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Answer: If ever there were a "blinding flash of the obvious," this is it. Regardless of how technically proficient and professionally delivered our service may be, its perpetuation will always be dependent on the relationships we have. While each of us has our own expertise based on our particular function (engine or ladder company, EMS, prevention or public affairs, etc.), relationship management must be a skill that each of us develops for the good of our departments and the fire service as a whole.
There is not a day that does not pass in the finest firms and organizations that a new opportunity dies prematurely or a present situation deteriorates because someone did not understand the nature of how to manage a relationship. In over 30 years in business and the fire service, I have constantly seen this occur. It happens because few people take the time to understand the nature of people as individuals and most important, individual and organizational needs.
We all know people in our professions who just seem "to get it" when it comes to various natural skills in getting the job done on the fireground or in an emergency situation. Some of the best firefighters and officers fall into this category. Yet it is amazing that many of these same professionals simply do not have the skills to manage relationships. Perhaps we could solve this problem by creating a new position called Chief Relationship Officer and give the job to people who have skills in this area so we can go about our "real jobs." Believe it or not, some firms actually have this kind of position, regardless of the actual title. And our real jobs include dealing with live humans.
Like it or not, the success of any endeavor involving people will always rely on the care and feeding of the relationship. Most people have not made these skills into a professional methodology as part of their marketing toolbox. I am not referring to a manipulative sales technique to convince someone to do something against his or her will or desire. It also does not mean that one must become a glad-hander or "shmoozer," as we call it.
What it means is that we take the time to dig deep into the true needs of the person or organization that person represents so that we can understand their position and how we could fit into each other's picture of the world to achieve mutual gains. You do not need to be a chummy salesperson to do this or blow out your budget taking people to dinner every night. The key is to be transparent in all of your dealings, telling it like it is, yet telling it with an understanding of the other person's true needs; knowing the other person or organization's needs as well as you know your own. It also means demonstrating honestly that one cares enough about the relationship to take actions that demonstrate that care. We have all heard the phrase, "tell me that you care before you tell me what I should know." Concentrate on the relationship only first and you will be amazed how the world will open up to you in having your needs fulfilled. This takes the same kind of practice and skill that one needs to master an evolution in firefighting. And, some would say, that it also takes enough experience to almost intuitively understand the direction of a relationship and to possess a certain sense of immediacy.
I would liken this to the sense one gets just before a room flashes over. An experienced firefighter can read the seat of the fire as it expands along its vapor front just before it explodes a room. In the same way, one can read the direction of a relationship and whether it requires immediate attention. If one traces the steps of any successful initiative in the realm of human relations, one can see the various "footprints" of how a set of relationships developed until success was achieved. Yet almost nobody really takes the time to realize what and how this developed in front and behind the scenes.