By Kevin Milan
Published Sunday, August 19, 2012
Training is most often focused on your current job. But how do you train for a promotion? In the fire service organizations, the gateway to promotion is the assessment center. At the center, testing can involve unprepared candidates, or it can be a true evaluation of individuals ready and willing to demonstrate their abilities. Either way, it’s the candidates’ duty to adequately prepare for the assessment, and it’s the assessors’ duty to offer a fair and straightforward assessment of the candidates’ skills. This assessment is tied directly to the position that the candidate wishes to be promoted to.
Job Training 101
On the job, we strive to improve our KSAs—the knowledge, skills, and abilities that make us better firefighters, officers and chiefs. Our training officers and company officers ensure that training guides us toward KSA acquisition and improvement. The primary tool they use during training is the learning episode, which comes in the form of kitchen table discussions, structured training and teachable moments in emergency response.
In formal training programs, gaps are identified between the desired performance and the current performance. Through a job task analysis (JTA), the desired outcomes are identified. Gaps or deficiencies in the skill sets of incumbents are assessed in formal and informal ways. From this “gap analysis,” a path is determined for how to narrow the gap.
When preparing a recruit firefighter for duty, formal JTA and gap analysis are straightforward. Training programs for recruits are tied to NFPA 1001: Standard for Firefighter Professional Qualifications. The KSAs a recruit needs are clearly identified here and many prepackaged curriculums meet the standard. We have the luxury of picking and choosing from a vast array of lessons to develop these KSAs in our up-and-coming firefighters.
Similarly, formal driver/operator, officer development and inspector training follow referenced standards. Canned curricula are available for each of these duties. The art of modifying these programs so that they address local conditions is a skill that separates the average officer from the exceptional officer.
Agile officers often complete informal assessments on the fly. Well-placed prompts and solid, honest tailboard critiques are the foundation of informal assessment. Again, the JTA, or a clear idea of the desired outcome, serves as the goal. Current performance is measured against this goal and a plan is developed to improve.
JTA as Promotion Prep Tool
But, as I asked at the beginning of this article, what about preparing for promotion? There is no standard, no manual on how to prepare. Only a few of our mentors like John Mittendorf offer readings1 to support the quest for promotion. So how, then, can the aspiring officer, inspector or company officer get their badge?
Answer: I propose a similar JTA to serve as a tool that helps officers prepare for their promotional exam—one that you are in control of. Complete your own comprehensive JTA on the position you seek, and complete a gap analysis. Do this well in advance of upcoming promotional examinations. If you give yourself plenty of time, you’ll have a chance to develop the areas that you find need improvement or growth. Remember: A solid JTA and gap analysis are the keys to success on the assessment center, so why not provide those keys to yourself?
Of course, knowing exactly what the assessors and the department are looking for on the next promotional exam is impossible. Although the basic KSAs are identified in NFPA standards, they are only the minimum. To prepare for this challenge, identify the additional KSAs expected in your department. Ask yourself where the gaps are between this bar and your current performance. Once you identify your gaps, embark on a training program to narrow these gaps.
Important: The key to the entire process is honesty. So if you have operational weaknesses or an aversion to conflict, just admit it. It’s often said that a problem well stated is half solved.
In the business world, you must make a job out of getting a job—the same holds true of getting promoted. Honestly answering your personal gap questions serves as the basis for preparation and, if done properly, will push you toward success.
How to Prepare
So exactly what do you prepare for? Job descriptions and postings for the position comprise the springboard. In a career setting, the published reading list, standard operating procedures or guidelines (SOPs/SOGs), policies and any other “fair game” materials are disclosed at the onset. This is usually covered in the promotional announcement and reinforced in a department or consultant overview of the process. Tip: Don’t skip this presentation since a deep understanding of each element is essential.
One important step often overlooked involves giving thought to the required elements of the examination. Knowing how an SOG is supported by policy can make the difference on the final rankings on a promotional list. Similarly, being able to cite how the reading material supports or contradicts the department policies and SOGs can catapult you in the standings. Agility and ability to connect the dots forces assessment center evaluators to bump your scores. For example, knowing that the high-rise protocols employed by your department are driven by the fire code, staffing levels and apparatus and equipment can set you apart from other candidates.
Make the Right Impression
How you present yourself at the assessment center is key. The basics are imperative. Remember: First impressions are made in those first few seconds. Although assessors and assessment companies make a great effort to filter out bias, the bottom line is humans conduct practical portions of the assessment. If they notice an un-pressed uniform shirt or un-shined shoes, it will make a difference.
Just as important is the way you carry yourself. Think back to the advice a parent gave to you as a young child. Put your best foot forward, stand tall, sit straight and make eye contact. Mean what you say and impart emotion to show your passion for the department and the position you seek. Make every attempt to introduce yourself and shake the hands of raters in each practical section of the assessment. Note: There are some processes that prohibit this, so be certain to adhere to guidelines. If you’re unsure, ask.
Things to Remember
With proper preparation, assessment centers are simply a place that offers you the opportunity to present yourself in the best light possible. If it helps you, form study groups, and don’t be afraid that you’re helping out the competition. Each member of a study group benefits and the ability to cooperate is a skill that can’t be faked.
Develop your own JTA, conduct a gap analysis, then design a personalized training program for promotion. You don’t need to be a master trainer to complete these steps. Give yourself time to prepare, and practice often. With deliberate training, preparing for the promotional exam becomes a lot like firehouse training. Preparation equates to performance on assessment centers. A deliberate plan is your best chance for success.
1. Mittendorf, J. Facing the Promotional Interview. Penwell Publishing: Tulsa, Okla.
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