The Dialog Continues: IAFC Members Weigh In on Succession Planning

The February 1 issue of IAFC On Scene focused on the topic of succession planning, a topic many in the fire and emergency service are thinking about as the aging of the baby boomers and the higher number of retirements driven by the economic environment creates an increasing concern about a potential leadership void.

Recently, an IAFC member posted a question on LinkedIn that sparked a discussion that illustrates both the complexity of the issue and some recommended practices:

Do you think that a succession and professional development program can coexist? Why should it or why can't it?

The responses reflected a resounding yes, that the two programs can and should not just coexist, but also complement each other.

“I think that both are essential in preparing our organizations for the future, said one respondent. “As fire service leaders, I think it is one of our professional responsibilities to make sure we are preparing the future leadership that might follow us.”

Much of the conversation echoed this sentiment, but also included some of the nuances of the issue, such as long-term leadership planning in contrast to a true succession plan that develops contingencies for a sudden or unexpected void at a the top—something that all organizations should also be prepared for.

A number of challenges were identified, but none that the respondents found insurmountable. In fact, many participants agreed that professional development programs provide a greater breadth of opportunity that enables sound succession planning to be increasingly effective.

Most notably, many remarked that the promotion process may be out of the hands of the chief due to civil service requirements, labor agreements or political appointments: “One of the challenges with the fire service is that we might not actually control who follows us—particularly in the chief's position.”

In these cases, a number of respondents pointed to professional development as an opportunity to create a wider pool of well-qualified candidates working their way through whatever system the locality uses. While a chief may not select the successor, he or she has a greater opportunity to ensure the person hired has the competencies required for a successful outcome.

“In many places, you’ll only have the opportunity to interview the top three scores on the civil-service promotional exam for captain. The chief hangs his head, shrugs his shoulders and sighs because his rock star scored #4,” said one post. “The key to put you in the winner’s seat and not the system is to prepare everyone. The odds will be better that you’ll be interviewing three rock stars. You win, the employees win and the community wins.”

It was also noted that giving a wide range of potential successors opportunities to prepare and prove themselves enables not just the officers—but others in the department—to contribute to the process. “Your department members already know who they think [potential successors] are, and the more opportunities to see people in professional development roles, the more it can refine the view of the potential successors for everyone.”

A few recommendations revealed from common themes in the discussion.

Historically, the fire service has done a poor job at developing its future leaders. It’s incumbent on fire chiefs to apply their leadership and planning skills to create needed change:

“We do a tremendous job in long-range planning for real property and vehicle replacement, but leave promotions to chance.”

Don’t create your plan in a vacuum:

“Getting stakeholders involved in the process from its inception empowers them and gives them a sense of ownership. Employee empowerment segues into employee buy in.”

Competency-based programs are critical and should include experiential learning, all of which can be a challenging process:

“Development programs, whether individual or organizational, help to ensure that people have the requisite competencies to take on a particular role if necessary. That means it’s incumbent on the organization to ensure that the needed competencies are identified for each position, the methods for achieving those competencies are described and the organization has the ability to test for those competencies.”

“The data is pretty clear that [fire service] competencies are gained about 70% through experience, 20% through other people and 10% through training. That means that we have to get our people the right kinds of experience to make that happen, and we often don't have enough time to do that.”

Leadership development and succession planning are hot topics in many industries. Look to available resources from inside and outside the fire service for help:

“I would encourage you to take a look at the IAFC's professional development manual or pick up a copy of The Leadership Machine by Lombardo and Eichinger.”

There are many different ways to achieve success, and often a mix of strategies offers the best results:

“[Identifying and preparing future leaders] can be achieved through formal and informal programs—from mentoring to shadowing to a formalized professional-development curriculum, promotional prerequisites and leadership/officer academies.”

Ann Davison, CAE, is the strategic information manager for the IAFC.

This article reflects postings of individual members that don’t necessarily reflect the position of the IAFC.

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