Remember where you came from! Bring us candy!
Those were the two pieces of advice I received from my former peers when I was promoted up through the ranks to my first supervisor position in the PSAP. I remember laughing at them and vowing that of course, I would always remember, and I would bring in candy. Those were the two easiest promises I ever kept through my next 26 years in management/leadership positions. After obtaining a long-term goal of supervision, I had “arrived.” I was in a better position, so I thought, now I could really make a difference. I would soon learn that you never fully “arrive”.
The years went by rather quickly, now that I look back. Sometimes they didn’t seem so quick. Some of those years were painful, some were so much fun I would like a do-over. Some years I felt like the difference I was making was significant and positive, and other years I wondered why I had ever taken a leadership role. These roller coasters are familiar to most leaders if they have been in upper management positions for any time at all.
The last sixteen years of my career consisted of challenging PSAP merges: new radio builds, dispatch center builds, new equipment, personnel shortages, disciplinary issues (which I despised), and significant changes that sometimes could not be fully revealed to the staff until nearly all the decisions were made. My leadership style wasn’t as a consensus-style leader; however, I did enjoy the calm cooperative environment that came when everyone got along, and often enjoyed parts of consensus-style leadership in my daily routine. In all three of the PSAPs where I was the director, we enjoyed “moments” of consecutive years where we had no turn-over and I always felt this was due to the people in the chairs and the benefits that come from making the best decision in the interest of the whole.
There came a time however when it wasn’t possible to discuss where the PSAP was going with the staff. As the saying goes, everyone answers to someone, and being ordered not to discuss future merge considerations and directions meant just that for me: not to discuss it. At the appropriate time, it was approved to let everyone know the full direction the PSAP would be taking in merging with another agency. I had carefully explained all of the plans to everyone because all of the plans were complete.
I was viewing the event as an exciting time, and to my dismay, I discovered that the dispatchers did not share my enthusiasm. More work, no raises were the repeated complaints… and no matter how I tried to inspire with the plans for a growing and “glowing” future, many did not buy it. I pondered those objections and wondered why they pushed back, for years.
About fifteen months after I retired from the PSAP for family-related reasons, I was talking to a police captain whose agency had just finalized merged with another agency. Upper management was excited, perhaps even exhilarated with the upcoming events. From patrol to captain positions, however, the excitement was more of frustration. As I sat and listened to the reason behind the frustration, I experienced the proverbial 2×4 hit on the side of my head as the light bulbs went off. I suddenly wished I could go back several years and make some adjustments to that last merge and have a do-over.
I realized my full part in what had caused my staff the same levels of frustration back then, that I was hearing from the captain. As the conversation with the captain continued I listened closely and I heard about significant changes set to impact training, staffing, and equipment shifts (to name a few things) that were being made; all changes that were occurring with little input from anyone below chief level. I practiced active listening skills, pulling from every class I had ever taken, and I learned a lot about what had gone wrong.
Significant changes, such as a merger with another agency, require a lot of planning and tasks that perhaps all employees may not need to have knowledge of. However, in the case of the last merger that I was a part of, once the details of the merger were allowed to be released, there were a variety of changes that needed to be made that dispatchers could have been a part of. As they say, you cannot go back and undo your mistakes, you can only move forward and not make them again.
Although the changes and adjustments that were implemented were completed with the best of intentions, it wasn’t enough to help the current staff feel valued, and that is a critical component in any work environment. It’s important for leaders to understand that taking action can sometimes lead to undesired consequences that can discourage you from pursuing your goal; in this case a united, cohesive, team. Once the realization occurs that something should have been done differently, own up to it, talk to your staff, and make the corrections. It’s too late for me, but if you’re reading this, it’s not too late for you!
When making changes, include your team from bottom to top. Engage representatives who are positive role models for the PSAP and from each shift when possible so that all shifts have a voice. Choose representatives for different portions of the projects that utilize their strengths, making them feel valued. Help them to grow and develop their strengths to create a positive feeling toward their future while helping them complete the tasks that the organization has in front of them. Be clear with what the final goal is and as the leader, keep an open mind to the paths that are presented.
It is likely you will have a pathway already in mind, but remain open to suggestions from others and allow yourself to see the possibilities from different viewpoints, views that had not previously been considered. For this to work, the leaders must make people feel that their efforts and contributions are appreciated and are for a worthy cause. People want to know that the changes they are making will matter in the bigger scheme of things and ultimately will have a positive impact on them and the community they serve. You got this!