Leading Organizations Through Change

By: Fire Chief Jacob McAfee

This article originally appeared in Fire Engineering, and is reprinted here in ARFF News with full permission.

     The fire service has changed exponentially over the last decade. Changes in job requirements, strategies and tactics, personal protective equipment, and significant cultural changes have been seemingly coming at rapid speeds. For the fire service specifically these changes can be daunting and almost feel unsurmountable. As these changes happen Policy makers, department officers, or other management officials push these changes down the organizational structure to the firefighters with substantial resistance. There have been too many instances over the last 10 years alone that a change in policy or culture has failed because of this resistance and led to poor service delivery, civilian and firefighter injury, or a loss of resources (money, people, equipment). To be successful, change management becomes an indispensable tool for a public service organizations ability to move forward (Odagiy, C., 2013, p. 1).

     In years past the fire service was protected from financial hardship or significant discussion of any return on investment. When the fire service just provided fire protection the costs were relatively low to the public purse, the sympathy for workers providing a public service that protects life, and a pay formula that removed overt conflict (Fitzgerald, 2005, p. 649).  This made it easy to maintain the status quo and build and sustain 100 year old traditions even if ineffective and costly. This is not the case in the current political and financial environment. Fire service organizations and members must understand how to change, and not just from the top. We can argue all day if we need to change or not, we can argue that change is in fact happening but while we are bickering the requirements and expectations of our profession are evolving. The word “change” seems to almost be a trigger word in today’s fire service that is associated with a negative connotation.

What doesn’t correlate to me is that most of us seek out change every day, we seek to improve ourselves, our crews, and our service more every day as we wake. The goal, to be better today than we were yesterday. Well in doing so are we not changing? Are we not seeking out new knowledge, skills, ideas, and processes on how we can be better? The same can be said for change at any level within an organization. By deflecting the idea or theory that change is needed we neglect our most basic priority to provide effective service to our communities, highly effective teams, diverse skill sets, and impeccable character. I understand change can be challenging, I’ve worked at fire departments in four different states, on both coasts, and served in the United States Marine Corps, change was consistently part of my day. Change can be hard because it challenges our basic necessities as a human being. Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs there are (5) things people need to improve productivity;

  • Physiological needs (water, food, air, shelter, etc.)
  • Safety needs (job security, health, personal security)
  • Love and belonging (family, friendship, connection to a cause)
  • Esteem (respect, recognition, status)
  • Self- Actualization (desire to improve)

To change something you have been doing for years challenges those basic needs and causes uncertainty and anxiety. Change isn’t the problem, it’s how we approach and perceive change. Change is frequently associated with a loss of something. Whether it’s what uniform you wear or how you have done something, but certainly not thought of as a positive. Change will almost certainly effect our most basic needs causing a natural defensive reaction to push back for fear of losing something or the conditioned comfort of muscle memory. As a leader I embrace change as much as I can, understanding that not doing so is maintaining the status quo and that means not improving. Not long ago a study was conducted of some of the top leaders in a variety of fields that wanted to understand the relationship between growth and leadership; for the purpose of this article growth is change.

What they found was that “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguishes leaders from their followers” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 48).

They went on to describe that the goal each day is to get better and to build on the previous day’s progress. Think about that for a moment and relate it to any change initiative in your organization. Is this not the goal? Each day the goal is to improve your progress and build off the previous day’s success, while working toward the stated goals, objectives, and vision. In addition to feeling like Maslow’s needs are being taken from us, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to leading change efforts. Generally, the fire service thinks of change as a project more than a processes and we “overestimate the importance of events and underestimate the power of the process” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 48). To be effective at leading change you have to understand it’s a process not an event, one in which Kotter (2012) describes it as an eight stage process.

I think back to a simple example while attending the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. It was the first day of class and a group of classmates and I had just shown up at the classroom. As we came into the classroom we were able to pick any seat we wanted to sit at. Naturally, most people including myself migrated to seats near people they already knew form a previous year. The classroom was set up just like the year before, the instructor stood in front of the room, and I sat next to a familiar face, it was comfortable. As lunch quickly came and went and we all returned to the classroom all of the tables, chairs, and seating assignments were changed. This wasn’t a big deal, but surprisingly I initially felt uncomfortable. As this simple change disrupted my basic needs related to safety, belonging, and even esteem as described by Maslow.

My safety (personal security) was disrupted as the comfort of sitting next to someone I had previously known and built a relationship with was gone, additionally the rapport I had built created a connection and a friendship between my fellow EFO, now I was sitting somewhere else. This caused me to feel anxious and unsure how this would work out for a moment. Lastly, my esteem was even challenged as during our previous classes and conversations I felt that I developed a healthy respect between my prior table mate and they held me in high esteem. I would now have to build that over again with someone else.

Just by SWITCHING SEATS and sitting next to a person, a peer for that matter that I had not yet met, even if for a moment caused those emotional reactions to change. If I can feel like that, even temporarily what might other firefighters or people within our organizations feel when something significant is changing? While this example is trivial it drives home the point. If small changes such as I’m describing can create some type of fear or hesitation how may members react when leaders within the organization challenge department fire service philosophy or traditional thinking? Leading substantial change will require evaluation, effort, perspective shifting, team building, communication, and a commitment to the process that is focused on people experiencing change rather than the change itself to be successful.

Throughout my career I have relied upon Kotter’s eight stages of change to prepare, plan, implement, assess, and improve organizational and small team changes and progressive initiatives. Before we talk about the (8) stages to effectively lead change efforts we have to understand the “Golden Rule” and the preparation that needs to happen before the decision to implement change is made.

   The “Golden Rule” we need to understand is that change cannot be based on a personal agenda. Change should only be proposed within our organizations to improve service delivery, increase safety, enhance professional development and training, or is driven by a regulation, standard, or stakeholder expectation.

The overwhelming reason change is so difficult is… well, you’re dealing with people. People more frequently associate it with a loss of something vs a gain of something positive. Just as in the example above, moving chairs to a different table with different people initially made me feel like I was losing personal security, esteem, and belonging. To overcome these issues and minimize the perceived threat take three things into consideration;

  • The change should come from an identified gap or information learned from evaluation. Keep in mind the gap is the distance from where you are to where you strive to be as an organization. Negative or positive change will move you closer to your desired destination.
  • Observe and assess the organizational culture, and get to know your people. What I’ve found is that often time’s people are a product of a past environment.
    1. Past leadership may have not mentored or trained their firefighters, there may have never been any change proposed previously, and they have normalized their past processes and behaviors that size up any change to the status quo a threat to their existence as they perceive it. As a leader it is our job to understand that history and identify how each employee has experienced their career. You don’t know what you don’t know, so ask.

“Leadership fails when they look to lead a group of people before they know anything about the people they are leading; listen, learn, and lead” (Maxwell, 2001).

  • Strategically communicate clearly, early, and often.

Gaps may be identified from various department reports or assessments such as accreditation and program compliance assessments, stakeholder meetings, past grievance trends, past employee discipline trends, department analytics, survey results, and most importantly feedback form employees to name a few.

As John F. Kennedy said “If you spend too much time focusing on the past and the present you will surely miss the future”.

Culture assessment; some ideas that you may use to help assess the culture of your organization that I have found successful include; meet with each employee individually seeking feedback on their ideas, expectations, and problems; I ask a standard set of questions to all employees and created a trend report of aggregate information that helped identify common themes. This helped identify specific issues that may normally be hidden within the team are addressed. This report is briefed to all department employees so they are aware of common issues within the department and how we will address them to improve our people, our brand, and our mission.

When meeting with employees the standard questions I ask are;

  • What do you think are the three most significant challenges the department is facing? How would you address it?
  • What do you think are the most significant strengths as a department? How would you capitalize on those?
  • If you could change anything in the department right now what would it be and why?
  • What are your personal or professional goals?
  • What secondary/extra duties are you involved in?
  • Do you think your skills are being utilized appropriately? If not what do you want to be involved in?
  • What is a talent or skill that you have, that I don’t know about?
  • What are your expectations of me?

Observe, be aware of the interaction you see daily; administer anonymous surveys seeking information on what is good, not good, and seek employee input on how they would fix it; invest in active conversation, listen to what your employees are doing and saying, work with the union, and be as transparent as possible. This qualitative and quantitative data will help identify gaps your organization may have, identify common themes, or major issues that allow meaningful change that is people driven to accomplish your mission, not agendas or personal pursuits.

Communication is key to any firehouse or fire ground. Communicate EARLY and CLEARLY lay out expectations, solicit feedback, and have productive discussion. The most critical piece in early communication for possible change is to establish the why behind it, connect how it will benefit the team and the organization, and what may happen if change does not occur. Make sure the majority of communication is done in person in some fashion, secondary communication via other electronic or written communication should be used as an anchor to prior face to face communication. Communicate often! As people feel change coming or expect that change will come in some form the natural reaction is for people to do a combination of things; ask questions, start rumors in the absence of information, align with factions for or against the anticipated change, etc.

The more you communicate and be transparent along the way the more landmines you dodge in the process. While there will still be hesitation and evet outright pushback event before anything is changed, being honest and transparent builds trust and fosters a sense of reassurance. Once the stage has been set and foundational trust developed through interaction, observation, and communication you may be ready to start leading through change. As we move through the stages keep in mind these need to be completed in order and need to be successful at each stage before moving on to the next. Moving from one stage to the next to fast or without knowing whether that stage has been successful can lead to failure.

“People have to buy into the leader before they buy into their vision” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 192)

These 8 stages of change help create a framework in which to work from as we focus on people to make change successful.

  1. Create a sense of Urgency
  2. Form a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees
  6. Generate short term wins
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
  8. Anchoring new approaches

Creating a sense of Urgency

   Creating a sense of urgency is possibly the most crucial step in the process, in fact 50% of change initiatives fail here (Kotter, 2012).

As this is the first step in the process, not ensuring your team has done a complete job of communicating the urgency for change can lead to failure from the start. Many times leaders underestimate the effort and commitment creating change requires. Creating a sense of urgency takes humility, vision, action, relationships, and a willingness for your members to go well beyond what’s listed in their position description.

     No matter the size of your department the number of people that will need to be invested in the change effort outside of their traditional roles may be as high as 25% of the work force to produce significant change (Kotter, 2012). Whatever the change; staffing, accreditation, uniforms, additional duties, service delivery etc. you have to make it seem as if NOT CHANGING is more dangerous that change itself.

Strategies for creating a sense of urgency include;

  1. Be honest and transparent on where you stand as an organization
  2. Base the need for change on an identified gap
  3. No personal agenda, remain people focused
  4. It’s about perspective
  5. The most important thing to anyone is their own security (address those needs)
  6. Communicate WHY change is needed
  7. Remove obstacles
  8. Accept your piece of the mess and face issues together
  9. Set the mood (establish trust and be empathetic)

Creating a guiding coalition

Nothing we do will be successful alone, the very reason we are successful in the fire service is an effective team centered on people driving towards the same mission, vision, and values. To be successful coalitions for the change efforts have to span across various levels of influence in the organization. Frequently revisit the purpose and WHY with these groups, don’t allow time and firehouse rumors to tear apart your coalitions. Identifying the various factions in your department and their reasons for or against change help Factors that will help you be successful and creating a guiding coalition include;

  1. Understand the perspective of various factions in your organization
  2. Engage all stakeholders across those factions
  3. Utilize strengths based leadership
    1. Engaging various factions across the department and utilizing the strengths of your team will accelerate your progress. High performing teams utilize the strengths of each team member to complement each other to achieve a common goal.
  4. Keep them engaged and frequently communicate
  5. Empower them to tell stories of their transition and how it benefits them and the organization
  6. Ensure change agents at every level
  7. Focus on the proponents not the opponents

Create a Vision

What is a vision? A vision is a picture of where you or the organizations strives to be. The vision is typically accompanied by WHY people should chase that future. The leader of any organization should be committed and passionate about the vision. A leader who has prepared and built trust among the members will have greater success. Three things affect people’s intuition to follow a leader; trust, hope, and vision. A good vision does the following;

  1. Clearly articulates the end state
  2. Excites/motivates people to take action
  3. The clarity and excitement of the vision coordinates the action of people
  4. Seems realistic and attainable
  5. Is tied to the mission and values
  6. Relates to all members (what’s in it for them)
  7. Changes hearts and minds

Communicate the Vision

The first step in communicating the vision is for leaders to lead by example. Communication at any event or at any level is the common reason for failure. To communicate the vision appropriately take these tips into consideration;

  1. Use all type of communication (verbal, electronic, social media, written, newspapers, etc.)
  2. Face to face communication is the most effective
  3. When communicating the vision stimulate emotion and be empathetic
  4. Be clear, concise, frequent, and consistent.
    1. Confusing and inconsistent messages can cause strife and influences people to lose interest.
  5. Vision drives the department
  6. Don’t over communicate and under deliver (communication of the vision should have actionable meaning)
  7. Don’t make it complicated or unrealistic
  8. Guard against leadership fade. Communicating the vision appropriately takes work, especially if you get out in front enough. Since change can be a physically and emotionally taxing endeavor leadership fade can creep in.

Empowering other to take action

As discussed previously, no significant change initiative is successful alone. Empowering our employees to take action is the only way to be successful. Be aware of the danger zone here. In the fire service we tend to give projects or tasks to our “go getters” because we know they will get it done. This can quickly overload the most motivated and skilled employee increasing the chance of burnout, this has to be a team effort. When empowering others ensure they understand the expectations and be at peace with the fact that it may not be the way you would do it, let them work. If they run into issues provide support and guidance and give the work back as soon as possible. In the case where the outcome is not what was expected ensure a positive learning environment and take advantage of the training/mentoring opportunity, and find a way to get them back grinding on their own to foster that positive, safety environment that encourages innovation and employee engagement without fear of reprisal. Tips to empowering others to take action include;

  1. Encourage risk taking
  2. Set expectations; empowerment without expectations can backfire if there are competing visions
  3. Eliminate obstacles to change and make efforts compatible with the vision
  4. Follow through with their efforts
  5. Acknowledge losses
  6. Publicly share success
  7. Mentor and coach toward success. Training must be provided and an environment of trust and support fostered or people feel disempowered.
  8. The best ideas have to win; listen to your members, be open minded and ask their opinions.
  9. To prevent backsliding, follow up on goals and offer any support nessesary
  10. Don’t micromanage
  11. Confront supervisors who undercut change

Generating short term wins

Change is a long process that takes significant emotional and physical investment to succeed. Recognizing short term wins along this journey is critical to feeling like action toward the vision is happening and efforts are paying off. Talking about goal accomplishment will help people recognize we are working towards the same thing. Short terms wins must be acknowledge publicly, be sure to describe how this win has further progressed the agenda, helped the organization, or people improve. This will enhance the buy in of the members and possibly turn the “fence sitters” into believers. What has worked for me is a consistent progress report recognizing the team’s success and individual efforts. Depending on the change effort I would have a 30-90 day progress report that is briefed at a department level. These reports would take place at a department all hands where recognition could be awarded and questions answered. Typically, these events would be informal, I usually cook out for the department following the brief and any follow up recognition. Consider putting the crews down from any non-emergent taskers for the remainder of that day; everyone needs a recharge. Strategies for successful goal recognition are;

  1. Leaders must be involved
  2. Set goals that foster improvement and recognize effort
  3. Pace your work
  4. Be creative in the recognition process and show appreciation publicly
  5. As much as possible show the success and impact of the change efforts
  6. Focus on collective performance
  7. Use a variety of methods to communicate success

Consolidate wins and create more change

As short term goals become a reality capitalize on those wins to foster excitement and create more change. The momentum gained from success and the realization by employees that change has been positive can make them feel better about their position. This confidence will help people think clearly and openly to give new ideas a chance to succeed. Until change sinks deeply into a company’s culture new approaches are fragile and subject to regression, remember anchoring change can take 5-10 years. Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by the short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems…they typically go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision.

Frequent mistakes in this phase are; consolidating wins and feeling the pulse of your people before further change is initiated; Reinforcing change too early; thinking short term; not using a crew resource management approach to assess the pulse of change; and having initiatives that are too lofty. For change to be affective and receptive on a consistent basis it has to have had a positive effect over time. One success does not ensure future readiness.

Anchoring new approaches

When organizational change sticks it becomes “the way we do things around here”. When it seeps into the organizational body and new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values change is setting in. Here strategies will need to be employed to ensure leadership development and succession planning for sustainment long term. Don’t let the initial feeling of success cause you to lose sight of the overall objective and inflate your EGO.

Factors are particularly important in institutionalizing change;

  • Create a relationship between changed behaviors and organizational success/progress
  • Make a conscious attempt at showing how new approaches, behaviors, and attitudes have helped improve performance (management meetings, newsletters, other forms of org. communications)
  • Ensure that the next generation of top management really does personify the new approach
  • If change is more difficult than planned look up not down; Top level management is the most common reason for failure and insertion of barriers
  • Remember that each step is the foundation for the other; you may need to continually evaluate each step before moving on to sure of the impact
  • Best way to know that you have anchored change is to have it succeed when you are gone

20 common sense tips for successful change;

  1. Invest in knowing your workforce
  2. Lead by example
  3. Relate the benefit to their well being
  4. Understand their perspective
  5. Meet disruptions head on with transparent, frank, and data driven discussion
  6. To work, it has to be about what they love; people generally see change as always about me, my stuff, and my feelings first.
  7. Behave consistently with your peoples goals, needs, and values in mind
  8. Identify the champions, allies, fence sitters, mellow opponents, and hard core opponents early
  9. You will only be successful from a TEAM approach
  10. Never let personal opinion influence change
  11. Take advantage of momentum and empower your people to do great things
  12. You can never communicate enough
  13. Champion your cause, be out in front, and be public about it
  14. Continually assess each phase before moving to the next
  15. Publicize short term wins and extraordinary efforts
  16. Stay connected; be transparent and open for discussion
  17. Understand that change starts at the top but is anchored at the bottom
  18. Remember everyone changes at a difference pace
  19. Frequently move out to the balcony
  20. Build coalitions at all levels

Ultimately it’s up to you!

No matter the profession or trade change is happening all around us. As you initiate change initiative remember that people take on the characteristics of the leader. Focus on building the team, communicate often while educating and mentoring along the way. Change is about dealing with adaptive challenges, to stay ahead of problems and predict behaviors frequently move up to the balcony. Down in the weeds everything can seem chaotic and disorganized. Moving up to the balcony allows you to see from an elevated position across the organization. Overall, to be successful you have to understand your people and your organization. Remember how you felt the last time something changed in your life and plan to address those same needs for your employees. If something seems off gather your team and assesse the phase you are in. Mabey you underestimated the process and need to go back and shore up the previous phase before moving on. Whether you use this approach to foster change or not it’s coming, you need to be prepared.


Fitzgerald, I. (2005). The death of corporatism? Managing change in the fire service. Personnel Review, 34(6), 648-662. doi.org/10.1108/00483480510623448

Kotter, J. (2012). Leading organizations through change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press

Maxwell, J. (2007). The 21 Irrefutable laws of leadership (10th Ed). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.

Odagiu, C. (2013). Organizational culture, change management and performance. Managerial Challenges of the Contemporary Society. Proceedings, 6, 1.

About the Author:  Jacob McAfee, MS, CFO, CTO, MI FireE is the Fire Chief for the Fresno City College (FCC) Fire Academy and Director of Fire Technology programs. Jacob is a former DoD Fire Chief and has 19 years of fire service experience.  Chief McAfee completed National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP), and holds Chief Fire Officer (CFO) and Chief Training Officer (CTO) credentials from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds Masters Degrees in Occupational Safety and Health and Emergency Management while currently pursuing his PhD in Emergency Management with Capella University.