How to Build a Successful Organizational Culture for Fire Services

By Matthew Caward

Changing the culture of an organization is a monumental process.

First you need to build a strong leadership staff who are empowered to develop good policies and who understand the importance of organizational culture. The next step is to develop an easily definable and achievable mission, followed by a vision that encompasses the ideals of the organization – ideals that are bigger than yourself and the members that make up the organization you lead.

As a leader, you need everyone to be 100% effective in their specific role, including yourself.

As a leader, you need everyone to be 100% effective in their specific role, including yourself. (Photo/Getty Images)

To develop this culture within the organization, members must not only understand the mission and vision, but also buy into it. How can you get the whole organization to buy into the culture? Here are some key concepts that will help you.

Do your job, understand your role

As CEO, you need to focus on developing the vision and direction of the organization. It takes years of training, education and experience to develop a unique skill set that allows you to create such vital parts of your department. Well-crafted SMART strategic plans, goals and the objectives needed to achieve those plans take time – time and skills that few have.

Key to this process is recognizing that everyone has an important role to play within a team or organization. Each role is critical to the success of this team and ultimately the organization as a whole. Fire chiefs must build a culture in which everyone in the organization knows their specific role, and members are constantly reminded of the expectations of that role and how their role affects the entire organization. You cannot allow yourself or anyone in the organization to deviate from their role in the organization. Such extreme responsibility is one of the highest responsibilities, not only of the leader but of all leaders at all levels of the organization.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a leader who has enjoyed sustained success at the highest levels of the NFL. A die belichick’s secrets of success is rooted in the culture he has built within the organization. He calls it “The Patriot Way”, which, in simple terms, is “Do your job”. Belichick knows that everyone in the Patriots organization has a role to play, and that role is so important that only one person can do it. This role takes 100% of their effort. If even one person in the organization is not attacking their role with 100% effort, there is an opportunity for them to underperform. Each member must do their individual job with 100% focus and efficiency. This will allow the next member to do the same, which affects the next member and the next section and so on. Each position affects the other, positively or negatively.

The same can be said of the fire department. Each position within the organization affects the other. If the medic arrives late or does not operate at 100% skill level, it affects the entire team. If the Logistics Division does not get the requested supplies to the station, it will affect the doctor and their small team members. If the officer doesn’t order supplies on time, it will affect his small team and so on.

This effect is not cumulative; it’s exponential. The same is true when we are successful. This success is multiplied within the organization.

“Extreme Property”

In the words of retired Navy SEALs and bestselling authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

In their book “Extreme property”, Willink and Babin point out that the most important and critical factor in the success or failure of any organization is leadership. If there is a failure within the organization, that failure should be addressed at the management level where the failure occurred – and then moved up. A failure of your staff, at any level, is the direct result of a lack of leadership from their immediate supervisor.

Willink and Babin teach that the first principle of leadership is to “take ownership of your leadership role to the extreme”. If anyone is to blame, it’s the boss. In the end, you are the boss. You failed to hold the leader who was responsible for not taking ownership of the problem to the extreme. Therefore, when you encounter a problem, start with the immediate supervisor and not the employee. Allow that leader to take responsibility for the problem and treat his subordinate accordingly. Challenge this leader to find the solution for his team. Then deal with that supervisor’s supervisor. Also allow them to deal with their subordinate. Ultimately, this cycle will take you all the way to the top. Embrace this extreme level of ownership and you will allow everyone to focus on their work with the highest levels of responsibility and effort imaginable.

Business Leaders, Your Biggest Influencer

Company leaders are arguably one of your greatest assets. These little team leaders are your biggest influencers, especially when it comes to building organizational culture. These officers represent and direct most members of the organization. And these leaders and members have the most contact with our customers. Company leaders have far more opportunities and are in a far superior position to dictate the culture of the organization than anyone else, especially your executive staff. As such, spend the most time developing your company’s leaders.

Build a culture in which every leader believes in the power of accountability and extreme ownership. Do it by being the company leader’s strongest advocate. Set the tone and expectations for these agents to focus on their role within the organization and encourage them not to get out of their way. Let them know how critical they are to the culture of the organization and how important it is for them to support it. Additionally, these leaders need to have the tools to inspire their company to “buy in” as well, by fully understanding the mission, vision, policies, practices, and culture that your leadership staff has developed.

As a leader, you need everyone to be 100% effective in their specific role, including yourself. Set an example for your leader and your leaders. After all, a successful fire chief doesn’t measure his success by the number of followers he garners within the ranks of the organization, but rather by the number of positive leaders and influencers he helps develop. Don’t build followers, build leaders.

Leadership is a skill

Don’t buy into the cliché of a born leader. There are no born leaders. Every leader must be made. Leadership is a skill – complex at that. Like any other skill, it must be taught, practiced and constantly developed.

The cliché of the born leader comes from the simple fact that leadership can seem so much easier to some people. Don’t let that fool you though. Even the greatest leaders fail at leadership from time to time. The grown-ups, however, are unstoppable. The great ones understand that they are constantly developing. Even the most gifted and seasoned leaders will tell you that they are still developing their leadership skills after 20 or 30 years in their careers. They know they need to be taught, developed and constantly tested. It takes many years of practice, successes and failures to become good at leadership. While many are better than others at this skill, anyone can learn more and improve their leadership skills.

In summary

Build a culture of extreme ownership that emphasizes the importance of each member doing their specific job.

Recognize the business leader as the biggest influencer within your organization. This in no way diminishes the importance of executive leadership. However, your corporate officers directly influence and direct the greatest number of members. They are also the ones who will carry out your noble mission, your vision and your goals.

Take advantage of every opportunity to interact with your company’s leaders. Because these moments are so infrequent, they are far too precious to waste. Make those moments count in three ways:

  1. Remind company leaders of their importance within the organization as your biggest influencer and culture asset.
  2. Remind agents of the importance of culture, mission and vision.
  3. Listen to their responses. Make them feel like you’re really listening to them by interacting with them. This will ensure that they know how valuable they are to the culture and the organization.

Finally, understand that leadership is a complex skill – one that needs to be taught, trained, practiced and developed. You have not simply arrived at your position as “omniscient leader”. Someone has invested in you. Someone developed you. Someone trained you and ultimately someone believed in you and trusted you enough to offer you the position you are in now.

About the Author

Matthew Caward is a captain with the Bernalillo County Fire Department in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Caward is 18 years old with BCFD and 21 years in the fire department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire administration as well as a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theology. Caward is the first licensed fire officer in the state of New Mexico. He is also the founder of the professional football team Duke City Gladiators in Albuquerque. He can be reached by email.