Firefighters respond to unimaginable situations across the world every second. From heart attacks to rescuing window-washers off of 80 story buildings, firefighters know how to manage situations with precision, clarity, and team work to get the job done before the next 9-11 call is dispatched. The following management tips are derived through my life experience serving others from firefighter to Fortune 500.
#1 Know Your Crew
Every person has unique strengths and challenges. Standing 6'3'' tall, I was the guy you'd call to reach the top shelf on the rig, yet, I was not the guy you'd want to put in a tiny hole for an underground rescue. Every person on a fire engine knows how to do the job while some are better suited to quickly achieve the end goal in certain situations. In business, this is no different. You need to know your crew and who the right people are for the right situation while respecting everyone on the team for their collective strength to execute your mission.
#2 Shut Up and Listen
During a firefighter's probationary period, they are an at-will employee, meaning they can get fired before securing their dream job. It is during this time that firefighters are often told "shut up and listen." New managers have a lot to learn in their roles, one of the biggest are the landmines of internal politics. Work in general is not that tough once you form a solid foundation for growth. Learning who to say things to and how they are perceived can be a challenge. Spend more time listening than talking as you enter your management career to learn the ropes.
#3 Clean the Toilet
During my transition out of the fire service, I always joked in interviews that I have cleaned numerous toilets. While the public sees the heroism on display when it's game time, they don't see the pride in the small details like cleaning toilets back at the firehouse. One of my mentors taught me to place a folded paper towel over every bathroom faucet handle to display that they were cleaned for the incoming shift and to make those hotel edges on the toilet paper. Success is about cleaning the toilet. You have to do the work when no one is looking and when no one calls you a hero, because it's your internal pride that shows up strong like this everyday.
Rescue operations are noisy with radios blaring multiple tactical channels of muffled voices shouting through air masks trying to let others know what's going on. Out of every communication device, the most trusted by firefighters is the face-to-face. When something is critical inside your organization, do not ping your people or send an email. Take the time to organize a face-to-face meeting. It's better to delay a reactive response in order to respond with care, clarity, and concern for your team members. Schedule weekly meetings via Zoom where you can see each other and make sure any critical conversation is conducted face-to-face, because business is a human thing after-all, and electronic messages lack context which can consume more time trying to explain instead of getting the job done.
#5 Stay Fit
Peak performance in extreme situations requires the highest level of fitness, including mental wellness. Business is no different as people are stressed meeting deadlines, working on projects late at night, and always using the word busy when asked how they are doing. Make sure you take time out of your day to stay fit and encourage others to get moving with walking meetings outside. Your long-term health and the health of your employees is a key responsibility of management in order to have teams that can perform when adversity strikes. Use the down time to stay fit!
#6 Rest When You Can
Leaders come in different styles. The best company officers I worked for, knew that rest was needed in order for us to run over 15 calls in a 24 hour period. Countries outside of America take rest breaks during the day which allows employees the opportunity to recharge and stay healthy. Studies have shown that rest increases productivity and sleep reduces inflammation which is linked to disease. Promoting rest is good management. As a manager you oversee resources, and one of the resources you oversee is the energy on your team. If you burn people out, you'll have a hard time achieving your goals. If you're a type-A driver, remember that you have others on your team who have things taking energy away from them like kids, relationships, aging family members, etc. Rest-up when the alarm isn't going off so you're ready to give it your all! Purchase a nap pod or firehouse recliner and encourage your team members to give a 20 minute power nap a try!
#7 Exercise Span of Control
Have you wondered why fire departments have numerous chiefs at the scene of a fire? The span of control allows senior leaders to oversee communication, strategy, safety, and results. Depending on your business and functional area, you may need more supervision and resources than other areas of the company to ensure a quality output. While firefighters perform similar tasks, there are highly specialized rescue teams that function as elite squads while being supported by the larger group to execute the mission. In business, you need to evaluate how your resources are being used and if they are being used effectively with the right controls in place. When a task is too much, speak up and ask for more resources before you create a bigger fire!
#8 Tradition Will Kill You
When I began my career, we wore our turn-out pants inside the fire station even if they were fresh out of a fire. We didn't think about the cancerous residue for years because the smell of smoke meant you did your job that day. Every industry has its own tradition, some of which do not serve us well today. Some traditions are harmless and others may literally kill you. If you are doing things in business today and there is sufficient evidence to change course, you need to ask yourself a pride question of "why am I still upholding this belief and outdated tradition?" Tradition also has its impact on culture. When I began my career, we never talked about mental health despite seeing our friends suffer divorce after next, crazy bar night after another. The tough guy culture has hurt numerous heroes and their family members. Knowing when it's time for enough is a fundamental pillar of leadership. Speaking up may not win you friends or a promotion, and in sometimes, it may cost you a job; overall, it is the right thing to do because silence perpetuates dysfunctional traditions that need to evolve. Whether it's the firehouse or corporate America, take a moment to assess the merits of your traditions and if they're aligned with the legacy that is calling at you deep inside. Change isn't easy but it is required to create cultures that foster safety, equity, and expanded opportunity.
#9 Share a Meal Together
One of the first books I was given in the business world was "Never Eat Alone" by Keith Ferrazzi. A key difference between transactional behavior which is way too prevalent in the business world and that in the fire service, is that we eat together knowing it could be our last meal. When you share a meal together, take the time to learn about the other people across from you. If you look at the other human across from you wondering if this might be your last meal, I promise your conversation will not be the same as when you come in wondering what you can get from them. The truth about life is that we are all going to die, some sooner than others. Have meaningful conversations with people and share a meal to reinforce the human gift that is present when we get to do business with people who are different than us. You'll be surprised at the outcomes as you develop true partnerships that money can't buy.
#10 Develop Every Area of Yourself
As a young firefighter, I attended every training opportunity I could get my hands on to grow in my career. I took classes from FDNY legends and sought out mentors who hired me as a college instructor. Years later, I studied how to heal from trauma with the top experts from Dr. Bessel van der Kolk to Dr. Peter Levine attending their seminars. In business, I joined a public policy think-tank to learn from respected CEOs in major Bay Area companies. If you surround yourself with the best people, you will learn more about yourself and your full potential as they challenge you to new heights. Managers need to focus on learning about themselves in order to lead, facilitate, and actualize the human potential in each team member. While learning new skills is critical to saying relevant, learning about yourself is the key to becoming a talented manager.
After 10 years of service and thousands of 9-11 calls later, remember, managing people is about nurturing the human spirit as you guide them on a successful mission with the right support, tools, strategy, and resources. As you develop your management style and meet the needs of your business, don't forget to serve others on your journey to the top.