Expectations memos can be a handy tool in building high performing teams and productive employees. Unfortunately, like most tools in a supervisor’s toolbox, these memos can cause more harm than good. In this article, I will discuss the proper use of expectations memos and identify the things that you should avoid when incorporating expectations memos into your leadership approach.
Before going into details, it is wise to address this topic from the 30,000-foot level. Expectations memos are not the same as a job description. In the broadest sense, job descriptions speak to specific tasks associated with one particular position. The expectations memo is more about the “how” people operate in the workplace. This is not to say that some specifics will be included but, expectations memos should not spend too much time in the weeds. The most effective memos focus on the characteristics and attitudes that the author has deemed critical to mission success.
Not all supervisors use expectations memos, and you need to decide if this is a tool that fits your approach to leading firefighters. If you choose to go down this road, you must put the time and effort into creating an original document that speaks in your voice. Firefighters are very smart, and in short order, they will be able to tell if your memo is an original or a copy of someone else’s work. What you say must be mirrored in your actions. If you are just checking a box, the value of this tool will be lost.
The timing is very critical when sharing your expectations memo with a newly assigned member. You should try to execute as soon as possible, preferably the first day someone comes to your command. The goal is to ensure there is no confusion between supervisor and subordinate and to demonstrate that you will take a genuine interest in helping people in your command to be successful. When professionals know their limits and how they will be judged, they tend to perform at a higher level. It is a fair comparison to equate expectations memos with building a strong foundation for a house. Everything that happens in the future, in large part, is determined by the foundation that you lay.
As important as timing is, the tone and delivery of the memo need serious consideration. As retired Deputy Chief Chase Sargent says, save the desk for when you need to grab someone’s attention or rattle their cage. The idea behind an expectations memo is to build understanding and rapport, not ram something down someone’s throat. Remember, you are having a conversation with a professional, albeit they are a subordinate. The office setting can be less than optimal. The firehouse kitchen with the member sitting next to you might allow for a constructive exchange. You can discreetly ask the other people to avoid the kitchen, thus giving you the room where many people feel most comfortable. This meeting should be a positive experience, and human beings need to have some level of comfort if they are to view an interaction as positive.
As you climb in rank, remember you will be charged with supervising supervisors. At this point, your expectations need to change. Company officers will have expectations that are more task and mission-focused. Supervisors tend to be competent at the task level, so the expectations delivered to them should guide them in developing their style. Because of this, the expectations memos used with this group of employees tend to be much broader in scope. If you want to build an organization of decentralized command and decision making, and aggressive, mission-focused firefighting, do not tie the hands of your subordinate commanders.
As much as these memos should be original and in your own voice, they absolutely must align with the organization’s core values and cornerstone documents. You can’t have signs and posters all over your firehouses espousing lofty standards and then issue a written document that contradicts these qualities. If mission-first is a term the organization touts, don’t handcuff your people in their attempts to pursue the mission. If your organization values respect, then show respect, it’s that simple.
Crafting a practical expectations memo can be a very daunting task. It is easy to get lost when drafting your document. Focus on what you want a person to do and avoid making a laundry list of those things you don’t want them to do. Most behaviors that people should avoid are spelled out in policies and guidelines; if you have good policies, great, if not, fix the bad policies.
Reinforcing a good policy might be stated like “I expect you to maintain your situational awareness and to operate consistent with polices of XYZ Fire Department” instead of saying, “At no time should you engage in freelancing while operating at an emergency scene.” The first example is a professional building understanding and expectations with another professional. The second example is Mommy/Daddy warning their little children about disobeying their rules.
As with many other things we deal with in command positions, expectations memos should be “faceless” documents. Indeed, experiences are an essential part of what might go into your memo. You must also consider that your expectations memo is one of the tools you will use to build a culture within your workgroup and organization. You cannot develop a culture revolving around specific actions or specific people. Your memo will change somewhat over time, but a well-written memo will be, to an extent, timeless. The firefighters of the 1800s were just as concerned about saving lives and property as the firefighters of today.
The fire service is genuinely a people-centric business. The newest, most significant item is only useful in the hands of capable, driven professionals. Supervisors who provide clear expectations to those under their command are well on the way to building the force that can dominate in the most challenging of conditions.
Chief Dennis Reilly is a 43-year fire service veteran currently serving as the Assistant Chief/Operations Commander for the Davis California Fire Department. Dennis previously served as the Fire Chief in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, and as a Battalion Chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Chief Reilly holds an MPA from Penn State, is a CFO, and a combat veteran of the U.S. Army having been deployed to the first Gulf War.