase the quality:

  • Every month, I met with my crewmembers to review their accomplishments and overall progress. These often turned into coaching sessions, which led to submitting information for their monthly reports together. It provided an avenue for routine conversation, and helped increase trust and mutual understanding. This also kept the firefighter informed and engaged.
  • Technical competence in fire apparatus became an absolute necessity among our entire crew. I’d schedule additional training to increase our skill levels, and coordinate coverage from other fire companies in order to ensure that we could complete evolutions with minimal interruptions. I’d also solicit feedback from members in regards on how or where to improve our training processes. We would contact industry experts to ensure that we were learning the correct way to operate equipment. This eventually transformed into a department-wide technician-level training packet on all fire department apparatus.
  • Operational expectations and basic fire ground communications became a standard. An assignment board was created in order for everyone to understand each other’s role and responsibilities on specific incident scenes. This increased accountability and provided an easy black-and-white reference poster for members who were moved in for the shift. This was probably some of the best money I had ever spent as an officer, as it had an immediate impact among the entire crew.

Some of the simplest things go a long way. I found personal growth and increased job learning for me as well. After about a year, I started to see improvement in the areas of investment. My subordinates and I started to become good teammates, with improved communication and a commitment to learning the operational basics. These initiatives required constant effort on my part, but the dividends were priceless.    

Organizational change and trust

These personal changes were not a universal or accepted standard throughout the other officers within my organization. But as time passed, more millennials started to occupy company-level leadership positions within the department. They began to infuse some of the established generational characteristics – collaboration, increased feedback and relationship-focus – into our existing micromanagement-focused system.

A passion for learning and a subtle challenge to the hierarchical status quo developed. An importance was placed on the tasks themselves, rather than the time it took to complete them, and we began to produce more quality firefighters. Well-trained members were now coached to take on extra assignments only if they were truly interested.

Change is a long process, but over time, the organization began to shift from a centralized, micromanagement-focused culture to one of a decentralized structure based in trusting relationship throughout ranks. Empowerment coincided with this trust. An organizational commitment to allow junior officers to make decisions became an expectation. To me, and several other of my colleagues, work started to become more exciting and rewarding.

Bring everyone with you

You can never underestimate the culture of an organization. It is typically influenced by its leaders or most impactful members. As a supervisor, dealing with organizational change because of generational leadership characteristics can be a stressful process. However, you can stay on target by doing what works.

Focus on the organization’s mission. Use this as your leadership platform and motivation when dealing with any member. Simply put, members should believe in what the department is trying to achieve. Don’t be afraid to sell the “why” to your members. If you are in the process of change, support it. Create a positive environment for your team and demonstrate that you care about their well-being.

Finally, understand that differences will exist among the members of your department. Supervision is 100% people-oriented. Possess some emotional intelligence, and deal with people on a case-by-case basis. Although it would be nice to have an established one-size-fits-all mentality or operational expectation, it inevitably leaves people behind. It is your job to bring everyone with you on the journey.

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