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No Place for Pyromaniacs

Optimize Blog - February 27, 2017 - 0 comments

Putting out fires is very rewarding. It’s gratifying and provides instant validation for our efforts. This is apparently why people seem to like fires in business so much. As we work with clients and observe the relish with which they tackle these fires, we understand why rarely a question is asked around why the fire started in the first place…..
We include leaders in this group of firefighters too despite the fact that leadership is not about fighting fires. When was the last time that we wanted a Fire Chief standing with a hose in his hand? The Fire Chief should be out working with stakeholders, coaching and mentoring, educating the public, planning, handling budgets etc. For sure, at times all great leaders need to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in – leading from the front, but this should be the exception and not the rule.
As we constantly reinforce, performance is about Ability, Motivation and understanding the role which we are being asked to perform. We’re pretty sure that the job description for leaders does not include firefighting. What it does or at least should include, is an element of planning and thinking that if done well does in fact prevent fires from breaking out in the first place.
Now, there will always be fires – we live in an imperfect world, and being able to remain calm and being decisive in a crisis is a core leadership requirement. When the fire breaks out, everyone turns to the leader for the answer, for the solution, to put the fire out……
Most front line leaders spend all their time fire-fighting unexpected problems with temporary solutions. They spend day after day dealing with the same problems: missing supplies, incorrect order specifications, employee absenteeism — the list goes on. If they were to spend the same amount of effort addressing the underlying issues that cause these fires to keep reoccurring, the problems would be solved permanently. So why don’t they do this?
Well, typical management practices actively encourage fire-fighting by focusing massively on short-term performance. Usually the fire-fighting culture has become so ingrained in an organization that only a radical swing in behavior will produce a lasting change.
Everyone would agree that solving problems permanently is better than having to deal with them repeatedly. On an individual basis, however, many mid-level and front line leaders believe that changing the culture is outside their power.
Often leaders have been promoted to their role as a result of strong technical aptitude and extensive experience, which is exactly the skill set required to fight fires. The skill set required to resolve the underlying problems that cause fires, however, is quite different. Permanently extinguishing fires requires the ability to gather data, interpret it and challenge individuals whose performance is not meeting expectations. In many cases, the strong technicians that get promoted do not have these skills naturally.
This imbalance of technical skills over leadership ability can be compounded by a business culture that reinforces fire-fighting behaviors. In a fire fighting culture new leaders will soon become fire fighters too if the culture and management practices are not altered to encourage them to lead.
A business that spends time in rewarding behaviours that deliver benefit for the medium and long term, not just the short-term, will succeed at rectifying some of the underlying ignition problems and will find that daily fires become less frequent. This frees up even more of the front line leader’s time to focus on additional underlying problems, and so the process gathers momentum and delivers true value.

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