By Zena Mehanna, Fire and Rescue NSW
A recent investment in senior women’s leadership by her employer, Fire and Rescue NSW, offered Station Officer Zena Mehanna an important and rare opportunity to develop new skills, as well as network with female colleagues.
Now based in Leichhardt, in Sydney’s inner west, Zena began her career in the fitness industry which is where she was first exposed to the fire brigade when she worked with recruits at the Alexandria Training College. Almost 21 years ago, after reaching a cross-roads in her career, Zena joined the fire service.
In a rare achievement of parity, today Zena leads a fire crew that is made up of equal numbers of women and men.
She details in her own words how the Women Leading @ Fire + Rescue NSW helped her renew her understanding and application of strengths-based leadership.
When I joined there were only around 15 active women in the fire service in a workforce of 3,000 people. My first station, Glebe, gave me the best experience. From my crew – I worked with some truly awesome men – to my boss, who was progressive and a true leader before his time due to his focus on an individual’s strengths and being supportive of the women in his crew but not wrapping them up in cotton wool. The reason I’m where I am today is that I had the benefit of great leadership from the start.
After eight years as a firefighter and another six in the education and training division, I qualified to be a Station Officer and I’ve now been at Leichhardt for two years.
The interesting thing about our job is that we work with a very wide generational range. As a female station officer, I work with millennials through to baby boomers and each has to be treated differently because they come with varying experiences and exposure to female leadership.
Key outcomes of the program
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from the course but, in the end, this turned out to be a quality program for women in leadership, initiated by the service.
The standout reasons for me as to why the program was successful was first and foremost the women who participated. It was an important and rare opportunity to network and offer support to each other as senior women.
The other valuable component of the program was that it really reinforced being yourself through its strengths-based leadership approach.
Being able to bring the best of you to work allows you to lead effectively. You don’t have to be a man; I’ve always believed the best way we can effect change as leaders is by being ourselves.
By being one hundred percent myself it helps me to, firstly, recognise what people bring and, secondly, that I work for them, that is, my crew. It’s the biggest lesson for me in leadership – you are not there for yourself, you’re there for the people you’re leading, to reveal their strengths and let them shine.
I believe in the ‘confidence-leads-to-competence-leads-to-confidence circle’ and this is the result of supporting my team to excel at what they bring, not by being rigid. As a woman in a mostly male environment, I can be leading men in their sixties and I know it can be a little challenging for them to have a female boss.
You have to treat them very differently, to, say, younger men and women, but generally you don’t treat anyone the same. You have to be non-threatening, recognise their strengths and above all show respect to everyone on your team.
I’m at a point in my career where I’m at the most influential I’ve ever been. I can influence the most positive change with the people I work with. I am one hundred per cent myself and one hundred per cent confident with who I am. I try to create that environment with my crew so they can feel the same and feel safe in a learning environment.
There will be more women in the leadership pipeline, but it takes time. Lasting change is not forced; change with integrity is not forced. That’s been my experience and it’s my strongly held view as well.