Where Do You Want to Be?
This question is answered by looking at your short-term and long-term goals. Some folks aspire to be chief, deputy chief, company officer, training officer, or maybe you just want to work for a bigger department or service. Will the promotion you are considering help move you toward your long-term goal? Don’t let the promotion be the goal itself. The goal should be personal growth, not just a title change and maybe some money and some collar brass thrown in.
Remember also, that with life things change and so can our route of travel. Make preparations for an alternate route. Make sure your plans are flexible but still pointed in the right direction.
Where Are You Now and Are You Ready for the Journey?
To use any map successfully you must know where you are on the map. Unfortunately it’s not like the big map at the mall or the screen on your GPS with a big red arrow and or blinking dot showing “YOU ARE HERE.” To orient yourself with the career map you have to conduct a self-assessment. The first part is asking yourself why you want the promotion. Personal motivators will be different from person to person but the self-assessment will help you decide if you are ready for the trip once you factor in what it will take to get there.
Take the time to evaluate your skills and values and ask if they line up with the department’s needs by assessing the following:
Aptitude: Are you capable of doing the job you are applying for? Do you have the problem solving and resource management skills departments are looking for? If not, what will it take to get you there? (Education and training will be covered later in this discussion.)
Attitude: Our attitude is one of the only things in life we have control over. Is your attitude one of the problems or one of the solutions?
Initiative: Do you see things that need to be done and take care of it, or do you wait until someone tells you to do it? Are you taking classes aimed at growth? Do you volunteer for assignments or wait to be made to do it? Are you one of the folks that complain about every little thing, or the one who sees a problem and tries to come up with a feasible solution? It is not enough anymore to “just come in and do my job well.” That’s what you are expected to do to keep the job you have. Leaders look to the future, learning what it takes to move your department forward.
Desire: Are you willing to put in the work it takes to get to where you want to be?
Capacity for growth: Growth cannot be accomplished without change. Are you willing to make the necessary changes to be the leader the department needs you to be?
Knowledge of the Community: What do you know about the area you serve? Do you know the lay of the land and the unique problems of providing emergency services that your community presents? What challenges lie ahead for your community in the next 10 years? Your department will have to be ready to meet the future head on; your department is most likely looking for someone that can help prepare for what comes.
Knowing the Route (Education/Training)
Know what the job you are interviewing for requires. Most positions posted will list a certain amount of education and or a combination of years of service. In many areas labor laws or civil service help define the “route” that must be taken. Know these things even before applying.
You cannot start preparing for your promotion once the job is posted. Your preparation for the position you want starts your first day on the job as a rookie. Every shift you work is part of your interview for your next promotion. Every class you take, and exercise you participate in takes you closer to your goal. Remember entry-level classes and training get you entry-level jobs. Take classes in preparation for leadership and command roles. Seek out classes that expand your horizons and take you out of your comfort zone. A well-rounded resume is worth its weight in gold in a promotional process.
Never underestimate the importance of a formal education. The fact that you were able to complete a formal degree program shows that you can commit to a task until completion. The U.S. Fire Administration’s education model recommends a minimum of an Associate degree for first level company officers.
Knowing Your Method of Travel (The Interview/Promotion Process)
Every service or department has a process for hiring and promoting employees. Know your department’s procedure. There is usually a formal interview and some type of skill assessment. Many departments require a written promotional exam. Written exams for leadership levels can cover anything from knowledge about the entry level to ICS/NIMS and leadership. When interviewing for one of these positions, the skill evaluation and testing take on a whole new meaning from what you experienced at the entry level. The leaders in your department want you to demonstrate your problem solving, decision-making and critical thinking skills. A popular exercise is the “in-box” that you are expected to solve a number of problems while prioritizing them from most to least urgent. A mock employee counseling session, where you will need to handle a personnel problem is also common. A presentation or teaching session can also be used.
The oral interview usually consists of basic “get to know you” questions about your background and your thoughts and ideas on various topics. Answer each question honestly and never try to bluff the committee. You want to sell yourself, but not overdo it. The panel members have usually been around the profession awhile and can smell “crap” a mile away.
Dress for success. This one gets thrown out there enough you would think that folks would listen, but you would be surprised at the people who show up for an interview process in jeans and a polo shirt or t-shirt. If you are going to wear a uniform, wear your dress uniform that has been dry-cleaned and starched. If you are going to wear civilian clothes wear business like attire. Men should wear a tie (minimum) and ladies should wear a dress or dress slacks. Does this show the panel that you are a great leader? No, but it does show that you respect the interviewers, the position and interview process enough to take the time to look professional.
Put some work into your resume. Don’t just pull up the first resume you see online or template on your word processing software. Think about how you want it to look. A proper resume should be clean, professional, and contain only the facts. If you have put in the work, your resume doesn’t need any “fluff,” your work will speak for itself. Print it on nice paper or have it printed at your local print shop or office supply store. A nice touch is to add color copies of your job related certifications, citations, awards and your degree in a nice binder. This is a way of presenting yourself. How do you want to look to the interview panel? It is preferable to look like a well-prepared neat and well-packaged item than plain white paper off a printer thrown together with a staple.
The Road Ahead, How to Avoid “Wrong Turns”
Every journey has the potential for wrong turns. We can avoid some of these with proper planning. One way to avoid some of the pitfalls along the way to becoming a leader is to try to emulate a successful leader and/or officer that you respect. A good mentor can help you get on the right path and stay there. Your mentor can introduce you to more people who may have a positive effect on your career. There may be more than one leader you look up to. Take the best qualities from all of them and become the leader you would want to follow.
Try to avoid office politics and stay out of the department “grapevine.” Every department has cliques, but most of them are counterproductive to becoming a successful leader. Getting involved in petty politics may force you to “choose sides” in a battle that is not worth fighting. I am all for standing up for what you truly believe in, but sometimes you have to ask yourself, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” Do you really want to stake your career on who is talking trash about whom, or because “the other” shifts don’t like what brand of toilet paper logistics is buying?
Keep your nose clean. If you are on the chief or director’s radar for being a problem child, do you really think they want a potential shift full of problems?
Staying on the right road can be difficult; especially if you don’t get the job you are striving for on the first or second attempt. Some of the best fire/rescue or EMS officers I know did not get promoted on the first or even second try. Stay after it, keep applying and learn from each interview process. Keep doing the right things and keep studying. The fact that you applied and showed effort speaks volumes to the leadership in your organization. The most important thing you can do to give yourself a better chance next time is to continue to grow into a leader on your shift. Remember that not all leaders necessarily wear collar brass or have a title.
I am the first to admit that I do not have all of the answers. These tips and suggestions are a compilation of things that have been learned over the years from a few of my mentors, leadership classes, reading books and just plain experience. These few bits of information alone will not get you the job you want, but if you use a few of them to guide you, work hard, stay the course and treat people the way you want to be treated, you should be able to become the type of leader your crew, your shift and your department need.