A compelling and passionately communicated vision can change the world. President Kennedy put a man on the moon and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream inspired hundreds of thousands. Communications Center managers may not be sending rockets into space, but their vision can have a similarly inspirational effect.
What inspires dispatchers to dig in, dedicate long hours, and shoulder the emotional stress that comes with the job?
In 9-1-1, with all the near-term challenges, there’s a tendency to plan only for the next day, week, or month, at most. The problem with planning only a month out is the biggest challenges take more than a month (or a deployment period) to form, and more than that to solve.
Without a clear vision for where your organization is headed over the next one to five years, the biggest challenges will continue to persist. But where to put the time and attention? Several comm centers have met their biggest challenges with a powerful vision for the future, and through understanding, empathy and persistence, have made their dream a reality.
A Dispatch Center in Need of Change
In 2009, Grand Junction Regional Communication Center had reached a breaking point. Nearly 75% of trainees were leaving the center before completing the training program. Overall turnover was 35%. Mandatory OT and excessive sick time usage were the norm. Exit interviews told a horrible tale of bullying and mistreatment, from both trainees and veteran employees.
Unwilling to accept this as the norm, the center’s manager and assistant manager decided something had to change. They began to craft a vision of the type of center they wanted to work for, and ask important questions about the center’s future. The question that guided the process was, “How do we want to treat people?”
Opening the process to the staff, they enrolled others in the vision. The amazing changes that followed were the result of hearing, loud and clear, how every team member answered that question. The answers were crystallized in the center’s Mission & Values Statement, as published in the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center 2015 Annual Report:
We protect those who serve, we serve those who protect, we help those in need.
Anytime and every time. We will achieve these goals and provide excellent customer service by adhering to these values: Integrity, Teamwork & Respect
Rather than a pithy corporate slogan that looks good but doesn’t result in action, this center’s statement became the pathway forward. What started as the leaders’ vision had become something tangible. Every team member took ownership, and with unanimous buy-in, the values formed the foundation for hiring, training, daily operations, discipline, and termination.
Grand Junction center leadership coupled their newly inspired organizational culture with a concrete goal of becoming the best center in Colorado by a certain date. This specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound (SMART) goal paid off.
Grand Junction Regional Communication Center was named Colorado NENA/APCO Communication Center of the Year 2011 - no small feat for a center that just two years earlier struggled to attract, train and keep top talent.
Where does a leader’s vision come from?
Change can be scary. Why run the risk having a major change initiative fail and further losing employee trust?
When asked how she successfully inspires trust and positive change, Lynn Bowler, Support Services Manager for Elk Grove Police Department in California and 37-year veteran of the 911 industry, replied, “I have a genuine love and concern for people who do this job, and I’m committed to making things better for them, always.” Vision emerges from a leader’s love for those under her charge.
In James Hunter’s classic leadership book, “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership,” he qualifies this pronouncement, saying, "It’s not how you feel, but how you behave. It’s built upon influence, which is built upon service and sacrifice, which is built upon love. The leadership values of patience, kindness, empathy, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment all flow from this."
Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, puts it succinctly when he says, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
Action steps for improving PSAP culture
Start by asking some questions. What is your vision for your agency? How would you like to feel when coming into work each day? Then, no matter where you are in the organization—line employee, supervisor, manager, director, city manager or chief, you can help make this vision a reality by taking the following steps:
Set aside time to meet with your people and dream.
What is the world you’re creating? Putting out fires is task-oriented and often stressful. Taking time to imagine possibilities short-circuits the stressed mindset, and imparts feelings of inspiration.
Tie your vision to concrete goals.
The best goals are SMART: Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Relevant; Time-bound. Hold yourself and your team accountable for seeing the goals through.
Mentor & coach the next generation of leaders.
There’s a reason why the word “success” is a part of succession planning. Your organization can’t succeed without the next generation getting the tools and perspectives to do it.
Apply the vision to hiring and on-boarding practices
Don’t treat employees like they’re disposable, like they are just warm bodies in seats. Design the hiring and recruitment process to insure quality, then treat them with the respect that your 9-1-1 professionals have earned.
Communicate your vision clearly and often.
The best leaders are masters not only of crafting a compelling vision, but of bringing it to their people in a relatable way through stories, acknowledgment and praise.
Finally, and it’s been said before, keep at it. In several cases, it’s taken years for the vision to become a reality. In other cases, the vision was lost altogether because the team didn’t keep working at it, daily.
Now, get started!
It takes courage to share a vision, especially when things are particularly challenging, but it’s during the most challenging times when people need to know what they’re working for. Your vision can show the way.
- The Power of Resilience: How to Thrive as a 911 Dispatcher
- 5 Keys for Happiness in your PSAP Career
- Creating a problem solving culture at your PSAP
About the Author
Adam Timm is the president and co-founder of The Healthy Dispatcher. Previously a 9-1-1 telecommunicator with the Los Angeles Police Dept. for over a decade, Adam now provides leadership and resilience training to PSAPs around the country.
Adam's second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.
Visit thehealthydispatcher.com for more.