INSIGHTS

How Purpose sets true north – let’s ask the volunteer “fireys”

Jim McKerlie

“The cultures of the career firefighters and volunteer firefighters are quite different, and the motivations are quite different. They are similar in some ways – they are there to save lives and property, and they will put their own lives on the line for people they have never met – but volunteers are very much community based”

Australia is a dry, sparsely populated continent with a significant fire risk. The cost of each community having a paid fire service is prohibitive, but the necessity is there. The way Australia has solved this problem is through volunteer fire services with people from the community doing the job of a paid fireman and the State Government providing funding for equipment and training. Each state has a volunteer fire service. In NSW it is called the NSW Rural Fire Service and we name them only because in this Insight we will use some specific examples from that organisation.

The summer of 2019/20 has seen extraordinary fires across Australia with horrific loss of life, property, livestock and wildlife. And in many cases the only thing that stood between total devastation and being saved were ordinary people who stepped into their firefighting roles. These volunteers were not only risking their lives but putting their normal day to day livelihood at risk by not being at work for months on end because they have been fighting fires.

So why do thousands of people volunteer to be a “firey”? Why give up your time to do the training, learn new skills and commit to be available, knowing when the call came, you would be facing a very challenging and dangerous situation. The documented reasons include wanting to do something meaningful, to be part of a community, because of the friendship and comradery that comes from belonging and because of the skills acquired and learning.

Business leaders can learn a lot from what we have seen in Australia over the summer. Involvement with the volunteer fire service comes from a real belief in the purpose of the organisation.  It is quite likely that most “fireys” could not recite the vision and mission of the organisation, they probably don’t know or care what those terms mean, but it is a pretty good bet that over a beer they could tell you very passionately that the organisation was a community based fire fighting service whose job it is to protect people, property and the environment.

And as for values, you want to see values in action, go to the fire front and see how the team gets the job done. Mutual respect, adaptability, working as a team, friendship, comradery, community, environmental concerns and learning.  Values matter when actions matter. They are much more than words in a plan.  To give values meaning they need to be associated with actions and behaviours.

It is interesting that Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of Fire & Rescue New South Wales, told the Victorian government in 2017, “The cultures of the career firefighters and volunteer firefighters are quite different, and the motivations are quite different. They are similar in some ways – they are there to save lives and property, and they will put their own lives on the line for people they have never met – but volunteers are very much community based.” The salient point from this is that purpose, vision, mission, values, culture, motivation, rewards and recognition is a complex and very interdependent set of concepts. You need to get consistency between all of these if you want to generate teamwork and performance improvement.  Two fire fighting bodies, doing near identical work, for the same outcomes, yet very different cultures. This must give leaders thoughts to ponder.

And then there are teams. What is a team for volunteer firefighters? There are the people on the front line, (the ones we see on the news) but there is much more to their team. There are the people in the supply chain, people who handle communications, who manage organisation logistics in a crisis, the trainers, those who keep the equipment going, the people who feed the front line, the people that are immediately on hand to assist the victims and many more.   A lot of people, doing a vast array of tasks, operating in a stressful situation, having to make decisions in an instant that are not written up in a procedure’s manual. How does all this teamwork happen?

The contemporary view in management science is that organisations need to have a purpose statement, a statement that informs of the reason the organisation exists. It is the “long term good” that the organisation is doing. Volunteer fire services have a clear purpose (to protect people, property and the environment), a very strong one that clearly works. Purpose enables organisational success in several ways:

  • Purpose provides a sense of “true north” that guides strategy formulation in times of disruption and constant change
  • An understanding of the big picture allows innovation to be focused within boundaries and affords taking a long term view of what might be possible
  • Transformation is change and is often feared. Purpose provides meaning and direction during transformation. People need to be doing meaningful work.
  • Decisions, strategic and tactical, will be guided by purpose. Autonomy is possible when people know what the outer boundaries are.
  • Human beings, particularly in the millennial age, have a need to do good things, to be altruistic. Purpose satisfies this need. Furthermore, differences generated by internal competitiveness and the diversity in the workforce can be united behind a Purpose that is shared across the organisation.

Purpose goes hand in hand with living values ie the behaviour and actions of the people within the organisation. It is very difficult for the values of leaders to be understood by the employees of their organisation, particularly larger ones, unless leader’s actions have transparency and are communicated. Purpose and values need repeatability, and they need to be seen and tested regularly.

Teamwork displayed by fire services teams is a major topic and as such is not addressed in this Insight other than to reiterate teamwork is fundamental to performance improvement.

 

How Kendo Works

Having a Purpose Statement at an organisation level is important and this needs to be visible and communicated throughout the organisation. Similarly with Values. Kendo allows users to start with the documentation of Purpose and Values.

At the team level, the Organisational Purpose can be adapted to create a Team Purpose that provides context for that team so there is a greater sense of relatedness and belonging. The Team Purpose appears on the team dashboard. The concept behind this is to ensure there is a nexus between objectives and individual employees. Too often individuals do not really know what the organisation plan is, or its specific objectives. They are too distant from that part of the organisation that makes those decisions. By introducing a Team Purpose and Team Objectives, individual employees can participate or have visibility of this and a nexus is created.

Kendo is people centric software, so as a final step, individual employees can create a Personal Purpose that aligns with the Organisation Purpose but very personal to the individual and their career aspirations and beliefs. The Personal Purpose cannot be out of alignment as it would suggest that the employee does not believe in what they are doing which would be an unhealthy situation for both the employee and the organisation.

Kendo has Pulse Check which provides continuous performance appraisals. Within Pulse Checks there is an option for employees to comment on Purpose and identify their ongoing relatedness to it. Purpose and Values are living concepts and from time to time we need to check ourselves that we are still in alignment or provide feedback that maybe they need to be recalibrated.

The benefit Kendo delivers is that Purpose is permeated throughout the organisation, so that even with staff turnover, changing team membership and an agile working environment, all employees will be cognizant of what the organisation stands for.