By Tracey Spindler, Leading Station Officer Fire and Rescue NSW
Being one of 17 women in leadership positions in an organisation of 6,800 mainly male firefighters, gave Leading Station Officer Tracey Spindler a clear motivation for embracing an all-women leadership opportunity initiated by her employer, Fire and Rescue NSW.
Tracey, who is based at Forestville on Sydney’s northern beaches, worked as a high school PE teacher and later with disabled young adults before starting a career in the fire brigade 21 years ago. Tracey also has family links with the fire service, her two brothers worked as part-time fire fighters.
She explains in her own words how the Women Leading @ Fire + Rescue NSW program helped her find a new purpose and approach to building her career pathway.
While I had no set outcomes prior to doing the program, I loved the idea that the fire brigade was committed to doing a program just for women in leadership.
Until then, in most of the courses I’d done, I was the only female and they were predominantly run by men. And, here I was, being given the chance to develop my leadership skills with other female colleagues who understood the challenges and nuances of our roles. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity and felt valued by my organisation for the investment they had made.
The things that were of value, more than I had anticipated, were the connections and contacts that I made with other senior female colleagues. There are very few crews where there’s more than one female on shift. This important aspect was enhanced by the program structure: three two-day sessions with overnight stays and each one followed by a one-on-one coaching session with our coach Reyna Matthes (an Executive Central Director).
It’s the most perfect balance of group work and individual focus. Usually, you’re left to understand and take what you can from a course. We got the chance to explore things together and then as an individual get more specific and really make the program about ‘me’.
We were able to connect and develop those friendships – it’s difficult normally because we’re in different parts of the state, on different platoons and shifts. We were able to really talk about and discuss challenges, experiences and put our vulnerabilities on the line. Personally, I was able to move forward and feel acknowledged by Fire & Rescue.
Learning new skills
The big take away for me – and I’ve done strengths-based programs and leadership programs before – was the focus on ‘strengths-based leadership’ that was pretty potent. We got to explore strengths even further, recognising our strengths and how to apply them – that really was a big deal. I feel it has given me confidence as a leader – that was huge.
I loved the Career Map work (a roadmap for career management) – an idea I’d never been introduced to before this. I think that 20 years ago, if someone had sat with me and talked to me about my career map, I would have taken on a leadership role much earlier.
I want to be able to leave that as my legacy now, I want to sit beside people – men and women – and challenge them to think further ahead. As a triathlete, I’m completely familiar with the use of a training plan, but I’ve never had that idea introduced to me in relation to my career. It is something that I keep working on now, making changes and developing my career map.
What we learned about neuroscience (led by Executive Central coach Nicole Hercus) in the program has really motivated me to study further and understand how this affects behaviour in people. I’d like to develop that skill so I can better understand the people that I lead.
Measuring personal growth
Six or so months after the program, I’m feeling more confident because I’m focusing on my strengths and how I can incorporate them into my leadership. After the program, I worked for a time in a regional area as acting inspector where they’d had little exposure – at all levels – to female leaders. It was a huge benefit to have had this training to use my strengths to support me.
Soon, I’ll be going to a country command for a month, and I’ll be using all these things that I learned and I’ll be passing on what I can. I’m going to have one-on-one sessions with the crew to see what’s working well for them in their career and to get them to focus on their future but through this exercise I want them to feel valued. This stems from the fact that sitting in that course, I felt so valued as a leader, I now want to give back.
As an organisation, I think the fire service realised that we have a really tough gig – even as firefighters. The women are behind the eight-ball when it comes to networking and bringing us to the table. You’re a tiny female speck in a big pool of males and it takes a lot of courage to step up, you have to be very confident – it really helped to explore what’s holding us back.
I know senior management would do anything to help us and this was a brilliant start. To (Executive Central coach) Reyna’s credit, she really challenged us; she was very good at looking for a way forward when serious issues came up; she was great at giving it the attention and focus when it was a big thing for us. These are real issues and important to us women because they’re preventing us from stepping up and moving ahead in our careers.
I found Reyna relatable, vibrant and engaging. She really went out of her way to get to know our organisation, the whole system as well as the shift work. Without that you can’t get the essence or depth of our challenges.
While, selfishly, I’d like there to be a follow up program to this one, I would actually like this (Women Leading program) to be rolled out to regional female captains and deputy captains, where they’re often just one in an isolated area, and could benefit greatly from the skills they would learn and the connections with other colleagues.