Imagine your organization as a small city. It has all the positions and dramas a city has. Your top executive is your mayor. The top executive’s leadership team can stand in for a city council. You’ve got your town busy bodies and old hermits, and then you’ve got your first responders.
Do you know who your organization’s first responders are? Are you a first responder?
You can find your organization’s first responders quite easily. They’re the people who rush toward the smoke of a burning platform, who save the pillars of the organization from being destroyed, and who serve above and beyond their job descriptions or narrow roles in the organization.
But, your organization isn’t a small town. In a small town, the citizens can call for the first responders. In an organization, it’s the top executive and their leadership team who have the near sole possession of the alarm summoning the first responders. These days it seems the leadership of organizations is more than willing to sound the alarm, not early, but often.
What happens when the alarm is sounded? Always committed to their passion for helping their fellow man, regardless the hour or the situation, the first responders stop everything and surge to their posts. They’re quickly on post, charged with adrenaline, and ready to rush out to serve and save.
Again, your organization is not a real city. If it were, the first responders would have control of the garage door blocking their start away from their current location and toward resolving the crisis. In an organization, it’s the top leaders who often solely control that door, and here’s the scenario that often unfolds.
0030: Alarm sounded by the leadership team. Urgent change required to save the organization. First responders arrive on post, ready to serve.
0400: First meeting of leadership team called to discuss the alarm, why it was pushed and agree that pushing alarms is a solid leadership action. First responders are twitching aboard their rescue vehicle, eager to assist those suffering as the organization falters.
0800: Second meeting of the leadership team to finally agree who is responsible for actually pushing the button to release the first responders. Now, this decision, if made, will have to be followed by a lengthy discussion of who can issue the order to push the button to the the person who is responsible for pushing the button. Did you catch that? Neither did I.
By the end of the meeting no one is appointed responsible for button pushing or ordering the button pushed, so no one does anything. Instead the leadership team agrees to reconvene after lunch and the door is still shut. The first responders remain at their posts, though their energy is fading and each noise near the door jolts them back into full attention. The internal energy is quickly depleted. Frustration, anger and sadness are taking hold of the first responders. More than a few first responders have turned in their resignation papers and gone home.
1230: Third meeting of the leadership team. An ally of the first responders tried to push the button to open the door while the other leaders weren’t looking. He has since been chastised by the group for not being a team player. Meanwhile, almost all the first responders have left their posts and the citizens of the organization have started protest campaigns just outside the door over the deplorable state of the organization.
1400: The organization is in ruins. The leadership team adjourns without a decision, content they put in a long day of “work”. The last, exhausted first responders sulk home, their lives wasted. They are now shadows of their former selves.
Now that I’ve pushed you into a pit of despair about how organizations really don’t change, let me attempt to build you a rope ladder so you can free yourself from the pit. (You’ll have to go with me on this one. Some days I think I’m still in the pit, so who am I really to give advice. But, since not knowing has never stopped me from talking, I’ll continue.) Here are my suggestions for first responders coping with an alarm followed by the door still shut in front of you.
1. You can’t stand at your post, jumping at every sound following the latest alarm from the top leadership that, “This time it’s different.” You’ll kill yourself with the stress. TRUST ME! You must get the adrenaline out somehow before you collapse. My way to get it out is to go for an angry, pound the pavement, and ignore my pace run. When I’m done, the door isn’t any more open, but at least I’m not twitching at every sound.
2. Let the leaders know you’re waiting. In the story above you could think that the leaders must clearly see what their decision delays are doing to their first responders. Often, they don’t. If you’re a first responder, don’t be shy about telling them what you’re doing and why you’re ready to go. It usually doesn’t hurt to mention it, as long as you use your “driving change” techniques and tell them about your obstacles without ordering them to do something for you. Keep the focus on the organization and they just might open the door. This has worked for me a few times.
3. Leave the organization (or never join it). I’d like to tell you that other organizations will be better, but Dilbert does seem to be universal. You could choose an organization based on a proven track record of letting the first responders loose on the organization, but even that may be fleeting. Years ago I didn’t take a job offer because I could tell from my initial interactions with the company that they had no intention of opening the door for the first responders. That’s not my kind of organization.
4. Don’t leave; just give up. This I can’t recommend, but it is an option. If you’ve ever met someone who is “retired in place,” chances are good that they were once a first responder who couldn’t take it anymore and just gave up on the inside long before their body gave out. It’s your choice to give up, but I don’t think that’s any way to live.
Now, for the few of you reading this blog that are the leadership team in our story and who happen to find themselves seemingly trapped in the story above, I offer these suggestions.
Step 1: Don’t push the alarm unless you mean it and you’ve already agreed to open the door. Pushing the alarm then discussing the door is insulting and frustrating for too many people in your organization, and is debilitating to your first responders. They may not be telling you that to your face, but it is.
Step 2: Analyze why you pushed the alarm and then choose to not open the door. Your behavior is causing many people pain and you shouldn’t be able to avoid that truth. Either don’t push the alarm (which is hard to do these days when the world won’t stop changing just because you want it to) or open the door before you push the alarm. It really is that simple.
On the rare occasions that I’ve seen the door open before the alarm went off, the organizations have been stunned by the rapid success of their first responders.
For me, it seems being an organizational first responder is a life’s calling. What I’m learning more and more every day is that this calling can crush you just as easily as it can save you.
I bet your organization is worth saving. To all my organizational first responder brethren out there, stay strong while you wait for the door to swing open. Stay strong and keep driving change.
If you’re a leader who just wants to vent about your problems without any intention of solving them, please don’t vent to a first responder and definitely don’t push the alarm (e.g., hold huge meetings) that summon all the first responders.
Call someone else. I bet there are plenty of people you know in your organization who will never try to help you solve your problems. Let them listen and do nothing. They like it that way.