The American workforce is in the midst of a transition (some call it a crisis) as Baby Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—continue to retire at an unprecedented pace of 10,000 per day. Not only is the fire service not immune from this trend, but given the demographics, culture and traditions that exist, we may be at even greater risk.
Tomorrow’s fire service leaders will not only be handling the routine needs of their department and dealing with an ever-changing industry, but they’ll also have to figure out how to replace their departing officers and how to pass on their vast depths of knowledge, experience and wisdom across multiple levels of leadership before it’s lost to retirement.
That’s why we, the leaders whose careers are winding down, must prepare in advance to pass the torch. We have an entire generation of firefighters watching to see what happens next.
After more than 40 years of combined service, I recently retired as chief of the Frankfort (Illinois) Fire Protection District, and I’m proud to say the transition was successful beyond my expectations.
Now, there were formal processes for succession planning that we had implemented over the last few years, but successful succession planning actually begins the first day you or anyone else walks into a fire department. In my career, I was fortunate to have had great bosses. They didn’t micromanage. They taught, set expectations and let us run with things. And that’s what I tried to do when it was my turn to be the boss.
When you first take over as chief, you feel like you have to do everything yourself. But over time you realize that’s why you have people around you; people in the organization you know can be counted on because that’s the type of person you promoted into those positions.
At some point you realize that if you die today, the trucks will still roll out tomorrow. And although that’s a bittersweet realization, it means you’re doing your job.
Our succession plan wasn’t scripted. Over the years, however, leaders emerged from the training ground and leaders emerged when something particular was happening within the organization.
The way you recognize those emerging leaders is by really getting to know your people and sharing information with them from day one. You have to put a lot of time and effort into this objective, however.
Some want to ride fire trucks forever, and that’s great, but others want to be chief someday. Either way it’s your job to support their goal. Give them training, education, and opportunities and prepare them for success. That made perfect sense to me since that’s what others did for me. As the fire chief, we’re there to be their cheerleaders. When they’re trying to climb the ladder, it’s our job to keep it steady and be there to catch them if they fall.
After deciding to retire, one of the first things I did to begin the transition process was to turn over the budget. I was there in a supportive role, but I let my people take care of the budget. And they did a fantastic job. I knew it would work out, but when it actually happened, I had tears in my eyes because I had an epiphany. I realized the place had never actually been mine, and it was going to be just fine after I left. Then I realized that the goal of my career had been to leave the place better than I found it.
The people I associated myself with made me look good, and it was wonderful to be able to leave when I still liked everybody! I went back recently and saw where they painted some walls and moved the coffeemaker, and the station looked great; they had already started making their mark. By doing things the right way and investing in good people, it allowed me to make my mark and leave with my head held high.
With so many of us moving toward retirement, we owe it to the next generation of leaders, and to ourselves, to get the ball rolling in time before the torch is passed. Succession planning is not something you do as you’re walking out the door!
To sum things up, I served—both as a volunteer and full-time—with great people throughout the entire organization, so perhaps this made succession planning easier. From our cadets to our trustees, this was a fabulous bunch of caring men and women.
I was a member of several organizations that helped develop me as a leader and taught me to be a mentor, and one of these is the Volunteer & Combination Officers Section (VCOS), where I was surrounded by individuals who offered wisdom, leadership and friendship. And finally, my family—without them and their support none of this would have been possible.
I have been blessed in my career, but mine is not a unique story. All who choose a service career are given many opportunities to succeed: ask for help early in your career, mentor those who seek mentoring throughout your career and give people the opportunity to perform to their highest level, and you too will retire with feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and success.