This discussion will cover some of the things you will need to do and a few things you will need to avoid as a new officer. These are lessons learned by reading books and journals, listening to mentors, going to lectures and asking questions. Some of these tips were learned the hard way by falling flat on my face and getting back up and some are things I still struggle with.
Things to avoid:
George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change,” but as humans we are often resistant to change. You are now in the position someone else was in a short time ago and this is a change for the crew. Add the fact that you are managing folks who may or may not have been part of your peer group just a few days prior. Let the crew get to know you and your values, then slowly implement the changes you need to run things the way that works best for your shift. Don’t be afraid to make changes for the good of the crew, but be mindful that change equals stress, so go easy.
It can be tempting to keep doing all of the little things that got you to where you are. If you are at the company officer level it is important to show that you can still get your hands dirty but it is now your job to delegate the work to others. Give work assignments and let your troops show you how well they can do the job. It is now your job to step in, when needed, and give guidance, advice and leadership, but not to do every little job. The good news is, you probably have a proven track record. Motivate others by sharing your mojo for getting the job. If you are going to do all of the work, why do we need crews? Get into the habit of looking at the big picture and not managing every little detail of a job. Don’t “take back” assignments unfinished if they make one little mistake. Promote a “thinking ahead” and a “think for yourself” atmosphere and not a “mother may I” thought process. A true leader’s worth is measured on what his or her crew accomplishes and not what you accomplish on your own.
Realize that you are now standing on a slippery slope. Your old buddies and rivals are now under you in the department chain of command. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to be everyone’s buddy. You and your crew are here to do a job and they are looking for leadership, not friendship. If you are their buddy all the time, it will be difficult to correct them if they step out of line. This promotes either a laissez faire or a “Jekyll and Hyde” style of management. The laissez faire style can mean that you just let the shift run itself and what happens is what happens. The “Jekyll and Hyde” management style means that you are their buddy one minute and a tyrant the next.
It is also easy to make the mistake of being overly friendly with some crew members while ignoring others. Everyone must be treated fairly. You must also be careful about socializing with employees outside the workplace. There are a few theories on this, and entire books have been written on the subject. Proceed with caution; even your best intentions can alienate members of your shift. A shift outing that includes the member’s families or a group team building experience can be helpful but you must be careful not to exclude anyone. Your new position may cause a strain in some pre-promotion relationships but those who are your true friends will understand that you are now the officer and give you the respect not only the office demands, but more importantly, the respect you earn from being a good leader.
Ignoring the concepts of rewards and discipline
Don’t hide behind your new shiny badge. The well-known author and expert on leadership, Kenneth Blanchard, once wrote, “Help people reach their full potential. Catch them doing something right.” Be sure and tell them when you do. Motivate your achievers with positive feedback. Without feedback, your crews will not know if their work is up to par or if it needs improvement.
Don’t shy away from pointing out problems and providing negative feedback. Problems and negative feedback should be dealt with on a one on one basis. I have always heard the best practice is to, “praise in public and criticize in private.” Follow up negative feedback with training and improvement plans.
If you fail to praise good behavior it will go away. If you fail to correct the bad it does not go away, it just gets worse, usually much worse. This is one of those lessons I had to learn the hard way.
Things to do:
Set the example
As stated earlier, people are watching you. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it. If you want your crews to do the right things, prove it by setting the example. If you promote good customer service, operate in a safe manor, show respect, and strive to do the right things, so will your crews. If you follow these rules some times and ignore them other times, it will send mixed messages and you lose creditability. What you allow to happen on your watch is your standard.
Think before you speak
Know the effects of your words and communication skills. When you are in a position of leadership your crews are looking at a good deal of what you say as either affirmation or criticism even if it is not meant to be. Your words have a powerful effect on people, so be careful of what is said even in “idle chit chat.”
Express your expectations
Don’t assume folks know what you expect of them. “Just continue what you are doing the way you have,” is a cop out. Let your folks know your expectations. If everyone knows the rules to the game and knows how to keep score, they can use this knowledge to be part of a winning team. Hold a group meeting to let your crews get on the same page and find out what they expect of you. Follow up the meeting (or meetings) with one on one conversation with your members and occasional follow-ups to measure progress.
Admit when you don’t know something. Even the best in the business can’t know everything. Being a great leader comes from a lifetime of learning. The best response I have ever heard from a leader or mentor when asked a question they didn’t know the answer too was, “I don’t know, but we will find out together.”
Guys and girls in public safety are pretty smart and will call your hand.
Trust can be hard to come by. If you ruin it, you will probably never get it back. There are some things at the management levels you cannot share with the troops due to good taste, human resource laws and personnel policies. If you acknowledge and share this fact, people will understand and will respect you for your honesty, but never lie to your crews.
Along the same lines as being honest, when you make mistakes, and you will make mistakes, admit it. You will gain much more respect by admitting to and owning a mistake than trying to come up with an excuse. I have found that things work out better when I am open and up front about my mistakes. Most mistakes you will make as an officer are not easily hidden from your troops or your superiors, so just come clean with it, learn from it, ask for understanding and move on.
The job is ever changing and growing, as you should change and grow as well. Some of the best officers are often the first ones to admit they don’t know it all and are willing to learn new things. Continuing your education on best practices about the job is important due to the changing technologies and frequent changes in emergency medicine. Your education goals now need to include management skills, customer service and leadership skills. Think ahead to where you want to be and train to that level. We should also encourage our crews to train to be our replacements.
Take a deep breath, — “you’ve got this.” These tips will help those of you who are new officers as well as those who just made chief. Will following these tips make you the perfect leader? Probably not, but keep improving yourself. Use the things you have learned from leaders in your past, both good and bad. Keep looking for ways to improve your department and your shift. Most of all remember that being an officer is a position of servitude. You are serving your crews, your department and the public entrusted to our care.