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Split Personalities: What's Your Organization’s Culture?

Businessman David Ogilvy, often referred to as “the father of advertising,” once said, “You have to decide what ‘image’ you want for your brand. Image means personality. Products, like people, have personalities, and they can make or break them in the market place.”

For those in the fire service who have embraced the customer-service philosophy, it’s imperative to understand the brand you’re marketing. While it includes fire and EMS and the many offshoots of prevention, education and service delivery, success is dependent on understanding the collective personality of those delivering your product.

As the CEO, it’s important to recognize the traits that define your department internally. Some characteristics may be obvious: Is your workforce of an older or younger age group? Is it a diverse group of professionals who can relate to the community you serve? What type and level of education do your firefighters have?

Understand that personality helps to drive attitude and behavior. While there are many personality tests for individuals, it’s much more difficult to determine an organization’s personality.

According to Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, a department’s personality is its organizational culture, noting that culture consists of the assumptions, value, norms and tangible signs (artifacts) of organization members and their behaviors.

Organizational culture helps to keep employees motivated and loyal to the management of an organization, writes Kayla Lowe in The Importance of Culture in Organizations. She explains that if employees view themselves as part of their organization’s culture, they’re more eager to want to contribute to its success. They feel a greater sense of accomplishment for being a part of an organization they care about, and they work harder without needing to be coerced.

Managing culture—and the key to success—is the ability of the CEO and people at all levels of the organization to share the same understanding of the department’s personality. While it may be guided by policy, managing it is more difficult.

Also challenging is the ability to recognize changes in your organizational culture—some by external factors beyond your control. An example of this was when the Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (Mass.) Fire Department opened its third station, becoming a career department and eliminating its declining call force. From the early 1960s, most of the department’s career firefighters had been hired from the ranks of the call force. A small department located on Cape Cod, the difficulty in maintaining an active call force when call volume—primarily EMS—was increasing necessitated hiring additional firefighters.

Most of the new staff had not been on the call force, didn’t live locally and had no relationship with the community. At their hiring, they become a third of the career force, changing the dynamics (or the personality) of the department.

Before that time, the department was acquainted with the people it was hiring, but now the department had a number of strangers within its ranks.

While the change was positive, it took years for the administration and senior officers to recognize that the department’s personality had changed. There were new people with new ideas and different experiences. People with no previous ties to the department, its history or the community, this new group bonded together quickly. It was through the local bargaining unit that their ideas and vision first came to light. It isn’t only difficult to identify the need or the time for a cultural change; it may be hard to implement a change as well.

Understanding your department’s internal personality will help you better understand how its external personality is perceived. Bad attitudes, poor morale, sloppy attire: If you don’t recognize it, others quickly will.

Ask yourself: Do you have a realistic understanding of how your department is seen compared to other agencies? You’re in competition for recognition, tax dollars and support. How you view your department, your personnel, your successes, your needs may not be shared by those in the community.

Today, at all levels, perception is being based largely on transparency. Fire department websites include transparency in government sections with links to public documents that include salaries and benefits, annual reports and budgets, and minutes to public meetings. As Ross Valley (California) Fire Department says about transparent government on its website, “Our agency strives to provide constituents, members, and citizens information to help them fully understand our mission, administration, and operations.”

Transparency is one of the fire service’s new buzzwords; more importantly, it’s one of the first steps in successful marketing. The Dalai Lama said, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” That distrust will derail marketing efforts, programs, anything your organization is trying to accomplish. Transparency is as important externally as it is internally.

One aspect of your external personality concerns whether you’re seen as proactive. Are your doors open to the public through fire-prevention and education programs? In jurisdictions that lack emergency-management agencies, people often look to the fire department before, during and after a disaster; how you’ve helped prepare your community will go a long way towards credibility.

For those agencies that believe they can’t afford to offer programs, the simple reality today is that you can’t afford not to. The Department of Homeland Security, through FEMA and the USFA, provides both training opportunities and support materials to supplement fire-prevention and disaster-preparedness programs.

If your organization’s culture means it isn’t prepared to reach beyond the emergency call or to provide transparency, there should be no surprise when the department has no support externally.

The challenge is complicated when external factors (budget cuts, loss of staffing, lack of a contract) require our internal personality to continue to reach out, to go beyond the apparatus doors, to do more with less.

Success depends on the ability to blend those internal and external personalities. The challenge then comes in managing multiple personalities.

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