Viewpoint: Define your touchstones to be a better manager
By Larry Mullikin
Do you have a set of management touchstones? Odds are you do, even though you may not realize it or have not taken the time to list them. A touchstone is a very specific idea that you, as a manager, believe in. If someone asked you what your touchstones are, could you describe them with clarity?
The organization you lead will only benefit if you identify and maintain your focus on what is really important to you as a professional. Then, you have to go way beyond that in educating, teaching and reinforcing your touchstones to the organization or group you lead. As an example, below are my six management touchstones.
1. Employees need to know the organization’s mission.
The Salina, Kan., Fire Department has nearly 100 members. Oddly enough, our mission statement was not written by the fire department; it was written by our residents. When we asked residents through customer surveys what they thought and valued, they consistently responded with one to four items. They valued the fact that we:
- Responded quickly,
- Performed professionally,
- Saved lives and property, and
- Were caring and compassionate to all.
Our mission statement today includes those four items, to which we added a fifth stating that, “Everybody goes home.” I would challenge anyone to walk into any of our fire stations and ask any of our firefighters what the mission is and be met with a blank stare. They all know the mission statement. Further, they are expected to execute it in every contact we have with our community. The firefighters also have the latitude to go further and deliver exceptional care without asking permission from anyone.
2. Know what workplace principles are important.
The workplace principles for our department began to take shape in our strategic plan in 2008 and were reinforced when the city manager distributed them as a challenge to all departments. They are establishing:
- Clear ethical and cultural standards
- Performance-oriented environment
- Implementation capability
- Open multi-dimensional communications
- Empower those who execute
- Build capability in the workforce
- Build capacity in the workforce
3. Employees want to know the “Boss.”
Everyone wants to know who they are working for. There is nothing that I do, read, participate in, or show interest in that the firefighters don’t pick up on. They want to know what I value, what is important and how I view the world around us.
One of the ways I try and accomplish this is to email a simple one-page “Keys to Leadership” to every firefighter. It gives me a chance to step out of my formal role and talk about what I observe as really good leadership. I will also touch on personal items and challenges I face that I think they can learn from. In that way, they know what I value and how I will approach various subjects.
Also, I meet with all the firefighters about every five weeks in a group setting. I have always told them that they can ask me any question on any subject they would like. They may not like the answer, but they gain an understanding of why and how a certain decision or action was arrived at.
4. Employees want to be part of something “Big.”
The worst thing an organization or supervisor can do is make someone feel small in the job or task they perform. We have no small jobs in the fire service. From the day new recruits walk in the door, they are told they are being given the opportunity to execute the most important job we have — they are part of something big. We teach people how to be successful.
5. Supervisors need to know critical skills to succeed.
Do you know the critical skills your employees and supervisors need to have to be successful? I have a really short list of three.
- Know the five characteristics of functional teams.
- Know how to build and reach consensus by addressing two items.
- Know the five steps of how to create change.
Those three items would take too much space to do them justice in this article, but the primary item can be summarized as:
- trust among team members,
- productive and constructive conflict,
- commitment of team members to the goal,
- individual accountability to the team, and
- clear focus on goal attainment.
Lacking any one of those can spell disaster for a team effort. Because your employees may not have significant team experience, you have to build these characteristics within them and help them move forward.
6. Allow employees to “self select” themselves out of advancement.
By “empowering those who execute,” it doesn’t take long for them to tell you what they are best suited for and when that climb up the ladder of success should end. By writing processes so strictly that no one can do anything without advanced permission, you lose the ability to spontaneously resolve issues or increase the capacity of the organization by those who are in the best position to do so.
Those are my six touchstones that I repeatedly present to my organization to engrain them in the organization and effect a cultural change. You may find these six useful. But, whether you do or not, define your touchstones. You will be the better for it.
Larry Mullikin is fire chief for the Salina, Kan., Fire Department. He may be reached at [email protected].