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Executive Officer Leadership: Try a KISS Succession Plan

Go ahead and mumble to yourself: “Great, another article on succession planning.” That’s what I would do as I turned to the next page.

Why? Because the fire service has nearly drowned in succession-planning advice for several decades. I visited the National Emergency Training Center’s (NETC) online library and, other than “fire,” “smoke alarms” and “sprinklers,” I struggled to search for a term that turned up more results than “succession planning.”

Most of the succession plans I’ve ever seen included various intricacies and numerous steps. If your department is like mine, it’s too short on the time and resources to implement a complex plan, provide the training, conduct the coaching sessions and evaluate progress.

As you look around your office, you likely can already see a strategic plan, the city council’s strategic plan and one or more “studies” produced by various consulting firms. Many of these things are collecting dust for lack of resources, interest or will. As I skimmed through the NETC library results on succession planning, I noticed several Applied Research Projects by students whose departments have hired chiefs from outside since the ARPs were written. I take this as an indication that the plans didn’t work or, more likely, were never fully implemented.

My advice is to have a Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) succession plan. We’ve all heard the acronym KISS used for several versions of the phrase. In its original form, it was “keep it simple stupid” with no comma between “simple” and “stupid” as it is so often written today.

The principle, which is credited to Kelly Johnson, a Lockheed aircraft designer, was proliferated by the U.S. Navy in the 1960s. “Stupid” was not related to anyone’s intellectual prowess but, rather, implied the relationship between a problem and the tools available to fix it in what might be an unaccommodating environment. Johnson encouraged aircraft engineers to design planes that could be repaired by an average mechanic working under less-than-ideal conditions using a small number of basic tools.

For this article, I’m not talking about preparing firefighters to become fire engineers; I’m talking about preparing shift or platoon chief officers in a career municipal fire department to become senior chiefs or the fire chief.

My KISS succession plan has two parts:

  • To let those in the department who express an interest in becoming a senior officer know what I do.
  • To encourage everyone in the department to meet the eligibility requirements for one rank higher than where they think they want to retire.

The first can be as simple as including interested parties on calendar events (meetings). By the third week of each month, my calendar is 80% set for the following month. I just add, in my case, three battalion chiefs who are interested in learning what I do, to the next month’s meetings.

As a result, they get to experience the agenda reviews, budget-planning sessions, committee meetings and other intracity interactions that seem to consume most of my time. They quickly come to realize the fire department’s part in the whole municipal government machine.

One would be surprised at how many of a traditional succession plan’s boxes will be checked in a more practical and memorable way in a KISS succession plan. And, the more a battalion or division chief understands what the fire chief does, the better he or she can support the efforts and educate line personnel.

The second part of the plan is even easier, at least in my department, because promotional requirements are set out in policy. I coach all members to be prepared for the next promotion, even though they may think they’ll never be interested in it. Few things are worse than becoming burned out, frustrated or bored and realizing you are years away from being eligible for the next position because you don’t possess the necessary credentials.

It’s been said that you never know what a job really entails until you’re in the job, and I think that’s accurate. As the fire chief, making a conscious effort to expose those coming up behind you to what you do is a major step in minimizing the gap. Try this KISS succession plan; I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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