june 2016

In my last column, I described my transition plan as I jumped back into agency life as the leader of a fire and aviation management program after many years as a consultant. I wrote about my plan to accelerate my transition by giving myself just 90 days to reach the point where I was contributing more to the organization than I require of the organization to support my arrival. That, of course, required me to gather a lot of information, learn the details of my responsibilities and those of the people I lead, understand the challenges and opportunities our program faces, and generally gain situational awareness.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a Forest FMO that I know, who asked “So, are you going to tell us about how your first 90 days went?” While I had toyed with the idea, his question made me think that if this Wildfire reader was wondering, then maybe others were as well. Plus, I took it as a kind of challenge.

As I write, my 90th day has just passed. To the maximum extent possible, I focused on building credibility and earning the trust of both the people I am expected to lead and those who lead me. I worked at paying close attention; communicating clearly and effectively; adjusting for differences between myself and my co-workers; trying to keep calm and remain patient; and treating people with kindness, courtesy, dignity and respect. I cannot say whether I succeeded because, in leadership, it is not our own perception that matters, but the perceptions of others. I do know that I tried, and continue to try to remain at my own personal, mindful best.

However, this transition experience reminded me that the more familiar I become with people and the more unguarded they become with me, the more mindful I must be. For example, I’ve started letting my sense of humor out a little bit, and I’ve found that some people clearly don’t get what I find funny and I know I’ve hurt some feelings when I was really just kidding around, trying to break the ice. In addition, if not careful, I can routinely abrade people with my direct, assertive, and somewhat unvarnished communication. The challenge for me is that I know that some people appreciate my direct style (and have said so), while I’m pretty sure that others find me impolite. The trick remains to know which situation I’m in. Not that I didn’t know, but I’m reminded that what one person finds refreshing, another may find incredibly boorish; and just as it does on the fireline, situational awareness represents the key to risk management in social settings as well.

I found one aspect of my transition experience particularly interesting. I’ve discovered that I find the need to stay on my toes — to remain mindful, use a little emotional intelligence, and generally mind my behavior — invigorating. Exhausting, but invigorating. It’s not like I’ve been living in a cave but in my previous job, while I used all the same skills, I rarely spent more than two weeks around the same people without a break. Now, I know that I am going to see and work with the same people every day, for a long time; and that has made me keenly aware of my behavior and the consequences of that behavior. I actually find the vigilance this requires kind of cool; rarely do I find myself on auto-pilot at any time during the day. I go home wiped out, but I also go home feeling challenged; like I used to feel after I learned a new karate technique or improved my fly casting.

I also set out to ask a lot of questions. My intent was to gather information, learn the details of my responsibilities and those of the people I lead, understand the challenges and opportunities our program faces, and generally gain situational awareness. As always I also intended to ask questions to prompt people to think carefully, encourage them to tell me what’s on their mind, promote dialog between us, and generally get people to engage with me. I am certain that I succeeded in asking lots of questions; in fact, I expect that some people in my organization find me exhausting. However, I know that asking lots of questions hastened my transition.

By asking people open-ended questions I assessed the capabilities, motivations and adaptability of the people I am expected to lead. I also gathered an enormous amount of information, maybe more than I can process; learned many of the details of my responsibilities and those of the people I lead; and gained an understanding of the challenges and opportunities our program faces. Whether people interpreted my motivations as I intended, only time will tell.

I hope that, by showing my willingness to listen and learn, I have demonstrated that I value and respect the people I work with and that I intend to foster confidence and trust in our relationships. I learned that, while interviewing everybody who works in your organization sounds good, and I still believe it is, this can prove a daunting task. In addition, I likely collected more data than I have time to process. Consequently, my advice to someone in my circumstance would be to get around to everyone, but make sure you prioritize.

I set out during my 90-day transition time to take advantage of my strengths without allowing my strengths to become weaknesses and annoyances for other people. My results-oriented nature, interest in effectiveness and continuous improvement, admiration of competence, and personal drive have all served me well. However, I also realize that not everybody likes those traits or only likes them in small doses. Consequently, I rely on others to help me recognize and overcome my blind spots including tendencies toward impatience and insensitivity.

In closing, I can share one big lesson learned. I planned, for myself, a 90-day transition during which I would reach the point where I was contributing more to the organization than I required of the organization to support my arrival. While that sounded good in the abstract, reality intervened. Unanticipated meetings and travel; external influences; aspects of the job previously unknown; emerging issues and problems; human factors, both my own and of others; moving; getting settled — all conspired to disrupt my plan.

Have I succeeded in my first 90 days? Mostly. I’m making some decisions, sharing ideas, branching out beyond the basics, and I’m getting some good feedback from people. However, I don’t know all the people in the building, I have responsibilities for which I feel ill-prepared, and I’ve got a file cabinet sitting in the middle of my office and a bunch of boxes stuffed in the corner. In retrospect, I think an accelerated, 90-day transition represented a good goal, but a goal tempered by reality.


Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire and Aviation Management Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.