3 quarter

Thoughts on leadership

Build the bench

By Michael DeGrosky

I very recently retired after more than 40 years in the fire service. Retirement, it turns out, is a big transition and one that provides opportunity to think a lot about a lot of things. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about whether I accomplished what I set out to do in my most recent position.

Early on in my tenure as chief, I established just a few personal goals, none more important than my intent to build the bench, grow leadership and provide opportunity. My goal reflected both an organizational need and my firm belief that tenaciously grooming future leaders and preparing the next generation of leaders is an obligation of leadership. That goal remained on my whiteboard, to serve as a constant reminder, for more than five years.  

I recently read comments by Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, who said “I think sometimes people forget what really makes an organization.” Rodgers went on to say “People make an organization; people make a business and sometimes that gets forgotten.” As you can imagine, the Packers QB is not a go-to leadership reference for me, but he got this right. People make up our organizations and leaders watching out for the future of their organization must make it a priority to doggedly prepare future leaders.   

Building your bench and growing leadership is not a casual task; there’s a lot to think about. First and foremost, one must consider the organization’s needs. Don’t get me wrong; I want people to benefit from the opportunities that interest and excite them, and I don’t mean to imply that the organization’s priorities outweigh what the employee sees as their needs. But we need to remember that we are taking a role in a person’s development; we are helping them prepare for their future in the organization.  Carefully considering the organization’s needs is not only good for the organization, but good for the individual. What does the agency need from its leaders and what will it need in the future? What competencies do the agency’s leaders require, and what skills will those leaders need in the future? Too often, I see organizations providing seemingly random leadership development that does not position employees well for the organization’s future.  

After you have considered the organization’s future, look around and ask, “Who has the potential to lead in this organization?” Be objective, and honestly assess leadership capacity. Do not hesitate to identify potential leaders as early as possible in their careers. Many agencies face a legitimate leadership crisis, and need to identify and invest in people with leadership potential as quickly as they can. And besides, while past performance can forecast future success, remember that once people transition into formal leadership roles, their job responsibilities change and their past performance may no longer predict their abilities anyway.  

Honestly, I kept a list of people I was keeping my eye on, and recruited from that list. In a single year, I hired three people from that list into key positions, two of which had completed temporary assignments, with me.

Once you’ve identified leadership candidates, help them to plan their self-development and do what you can to provide them with education, training, and growth opportunities.  I encourage you to think, and help your developing leaders think of leader development as a marathon, not a sprint. Guide people who you believe have potential to a variety of opportunities. A weeklong training session does not a leader make. Traditional leadership training programs are important but so are details, projects, special assignments and other developmental assignments that allow developing leaders to receive feedback as they learn by doing. These assignments should cause people to stretch, broaden their knowledge, work outside their normal circles, and potentially learn from both success and failure. Most importantly, when guiding the development of future leaders, constantly ask, “Are they getting the opportunity to lead?”  Too often I see people on details and special assignments getting the opportunity to do, but not to lead.  

Finally, please generously coach and mentor developing leaders. Get and stay actively involved, provide personal and individual attention, require budding leaders to identify and satisfy their development needs, help them focus their energy, and lend a hand as they come up against obstacles. Connect people who exhibit leadership potential with good leadership role models from whom they can learn. Provide honest, and supportive feedback that helps them grow, gain confidence, and mature as leaders. I don’t think we can overestimate the value of a person taking an interest in another person and their personal growth, particularly when that happens early in someone’s career.  

Mentoring and coaching emerging leaders has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and one of the most important roles I have played.                       

Tenaciously grooming future leaders and preparing the next generation of leaders is an obligation of leadership. Build the bench, grow leadership and provide opportunity. 

Mike Degrosky

About the author: Mike DeGrosky recently retired as chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years.  Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.