Organizationally, we're as strong and successful as our company-level operations—in particular, our company officers. Company officers come almost exclusively from inside the organization, so identifying them early, training and preparing them for the role of company officer and coaching and supporting them as they learn, develop and hone their skills is critically important to our departments' current and future success.
Identify Candidates Early
There are a number of ways to select that next company officer or identify a current officer who's ready for the next promotion. Using any one or a combination of prerequisites, written tests, interviews, performance reviews, assessment centers and simple appointments—your department will fall into one of these methods. All of these have the potential to produce the best candidate, even if it's blind luck.
However, when the overriding focus of the search and selection process is identifying those with a passion for people—developing, supporting, training, coaching, mentoring—then we have one of the keys to success.
Begin with those who are serious about their personal safety and the ability to look out for the safety of their partners—it all starts at the company level and two is company. Start by looking for those who have good situational-awareness abilities and who continually size up their work areas, looking for opportunities and threats in the work area for both themselves and their crews.
They have generally productive ideas about what and how their tasks can be accomplished and communicate those ideas appropriately.
These behaviors should be the norm under emergency and nonemergency conditions, on the fireground and at the fire station.
Train and Prepare Your Candidates
Some of the best training we do is informal and often isn't even thought of as training. Some combination of modeling, mentoring and coaching affords us the opportunity to start developing company officer skills and abilities in firefighters before they step into that role.
A great place to start with this is to spend the next six months having conversations with people. But first ask yourself what you can do to avoid hearing the statement, "I didn't know that's what you wanted." Set the expectations for performance and behavior by your actions and reinforce them by conversation.
Wasn't it the first fire chief who said something about an ounce of prevention?
Coach Your Candidates
Quite possibly the single-most effective way to develop your future officers is through coaching! Developing your coaching skills and applying them to work and life on a daily basis will enhance your effectiveness as a leader tenfold.
Knowledge is power, but if you can't pass that knowledge on, along with encouraging the appropriate behaviors to use it, the knowledge leaves with you. Maybe one of the prerequisites of any promotional process should be "Have taught/prepared one or two others to do my current job."
Being irreplaceable is a negative trait—until someone is replaceable, why would you promote him or her?
Ensure you invest in folks with impeccable integrity over any other trait. That one seems to be genetic—if they don't have it now, they likely won't develop it. Ethics, honesty and work ethic are the next big three. Although they're naturally occurring elements, they vary in purity but can be refined.
"So, Coach (Boss, LT, Chief, etc.), what are we going do today?" You've heard that question enough to have developed a scripted response.
Throw out the script; make a playbook that includes answers to questions beginning with "what" and "how." Those questions should focus on planning, preparing, training, developing, improving and challenging us as well as our staffs to stretch and grow professionally and personally.
Then pay attention—when the same people step up with you to meet those challenges and come back the next day or shift to ask again, "So, Coach…," you've found your candidates for coaching and developing into your replacement.
Teach them to coach while you're at it!