As we are all aware we are always learning. Some times the learning experience happens quickly, such as realizing your should have used an oven mitt when taking the shish kabobs off the grill with your fingers, or is formal and well planned such as taking a college course. My education in the fire service has never stopped, whether is was rapid, informal learning, or planned out. One of the hardest things I had to learn was making the transition from a firefighter to a company officer.
You may be questioning why I am writing about supervision when this site is titled Fire Officer Mentor. Mentoring cannot occur without supervision, and good supervision leads to good mentoring. We have all learned about the many types of supervision, styles, theories, etc. And we all have learned that not one style and theory fits all situations, but whether we like it or not we all operate from a base level. Those base levels can be autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire. We have all worked under the company officer that wants hospital corners on your bunk, or the officer who does not have a daily structure, and then there are the ones in-between.
Based on my experiences I would like to share a couple of supervisory approaches. I am not transposing these from any book or reference material. I am putting my own labels on them.
The Fish Net Approach – With the fish net approach the supervisor snags the first person they see when an idea crosses their mind or they have a project that is close to the deadline and they have not started it yet. The supervisor casts the net out, catching you then pulling you in. There you are, trapped and helpless, just as fish are in the fishing net. And just as in the fish net there are a variety of items, random things pulled up by the net. The supervisor is looking for results. They expect you to sift through the items and then make it work. No real direction or instructions are provided, and the supervisor may not really even know what the catch is supposed to be. The results may be a completed task, but it may not be the way the supervisor wants it and it may result in having to do the task again.
The Shot Gun Approach – The Shot Gun approach is similar to the Fish Net. The difference is the supervisor knows what the results need to be they are just not sure who to pick for the task. Maybe during a casual conversation with a small group the supervisor “blasts” out the idea or plan. Some one in the group takes the “hit” (they volunteer to take on the task for recognition, peer pressure, etc.). The task may get completed properly or not. That is the second part of the Shot Gun Approach. Just as shooting a shotgun, you may or may not hit the target appropriately. Again, the task may get completed but was the right person doing the task? This may work out OK, unless the task had an emphasis on safety.
The Pile-On Approach – just like a bunch of NFL football players diving in and piling on to recover a fumble, the supervisor keeps piling on the tasks. This may be good and bad. The supervisor may be piling on because they know they will get good results. The bad part is other tasks suffer and priorities keep changing as more tasks get piled on.
Last One Picked for Gym Class Approach – I can remember when I was in school gym class it was well known I couldn’t even catch a cold, so I was always the one picked just so the teams would be even. A supervisor may pick someone for a task because there is no one else to pick. The results could end up being dismal. Loss of productivity and a need to re-do the task by someone else. The results for the employee are also dismal. Their confidence has been shattered, making it even more difficult to properly develop the employee.
The Helicopter Pilot – This supervisor assigns a task then hops in their helicopter, hovering over your every move. They are not micro managing because they are not spelling out how to get the task done. They just hover, and hover, and hover, never really saying anything. It would be a blessing if they did micro manage. At least you would be getting some feedback. They just land their helicopter when the task is done, tell you what went wrong then get back in their helicopter to hover over you again. This approach causes anxiety in newer employees, and just flat out pisses off experienced employees.
Well, I have to be honest; I have been on both sides of these. It took me a while to figure out just because someone is willing, does not mean they are able. There are several keys to avoid being caught up in one of the above approaches:
- How critical is the project? What level of authority or perceived authority is needed? Pick the person that can carry the ball, who understands the critical nature of the task and has the backbone and knowledge to exert the appropriate authority.
- Think about the results you want. If the task is not completed properly, what is the impact on the shift and employee assigned?
- Don’t always pick the same person to do the same thing. If you can, spell out the results but the details provided should depend on the task and experience level of the person assigned. Give them “Point B” and step back. They may surprise you with how well they do. Tell the employee to get back to you 1) If they have questions or need resources 2) run into obstacles 3) The task is completed. Check back occasionally to show support.
- Use tasks to help develop the team early. Assign a team leader in the group and provide them the necessary management tools to see a task through. Allow the team leader to suggest others that could help the project but be sure it is not the same few all of the time.
- Don’t be afraid to take a chance on someone. Just make sure they have the support to accomplish the task. I’ll stand in front of a fire chief all day explaining what happened if it means I could help develop a future mentor.
Take your time when assigning tasks. Use them to develop not just task related skills, but supervisory and management skills. Show faith and confidence in those you work with helps set the tone for good mentoring.