Promotional processes are perhaps one of the most stressful events in a firefighter’s life. Getting promoted is supposed to be hard—if it was easy, anyone could do it. But not everyone gets promoted.
In many instances, the decision on who gets promoted is driven by rule or collective bargaining agreements. In other instances, chiefs may have the option of selecting from a range of candidates without regard for “ranking.” For the sake of discussion, that is the circumstance you may find yourself in.
Getting into “the room” where the decision is going to be made likely requires checking some boxes, but if you are seeking a senior position of responsibility at the highest levels, it is important to remember that the initials after your name will not, by themselves, result in being selected. Don’t get me wrong – graduating from the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program, completing a master’s degree, and obtaining Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation through the Center for Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) are tremendously important because they get you in the room. Such achievements reflect your demonstrated ability to perform hard work and accomplish goals and represent an independent acknowledgment of having met rigorous standards of excellence. Yet, if that is the case, and the choice appears obvious, why would you not be selected for promotion?
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about this aspect of leadership is that leaders have a responsibility to form teams that have the highest likelihood of success, defined by their ability to work together to accomplish common goals. At its heart, the ability of a team to be characterized as “high performing” is predicated on relationships. Technical competency is crucial but solving adaptive problems, ones that have no easy answers and which may require convincing others of the need to change (something we do not do well in the fire service), demands far more than technical expertise. In today’s fire service lexicon, these are often referred to as “wicked problems.”
Diversity in the fire service is one such problem. Often this is presented as a technical problem: There are not enough [insert class of person here] in our organization and we need more, as if checking that box is going to “solve” the problem. It is absolutely possible to have an organization full of different looking people (physical attributes) whose beliefs and thought processes are identical or nearly identical. Is that a diverse organization? Isn’t diversity in thought a more crucial measure of leveraging the synergy of teams to produce creative solutions to complex problems? My point is not to enter a philosophical discussion about diversity; there is not enough space in this entire magazine to respectfully cover that subject. Rather, it is to illustrate the difference between technical and adaptive problems.
Promotional selections can also be wicked problems. Processes that demand a ranked order with rigid limitations are inherently limiting. At lower ranks, or in ranks that are operationally centric, an argument can certainly be made that competency is the single most important measure of qualification. In this case, competency is defined as the ability to solve technical problems with technical solutions—for example, placing a 2 ½-inch line in service on the fourth floor of a mid-rise. However, at higher ranks, such competency is assumed (a dangerous word, I admit).
When a chief seeks to surround himself with an executive team, he is looking for a myriad of skills predicated on the idea that the higher one moves in an organization, the more wicked the challenges become, demanding creative solutions. Such solutions are not readily apparent; if they were, they would have already been implemented. Instead, chiefs are looking for individuals who have a demonstrated ability to build relationships, not transactional agreements, with people. Relationships are in large part built on communication, predicated on spending time with others seeking to understand their personal and professional motivations in between asking them to accomplish tasks.
If you are in the process of competing for a promotion and you get passed over, don’t stop trying to get promoted—get better! Identify those areas in which you need to improve (i.e., building relationships to accomplish work through others), get a coach to mentor you, and position yourself for the next opportunity.
Among a highly qualified group of individuals, the chief may be seeking the one who is the best “fit,” choosing to select the person who may not be the most qualified on paper but who has demonstrated the ability to engender followership (the act of placing personal motivations below those of the organization). A highly motivated cohesive team of “B” players will outplay and outperform a loosely affiliated team of “A” players every time.
Matthew Tobia is an assistant chief with Loudoun County (VA) Fire and Rescue and is a 29-year veteran of emergency services. He has a bachelor's of science degree from the University of Maryland and is a graduate of the EFO program. Tobia is the former chair of the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section and is active with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and the Mid Atlantic Burn Camp for Children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.