We live in one of the most highly developed periods in history. Advances in technology, finance and medicine have allowed societies worldwide to engage with each other and the environment in new, exciting ways.
One reason for such advancement is that the strong change agents leading such organizations as Apple, Google, Tesla and Amazon prepare their future leaders to take the reins by sharing their vision and experience.
Similarly, the fire service has advanced to meet an evolving mission due to societal challenges, expanded public expectations, fiscal restraints and workforce demographics. Although fire service leaders historically have done well in preparing new leaders, continued mission success requires taking a different approach: a systematic, comprehensive succession-management process.
Exodus in Numbers
It’s no secret that the fire service is undergoing a sea change in leadership. As seasoned veterans remove themselves physically from the service into retirement, they take their irreplaceable cumulative knowledge and experience with them.
Although most departments have some version of a leadership-development program for imparting job knowledge and skills, leaders’ passing down their cumulative institutional experience isn’t automatically captured in that framework.
One vital ingredient often missing is leaders’ direct involvement in their teams’ development.
The fire service performs quite effectively in recruiting and training new members for the operational demands of the job. Academies across the nation invest heavily in the training of new recruits who come to the table initially with college degrees and relevant work experience.
Once those cadets graduate, however, their departments often fail to provide the resources and processes necessary to develop them as future leaders.
Today’s leaders have a tremendous opportunity—and responsibility—to prepare tomorrow’s leaders by transferring their institutional knowledge and experience through active mentoring and coaching. A clear leadership pathway as defined in a formal succession plan could maximize the impact of these efforts.
In approaching leadership development in a more structured way, departing leaders foster the wisdom and problem-solving abilities of their successors. Organizations engaged in comprehensive leadership development also position themselves as better stewards of highly scrutinized public resources.
Show Us the Money
The tension between expanded public expectations of service and very real fiscal restraints make formal succession planning and management more important than ever.
Legitimate questions surrounding the spending of precious tax dollars are at the forefront of citizens’ thoughts as they take note of shrinking public finances; they want to know that their dollars are being spent in the most practical, effective ways.
Documenting the costs and demonstrating the value of preparing the next generation of leaders via a formal succession plan not only provides citizens with the information and transparency they demand, but also engages them as key stakeholders in the safety of their community and increases the likelihood that they’ll support the necessary funding.
For any organization, implementing a succession-planning and -management process is challenging; it may even seem overwhelming. The starting point is simply to begin with some key steps.
The “Success” in Succession
Step 1: Invite people to step up – Most agencies have a good sense of themselves—their mission, vision and values—and why they exist. They also know who among their people are aspiring leaders. What they may overlook is the value of senior leaders’ openly stating that they seek team members who want to lead and in whom they’re willing to invest.
Although this sentiment may be implied in training programs, overtly expressing the desire for and support of emerging leaders can ignite motivation in a fresh way. Purposefully tackling the deficit between the senior-leader exodus and the lack of prepared replacements by identifying strong candidates and providing them opportunities to develop the necessary skills better engages them in the process of their own development.
Step 2: Remove barriers – A lack of willing candidates, the impending retirement of seasoned leaders, recruitment/retention problems and budget deficits are a few perennial vulnerabilities. What barriers to success exist in your agency?
Identifying these issues and inviting your team to problem-solve each one is also a key way to foster leadership desire. While this approach doesn’t guarantee that people will step up, it helps those who do emerge when given the opportunity to prove themselves in tangible, departmentally beneficial ways.
Step 3: Educate and engage your decision-makers – Because your agency relies on others to provide the resources it needs to operate, educating your stakeholders and engaging them in your succession-planning process is critical to your success. Multiple perspectives don’t just enable a well-rounded approach; they also create a vested interest in the success of the process.
Your stakeholders and decision-makers include those people your department leaders work with and relate to, from the labor union, HR, finance and information systems to the CAO, city council members, county supervisors and nonprofits. Imagine if all of them possess a vested interest in your mission’s success! Their understanding of and contributions to crafting a plan are invaluable, so it’s best not to exclude, overlook or ignore them.
Err on the side of inclusion. They must see your success as an emergency-service agency as their own success.
Risk versus Gain
In many respects, undertaking succession planning and management is uncharted territory for the public sector. Few departments have a comprehensive succession-management plan. Why is this type of plan needed? There are risks associated with not having one, many of which may be intuited from the information above.
Perhaps most obvious is the loss of institutional knowledge and memory. As important as formal training and education courses are, nothing can substitute for passing down the intrinsic “how-to” and “why” that veterans carry with them.
To allow them to leave the organization untapped is to discard decades of irreplaceable information and expertise. Given the leadership gap, time is of the essence in filling the new leadership bench. Transferring such knowledge, therefore, isn’t optional.
Another problem associated with poor knowledge transfer is that new leaders may advance without being fully prepared to meet the service and organizational challenges they’ll face.
Even though they complete all training requirements and do well in promotional examinations, the responsibility of leading requires more than what traditionally is captured through these mechanisms.
Embedding a good training program into a comprehensive succession plan is a necessary but not sufficient mechanism to prepare your leaders for their roles.
Longer-term risks associated with the absence of succession planning and management may manifest as low team morale, stalled initiatives and programs, and a lack of a clear sense of organizational direction. People may begin asking why they’re doing what they’re doing, questions a thin or underprepared leadership bench can’t answer.
The “why” behind the mission isn’t easily internalized and passed down unless it’s constantly shared with everyone in the organization. Succession planning aids this process by inculcating and reinforcing mission, vision and values into everyone.
Those who aspire to lead take a direct role in crafting, communicating and modeling these important organizational tenets. Without them, mission creep rears its ugly head and the team may begin drifting, putting their own safety and that of the community at risk.
The worst-case scenario (and the rarest) is that stagnant leadership succession manifests in mission disruption or failure. If upcoming leaders aren’t equipped with the vision and skills to plan for, guide and budget for present and future service, then too much is left to chance.
No organization can thrive if it’s set on cruise control or if its leaders think everything will simply work out. This scenario undoubtedly will lead to a loss of community support, without which leaders’ hands ultimately are tied.
Succession planning and management is a complex and daunting process. However, implementing it will guide the professional development of all team members and prepare them for leadership and other roles. As a result, the organization realizes its vision, fulfills its mission and lives from its values with greater efficacy.
Commitment to the process further demonstrates good stewardship of public resources, builds trust and collegiality throughout the agency and, most importantly, ensures meaningful community service is provided into the future.
What will you do today to ensure your people can lead behind you?