Do You Know Your Job? The Dangers of "That's Good Enough"
I opened the rear compartment of the truck and grabbed a 24 foot ground ladder. I quickly threw it up into a high shoulder position, and carried it over to the building. Without hesitation I spiked the butt of the ladder into the concrete ground, and up it went--smooth and fast. My captain happened to be watching the drill, and after throwing the ladder I glanced over at him expecting to hear a "nice job!". But what came out of his mouth sounded something closer to "Hey lieutenant, your ladder is upside down". Crap, it sure was.
I know my job. I know the details of that ladder. I know it has a working rating of 750lbs at 75 degrees, 75 lbs carrying weight, and a bed section of 14' in length. I can ramble off a list of other facts about this and our other ladders because knowing the details of your equipment is a symptom of having pride in this job. I hadn't forgotten any of this on that day. I've thrown that ladder hundreds of times and could list a dozen different ways to throw it. But none of that mattered. When the opportunity came, I didn't perform my job. So let me ask you...
Do you know your job?
Sounds like a simple question. What I'm really asking is- "How long has it been since you proved you know your job?" Has it been a few days, weeks, or months since you last pulled that handline? When's the last time you performed SCBA familiarization, or Mayday drills? The fire service is fortunate that its passionate members have embraced technology. On mediums like Facebook, we can see guys from all over the world offering tips and tricks, having discussions about leadership and the fire service, and letting us know about all the great training conferences happening.
These folks are choosing to help move the fire service forward. Look at any fireground, and you'll find these same guys getting stuff done, while everyone else waits to be told what to do. It's not uncommon to find these folks "ate" up with this job, sometimes training for hours a day. The fire service wears many hats, and with an "all hazards" approach combined with a do-more-with-less budget, it's easy to get distracted from our original mission.
When we start to feel busy, it's tempting to look around and set our pace based on those around you. Avoid the temptation to betray the mission and yourself, by justifying what you do or don't based on the efforts of others. Knowing the job involves steadfastly following your values, passion, and heart regardless of what others think. The more time that enters between you and your last repetition, the less you know your job. And believe me I get it, we are busy these days, and finding time to train can be hard.
But the fire service fails when leaders allow the mindset of "We don't need to pull hose because we did that in recruit school" to exist. Knowing your job is having such a command of the fundamentals that without question you'll execute when you are asked. You can't truly know your job without constant training, refining, and discussion of skills. Great companies hold each other accountable for what they are expected to know, and as a result you'll constantly find them training. It's a benchmark we should all be striving to hit.
Does your team know themselves?
The difference between being a leader and a manager lies in the ability to inspire your people to care about what they do.
In the relentless pursuit of knowing our job, it's paramount that we provide our people opportunities to know themselves. Knowing yourself is often an exercise in being uncomfortable. Sometimes this is a push towards testing for a leadership position, other times sitting on a committee. Most of all it's creating an emphasis on training to help find our strengths and weaknesses. This is exactly what had happened that afternoon to me throwing that ladder. I'm fortunate enough to work for a captain who loves this job and pushes us everyday to know our jobs. We are constantly training and he offers an incredible amount of positive energy and job knowledge when he's with us.
It's also important that leaders model knowing and caring about embracing their strengths and improving their weaknesses. The difference between being a leader and a manager lies in the ability to inspire your people to care about what they do. Throwing my ladder upside down only becomes a failure if I put it back on the rig without first doing it again right. There is no better time to lead from the front when it comes to training. I cannot expect my team to want to improve, if I first don't demonstrate humility and a willingness to learn myself. We already have enough leaders in the fire service that lead from the back for fear of having their credibility questioned. The fire service also has entirely too many "nice guys" as leaders, who don't push their people towards knowing themselves and their jobs for fear of becoming unpopular.
What does "knowing your job" look like?
Believe it or not it knowing your job involves failing--a lot. Experience is a combination of not only knowing what to do, but also knowing exactly what you never want to do again. Too often companies do the wrong thing and get lucky. Good luck reinforces bad habits. Knowing your job involves drilling enough repetitions to sort out not only what works, but what definitely doesn't. It involves finding better ways, while also reinforcing the basics. It involves the humble pursuit of leaving it better than we found it, which most of all involves mentoring those coming along after us.
Mistakes are a natural by-product of the practice and work that pursuing excellence requires
In the pursuit of knowing our job mistakes happen, and that's a good thing--especially when it happens in training. Someone thinks outside the box, we trial something we learned at a conference, or we are curious if something new will work. Mistakes are a natural by-product of the practice and work that becoming better requires. Don't make the mistake of not knowing your job, because you are afraid to make an error and risk looking foolish. There is far more credibility to be gained when leaders are willing to get their hands dirty working and training alongside their groups. A cautionary tale on mistakes: When it comes to making mistakes, there are red flags to keep an eye out for. If the same ones, especially if by the same folks, keep getting made then a learning issue is occurring and needs to be addressed.
The Danger of "That's Good Enough"
When knowledge sits on the shelf and isn't applied or shared, complacency takes root. Rather than striving for excellence, our mind-sets shift to "good enough". We start hoping that previous experience is enough to get us through. We start hoping we remember how to use a tool, or perform a high risk skill. If enough time passes, we can even loose confidence on how to perform fundamentals. We've all seen the "senior" guy who has to ask how the hose gets packed back on the rig, or where equipment is stored.
Unfortunately with competing training agendas, EMS calls, and the ever increasing pile of administrative initiatives we are tempted to surrender knowing, and accept hoping. We lose sight of the mission, and start rearranging our priorities and what we will and won't do for THEM. You hope when the time comes that you need that low frequency, high risk skill you can do it. It's a wager must complacent people make and unfortunately, few get called on.
I struggled early on as a leader, and at times I still do, because it's hard for me to wrap my ahead around people's resistance to training. You would think in a job as dangerous as ours, people would come to work expecting to train. But sadly that's not the case. The reality is many are into this job for the celebrity status, the fireman t-shirts, or even the benefits and pension. And the numbers don't lie--across America, regardless of the profession when polled only 1/3 of the workforce is actively engaged, while 1/3 is neutral and will go most ways leadership influences them. The last 1/3 is the most dangerous group. These folks are considered actively disengaged, which means they are the ones actually generating the resistance to the first 1/3 trying to move the fire service forward.
Like our name suggests, it's important to embrace this resistance. I call these folks the "friction loss" group. Leaders can plan on and account for their drag and lack of productivity. Leaders can also still achieve team objectives successfully in spite of them, especially if they can create a culture that values "knowing their job". As a result you'll probably develop a reputation as someone who trains too much, or cares too much about this job. Perfect. This kind of reputation is slug repellant. You don't have to worry about transfer requests coming across your desk from people who inevitably would make your team worse.
What the slugs don't seem to realize is when they complain about "how into the job you are", what it really screams is how much they aren't. While they think they are tearing down who you are, they are actually the best form of advertising, and building your leadership brand faster then you ever could. Don't be threatened by these folks. They are the same ones who will stand on the fire ground because they are hoping someone will tell or show them what to do.
At the end of the day, remember that leadership has an obligation to the fire service, their teams, and themselves to provide their folks experience by getting them as many reps as possible. Don't betray the public, this job, or our mission by accepting "Good enough". Now go prove to your community that you KNOW YOUR JOB!
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of EmbraceTheResistance.com which features leadership training and support for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.