Firefighter or strategic leader - what is your brand?

There are fires everywhere.

The website is down.
A customer is pissed off.
We need a deck built by tomorrow morning.

Corporate life often feels like an endless string of fires.
It’s quite rare to see something big, positive, or visionary happen.

That’s why it’s so easy to become a firefighter.

If your boss has a problem, you solve it.
If the Sales team needs something for an urgent deal, you deliver it.
If the CEO is pissed off, you scramble to help.

Corporate life is pulling you towards a career as a firefighter.

The good news, firefighters almost never get fired. They even survive mass layoffs.
The bad news, firefighters seldom get promoted, and never have their roles expanded.

To be clear, firefighting is a noble role – every business needs firefighters.
It’s just not a good place to be if you’re looking for career growth.

If firefighters don’t get promoted, then who does?
Everyone views me as a firefighter – how do I change that perception?

These are the questions we’ll answer today.

I’m doing a lot more coaching this year, and I’m really enjoying it. So, when three of my clients described essentially the same problem to me, I felt compelled to write this blog. My guess is many of you find yourselves in a similar situation – smart, responsible, hard-working people often end up as firefighters.

Do any of these sound like you?

Your boss loves you. She wouldn’t know what to do if you weren’t there.
The business would fall apart if you went on vacation for a month.
You’re the first person they’d call in the middle of the night with an urgent issue.
Everyone depends on you, but nobody can really describe what your role is.
You do great work but there is no obvious promotion or expansion opportunity for you.

This is the career of a firefighter. Essential – yes, but always overlooked at promotion time. In my book, I refer to them as “go-to-guys” and “go-to-girls”.

If you’re nodding along because I’m describing you, and you’re shaking your head because you want more in your career, I have good news.

Firefighters can easily evolve perception. Afterall, they’re starting from such a strong position. Everyone loves a firefighter. All you have to do is tweak your image a tiny bit and you’ll go from being loveable but unpromotable, to visionary rockstar on the high-performance track.

Before I share my tips on HOW to transform your image, let’s just be clear about what we’re transforming to.

The people who get promoted and have their roles expanded are the strategic leaders. The people who get everyone excited about a vision and then deliver it. Strategic leaders deliver big wins. They transform teams and processes, they build things, they make things go faster, or save money, or help the company win. They are proactive. They don’t wait for problems, they innovate. And that’s why they get all the promotions. That’s why they get expanded roles. Big wins get celebrated and remembered. So, when promotion time comes around, it feels like a no-brainer.

Firefighting on the other hand, gets forgotten. Problems that were avoided, issues that were resolved, there’s just no win to celebrate. There’s nothing proactive there. The company wasn’t made better, it just wasn’t made worse. Unfortunately, the only way firefighters get promoted is if they threaten to quit, then their value in remembered.

Here are three simple steps to move from a firefighter to a strategic leader:

1. Create a vision for your role/team and share it.

The major difference between a firefighter and a strategic leader is a future-focused vision. The firefighter fights fires – and will continue to do so as the company evolves. The strategic leader is driving the company’s evolution into the future. That is exciting and motivating and will lead to promotions for you and your team.

If you are a firefighter or lead a firefighting team, I recommend you pause and build a transformative vision for your role/team. How can you add more value? How can you change the way the company operates? What can we do that is big and bold? Build this vision, then tell your boss about it, and once she’s excited, tell everyone else.

2. Align your work to high priority corporate initiatives.

Too often the work of a firefighter is abstracted from the most important things the company does. It’s often critically important work, but seems disconnected from revenue generation, growth, innovation, and all that exciting stuff.

But is it really? In my experience, leaders who feel their work is disconnected from the core value creation of the company are just thinking too narrowly. Afterall, if you’re fighting fires, you’re working on things people care about, you’re just a bit too reactive to be seen as strategic.

My recommendation to firefighters is to take a closer look at the major corporate initiatives people care about and think a bit more deeply about how your work enables them. With a cleared understanding of that connection, you can change the way you talk about your work, so people can begin to view it as part of something important instead of random firefighting.

3. Transform a team, product, process, or policy.

Strategic leaders are always changing something. Firefighters are always trying to keep things safe and secure like they are supposed to be. Way too many leaders get sucked into believing their teams are fine as they are. Way too many leaders set the bar too low for themselves and their teams. Way too many leaders fear change, or fear calling attention to what needs to be changed.

The reality is change is growth, and growth is what leads to recognition, promotion, and expansion. Instead of defending your role and your team, you should be proactive about improving it. Finding and communicating a worthy transformation is a great way to motivate a team, and a great way to demonstrate growth. My recommendation is that at the start of every year you should identify a transformation goal for your team and/or your role. Talk about that goal publicly, share it with your boss – get everyone invested in it. Be honest about your areas for improvement – show you are an objective leader. Then, when you deliver on your goal, you’ll have created a natural promotion or expansion opportunity. Your boss and others will want you to transform something else, something bigger.

I’ve worked with dozens of leaders over the years to transform their images and the images of their teams to move away from firefighting and towards something much more strategic. It is much easier than people assume and can be done within a single year. Do you have a vision for your team? Are you changing or improving how you operate? Could you do more to help the company? How do you talk about your team and your projects? Could you tie them more directly to critical corporate initiatives? Ask yourself these tough questions and start evolving your brand.

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