Enhancing Fire-Rescue Human Capital: The Expanded Visual Scope of a Supervisor

Each time a person is promoted, they’re challenged. There are hundreds of books on leadership and promotion, but one key to understanding the experience is knowing that the visual scope of a nonsupervisory employee is much narrower than the scope of personnel at higher levels above them.

Recently, a group of fire lieutenants simulated the job of fire captain (the next rank up). The most noticeable part of the simulation was that current fire lieutenants didn’t realize that the scope from which they view the world is much narrower than the captain’s scope. Therefore, the simulation was challenging for them. The increasing range of vision that occurs throughout a person’s promotion track is somewhat daunting.

At the lowest level, employees see their world very narrowly. They will, correctly, worry that they perform their daily assignments accurately. They’ll worry that they get to work on time. They’ll worry that their contributions accomplish the goals that have been set.

When these employees are first promoted and supervise others, their span of influence and the degree to which their input has direct consequences expands rapidly. No longer can they view their task performance as right or wrong only. They must now assign tasks and evaluate other employees’ task performance. This is very challenging for two reasons.

First, new supervisors were recently coworkers (or equal) to those they now supervise. When they were coworkers and equals, a different relationship existed. It’s more of a helpful interaction—in some cases competitive—and often leads to close work relationships and even close friendships.

When these people are promoted, they must put the new job—to assign and evaluate—before of existing interpersonal relationships. This means that if subordinates don’t respond appropriately to assignments, the new supervisors must correct them. In the extreme, they may have to discipline or fire someone who was previously a coworker.

Adjusting to the new types of relationships is very difficult, but it’s only half the problem. The other half of the adjustment is learning to broaden the scope of vision. In other words, the work environment is no longer about one employee and his or her job performance. It now encompasses reporting employees and their job performance. It becomes more about how they contribute to the team, the organization and the customer. Further, management is viewing the new supervisor’s performance in light of subordinates’ performance. If they perform well, your performance will be enhanced.

New supervisors must broaden their perspectives, enlarging the magnification on their view of their company. Consequences of good or poor performance at lower levels have much to do with the single employee. Consequences of good or poor performance at higher levels have much more to do with how lower level employees are supervised and motivated. It also has much more to do with company performance and customer satisfaction, and promotion is usually the first time that supervisors and higher-level managers can see this.

In the fire example described earlier, the younger firefighters are close friends before promotion; they work together for 24 hours at a time and they depend on each other for their lives. Once promoted, however, they must ensure that their subordinate firefighters work safely, save community members and perform mundane tasks like arrive to work on time. It’s often difficult to be a friend when you’re responsible for another employee. It’s like being a parent—parents can’t always be friends to their children.

In addition, the job of supervising firefighters is drastically different than being a firefighter. Firefighters will take a hose line into a burning building; they see fire and smoke and feel heat in that role. As they’re promoted, they rarely go into that heat and smoke. Instead, they direct others to do so and rely on them to communicate back about their status and needs so they can be met in a timely manner. Supervisors must trust the others to carry out the tasks they used to complete themselves. That’s hard.

Next time you have an opportunity, ask a new supervisor what it’s like to be a supervisor. They’ll surely say it’s different and that they have new goals and requirements. Tell them in two phrases: it’s about relationships changing and it’s about broadening perspective.

Knowing in advance what you’ll face as you advance on the career ladder will help you decide if you’re ready to transition; if you are, you can adjust much more quickly.


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