Few things are more important than the sustained culture of an organization. You see, the culture determines if an organization is thriving or just surviving. The culture indicates if the members are committed or just content. A team cannot reach its full potential with an ailing culture. And equally as true, money does not fix the problems that result from a poorly managed culture.
Recently, we conducted interviews to fill seven newly approved Firefighter/Paramedic positions. In a department our size, this is a big deal because The Colony F.D. is located in one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Just about every fire department in the area was hiring. Bigger departments with nicer rigs, better pay, and more non-fire related calls were each hiring big numbers. Since we are surrounded by ISO Class 1 fire departments that have an array of attractions to lure new candidates, what were the odds that we could find seven candidates that met our standards?
As the process opened, the leadership team strategized on the best way to attract the ideal candidate and then stood by anxiously awaiting to see how T.C.F.D would fare amongst the competition. While all of the traditional employment tools were utilized, the membership took to social media with page invites to join the team. While basic, these posts portrayed the culture of T.C.F.D. As part of the hiring process, each candidate had to successfully complete two interviews to continue. In two days of interviewing the top eighteen applicants, the interview team began to notice a pattern in responses. When asked why do you want to work for The Colony Fire Department, the following answers were repeated:
- Daily training.
- The utilization of a truck/engine deployment model with pre-arrival assignments.
- Growth and the potential for advancement.
- Honoring the good traditions of the fire service.
- “ I like the way you do things”
Of the five most common responses to this question, all but one, are supported by the T.C.F.D. culture. The Colony Fire Department way. I am pleased to report that T.C.F.D. has offered in NFL draft fashion, conditional offers to seven outstanding Firefighter/Paramedics that represent the core values of The Colony Fire Department. In his book, ‘Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code’, Samuel Chand explains the importance of culture. “Culture – not vision or strategy – is the most powerful factor in any organization”, he writes, yet with all of the chief officer training programs out there, few offer training on effective culture management. T.C.F.D. recognizes the value of a healthy culture and the importance of managing it daily. With zero turnover, other than retirements in the last six years, 63 applicants for Firefighter/Paramedic, and 68 applicants for Battalion Chief, culture management seems to be paying off. Additionally, members are increasingly involved in special projects, mentoring, and new hire indoctrination. Each is the direct result of a chosen culture. The intention of this article is not to tell others what to do.
Because I am passionate about the fire service and surrounded by an amazing team, I feel an obligation to share successes as well as lessons learned. As part of this team, I am obligated to pass along anything that which may have value, if only for one person. So I offer up the following questions and observations for consideration.
- Are standards developed internally or externally? While meeting, external standards have value when it comes to liability and defending actions or the lack of. They equate to nothing more than another decal on the side of the apparatus to the rank and file. Firemen like results and they like to clearly see that their efforts have value. Internally developed standards incorporate, support, and can even help sell the chosen culture.
- Do you want to be good or look good? The guys on the rigs know the difference, trust me on this one.
- Does leadership place an emphasis on being safe or on being smart? An extremely safety culture causes conflict. While we should do everything in our power to manage the risks to firefighters, the act of fighting fire, vehicle extrication, and even some medical calls, are anything but safe. During interviews, we had several applicants state with conviction that they were not willing to take risks to save the lives of a stranger. Bringing these people into the organization negatively impacts the chosen culture. “The Colony Way “supports solving problems by being smart and managing risks. This approach can be packaged and communicated to the organization in a way that makes sense. Fire Rescue is an “all-in” proposition.
- What does your culture support regarding saving lives and taking risks? Are you a fire department that provides EMS, or an EMS department that goes to fires? I have concluded that if you have a great fire department, you will provide high-quality EMS. This has to do with the whole pride and ownership thing. I am not convinced we are setting our people up for success and survival if firefighting takes second chair to EMS. I understand the whole 80% of what we do thing but remember, medicine is a greatly studied science, and our protocols are established by MD’s. Factor in Gordon Graham’s ‘Risk/Frequency Model’ and the argument goes right out the window. We don’t have that luxury on the fire side. God help us if we have to rescue the person who called us to rescue them. The culture can only support one or the other.
- Which will attract the people you want to attract and retain, and set the organization up for success and survival? Is leadership more worried about how the rigs look, versus how they are equipped and set-up? Do they know the difference? I can tell the culture of a department within five minutes of looking at their rigs. Are the tools clean and free from rust? Do they project the image that the next call will be chasing an ambulance, or going to a career fire? Are they set up to go directly to work, or go to the store?
- Does the culture support daily training and constant learning? It’s simple…are members encouraged to be firemen, or are they allowed to be employees working at a job? Firemen want to train. Not because they have to, but because they realize that their success and survival depend on it.
- Are events turned into experiences? T.C. Fire is governed by a philosophy of doing the right thing, not by rules and regulations. Our philosophy supports letting firemen be firemen. Sensible, not reckless aggression. New members are welcomed and not harassed. Being the senior guy means something, and it’s earned and not granted. We respond to fires with the mind-set that it’s on fire until we say it’s not on fire, occupied until we say it’s not occupied, and the fire is not out until we say it’s out. And we wear our PPE…always.
As one of our Battalion Chiefs puts it, “give me a set of irons and a water can and let me go to work.” While not literal, this symbolizes the simple, committed and traditional spirit of being a firemen…a problem solver. As a fire service leader, you have two choices. You can choose a sustainable culture and thrive, or you can take the culture that develops by chance and make the best of it. It’s the difference between being good and being lucky. But most importantly, be honest. The next time a member resigns or the candidate pool is low, don’t be so quick to write it off as they are seeking higher pay or a bigger department, the usual rationalizations. Ask yourself, are you managing a culture that supports and retains the people that you want to belong to your family? Don’t neglect the culture, not even for one day.
I will be rolling out a leadership program on culture management called Coaching The Culture for those leaders interested in taking their organization to the next level. My hope is to fill a gap in the chief officer development process.
– J.S. Thompson