The Building Blocks of a Winning Team

As America’s fire service witnesses the retirements of the baby boomers, it is critical that leadership continues to build solid winning teams. It is important that we drill into the heart of what it takes to create a winning team in an evolving fire service. The foundation of the future modern fire service will be based on the creation and communication of a vision and setting goals that focus on the many new talents of the younger members of this great profession and utilizing their diverse knowledge, skills and abilities.


The purpose of this article is to share a very adaptable model for achieving a high-performance culture, which is critical for a winning team. So how do we build this high-performance culture and the winning team? What is a high-performance culture? It is a mind-set with accompanying and reinforced habits, routines, practices, principles and values.

The process is built around four critical components:

  1. A Collaborative Environment
  2. Accountability at all levels
  3. Focus
  4. Robust Processes

Collaborative Environment

Yes, we have to work together, get along and maximize the predicated knowledge, skills and abilities of each team member. Collaborative environments are not easily created. It takes time to create the team or organizational environment where the belief of collaboration is required in every application. This means that team members embrace and truly believe that the atmosphere exists that their input and points of view are welcomed and embraced with value. This environment creates in individual team members a feeling of obligation to participate on a consistent level both fully and candidly. This is not the fire service culture of the past but is critical for the future.

A collaborative environment both facilitates and is facilitated by other key components of a high–performance culture of a winning team. It is critical that in developing a winning team the organization must focus on the systematic development of collaboration through developing a common vision for the future. It is common that when this process is started even dysfunctional groups discover how much they have in common when they truly communicate.

In this environment, it is important to recognize that there are a lot of variables that are often unknown like previous history, legal aspects, due process, procurement rules, etc.

The development of the collaborative environment is the most critical component in the building blocks of a high-performance culture and a winning team. It is not an easy process but can be accomplished when the group members overcome the challenges of collaborating which are lack of skills in collaboration, lack of true communication and a mono-vision on how to accomplish a task, and finding several different ways to accomplish the common vision.

Culture of Accountability

I am sure you have often heard that individuals in organizations talk about the lack of accountability and that there needs to be accountability. This is common and most people will speak it but when true accountability shows up it is usually a major shock to the culture. Everyone wants accountability until they are the one being held accountable. High performance teams and organizations empower employees to take ownership, they foster accountability and they have a high level of trust between all levels of the organization. Furthermore, there’s a strong link between these three values and characteristics of high performance.

Organizational ownership is about taking initiative and doing the right thing for the organization. It’s about taking responsibility for results, even when they are not successful ones and not assuming it’s not someone else’s responsibility or placing blame on others within the group or organization.

At minimum, taking ownership means that if you recognize something is imperative to achieving results, that you take the initiative to bring it to the attention of the right people. If ownership is about taking initiative, accountability is about follow through and getting done what you said you’d get done. It’s recognizing that other team members are dependent on the results of your efforts, the quality of your work and truly not wanting to let them or the organization down. It’s about good, open, proactive communication to keep the organization and team members informed on the status of your commitments because you respect that the results of your work have a direct impact on their ability to make their own commitments. It is about taking ownership in the failures and passing the glory and accolades to the team. Ultimately, when team members consistently demonstrate ownership and accountability, trust is formed.

A culture of accountability is a team/organizational culture characterized by three consistent beliefs and practices:

  1. Organizational expectations of personal performance and behavior are clear and concise.
  2. Exceptional performance is recognized, reinforced and appropriately rewarded by both individuals for their team, colleagues, by team leaders and by the organization itself.
  3. Performance problems, including failure to meet one’s commitments, or meeting expectations of the organization are addressed quickly, fairly and consistently based on the rules not the individual.

This all sounds great until it is you who is on the receiving or delivery end as most people do not like confrontation. In many organizations striving to reach “High Performance” accountability is where the failure will begin, as individuals do not live up to the expectations and leaders or peers do not hold or want to hold them accountable due to confrontation of the situation. For your team to be high-performance everyone is accountable to holding accountability true.


We all want to accomplish so much as organizations and individuals that we often lose focus of the prize through the process of getting there. Focus is the ability to limit our goals to those few that allow us to concentrate our limited resources in order to not only establish clear priorities but also to have significant accomplishments.

If there are too many priorities then there are no real priorities. This is a common mistake that organizations make as they bite off far more than they can accomplish, which results in nothing being accomplished at a high level, confusion and distress of the team members. John Maxwell, in his 1999 publication, “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader,” describes this with “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” Think about that — simply put, focusing on more than one goal at a time will result in failure frequently. The obstacle to achieving focus is the human tendency to want to do or accomplish too many things. The ability to focus on one great goal is better than two or more mediocre goals.

Robust Processes

Robust Processes are extraordinarily effective and efficient ways of getting things done. In the emergency services world, we put a specific emphasis on effectively delivering services of the most critical importance to our customers both internal and external. These robust processes are the heart of execution but can only be achieved with the support of the other three previous components.

One of the primary characteristics of a high-performance organization is that its key processes are well-developed, strategically developed, mission oriented and robust focusing on the vision. These processes include those that are part of the infrastructure such as personnel development, infrastructure development/enhancement, change management and problem management. These processes could also include business continuity, quality assurance, quality improvement programs and organizational focus.

Robust processes have a direct tie-in to customer — both internal and external — satisfaction in the following manner:

  • We can satisfy our customers by meeting or exceeding their reasonable expectations.
  • To do this, we need to deliver quality services consistently.
  • The quality and consistency of our services are a direct result of the robustness of our processes.
  • Ability to execute what it takes to get the goals accomplished.


Being able to execute these four critical functions of a high-performance team will create an organization of excellence. The organization of excellence will become well-integrated, high-performing, never losing sight of their mission, vision and goals are largely self-sustaining. High performance organizations will take on a life of their own. Bottom line it all comes down to leadership at every level, every position and every individual in the organization.

Douglas Cline is Chief of the Training and Professional Development Division with Horry County Fire Rescue. He is the Executive Editor for The Fire Officer and Executive Director for the Command Institute in Washington D.C. A 36 year fire and emergency services veteran as well as a well-known international speaker, Cline is a highly published author of articles, blogs and textbooks for both fire and EMS. As a chief officer, Cline is a distinguished authority of officer development and has traveled internationally delivering distinguished programs on leadership and officer development. He also has a diverse line of training videos on leadership, rapid intervention team training, vehicle fires, hose line management, and emergency vehicle operations and fire ground safety and survival.

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