For many years, I have always thought that ICMA were the initials of the International City Managers Association. Since joining the "ICMA Club," I have learned that the acronym stands for "I Can Manage Anything" (or perhaps "I Can't Manage Anything," according to your perspective). With my newfound credentials out of the way, this is the second column in a series that is designed to help chief fire-rescue officers "manage up" the organization.
As a fire chief turned city manager, I am attempting to provide executive fire officers with a different perspective to obtain, maintain and increase the department's resources by attaining a better/improved professional relationship with the top appointed official of city government. In this installment, I will address time management issues as they relate to the city manager's office.
By the very nature of the job duties and responsibilities, the city manager's office complex is a very busy place. There is an entire array of meetings, followed by public visits and citizen complaints coupled with emergency activities (damage-control measures). Because of the pace of activities, the city manager will typically "forget" those operations that are able and willing to run smoothly. With the fire department typically being everyone's favorite city service, there is little to no feedback to the Ivory Tower from the fire department.
I hate to say it, but the adage "Out of sight, out of mind" comes across loud and clear when thinking about time-management issues. What an irony - the departments that do well (services, budget controls and citizen satisfaction) seem to get little time and attention from the front office. The same concept plays out within the fire department as well. The divisions that run efficiently, effectively and safely become transparent to the top fire executive officer. Thank goodness that there are departments and divisions that do run well. But because of time constraints and efficiency, the leadership team of the fire department cannot afford to be forgotten.
Some of the most effective ways to get that all-important "face time" with the city manager is to use existing (already planned) opportunities. First, whenever the city manager needs to move to different meeting locations, offer to drive or ride with the boss. This may have the outward appearance of "sucking up," but what a great time and place to get a critical point or two across. Most city managers will enjoy the company and may not pick up on your ulterior motive. Perhaps you should not ask for a new truck every week, but I have received and given "stuff" in the front seat of a staff car many times.
Do schedule your meeting times. This requires about one week of advance notice. If you should show up at the door unannounced and become a regular drop-in visitor, you may be frustrating the boss and wasting your time. Generally, there are always follow-up meetings (issues actually) that occur immediately after staff meetings. I strongly suggest booking time with the city manager at this opportune time. You are there, he or she is there, so why not take advantage of the setting to move the fire-rescue agenda ahead? Think back to the last time (every day, maybe) you had many unplanned interruptions (not emergencies - remember that's what we really do) and the level of frustration that they caused. Enough said about scheduling.
Even the meanest of city managers eats once in a while. This is another great opportunity for the fire chief. Ask (in advance) the city manager to eat lunch with you at a fire station once a month or so. (A wise city manager will let you take the first bite or two - just kidding). No one can resist the three-alarm chili and our true American heroes in blue. The coldest manager should warm up to station life treatment that is usually enjoyed with a firehouse meal. Actually, this is the same advice that I give company captains in order to keep a positive line of communications with the fire chief. (Oh, those were the days!)
In closing, don't let the department be forgotten about because we are very good at what we do. Great leaders can turn this into a strength rather than a weakness. Next, take advantage of a good number of existing opportunities to personally interact with "Big Kahunna." Refrain from just visiting when you want something, but try to be there (on the city manager's radar screen) when you reasonably can. The city manager will appreciate the professional relationship and it will be much more sincerely received by him or her.
To tell a "Bruno-ism," "be nice." Invite the boss to events and meals from time to time. Travel time can be used very productively with a simple phone call. The last reminder is to always schedule your needed meeting times instead of trying to "barge in" on the boss' schedule. Critical issues will arise that the chief operating officer needs to be informed of and those are not the meetings that need to be scheduled in advance.
Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. He is a 30-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. Rubin holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and he is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at Firerube@aol.com.