The traditionally male Fire and Rescue NSW is diversifying its leadership

women fire & recuse nsw officers

By Angela Calabrese, journalist

How do you maintain the momentum for an ambitious diversity and inclusion program that has a gender parity goal for its 6,800-strong organisation? The organisation in question, Fire and Rescue NSW, has been exclusively male-led for decades and only recently reached 17 women in leadership among its senior ranks. Fire and Rescue NSW says part of the answer has been a highly successful, tailored program of empowerment and confidence-building for its female leaders.

The Women Leading @ Fire + Rescue NSW program was an initiative of Wayne Phillips, Chief Superintendent, Organisational Development People and Culture, Fire and Rescue NSW, who said he wanted to increase the confidence women in leadership in order to build the leadership pipeline. The Women Leading program was developed and delivered over six months in 2018 by Executive Central Director Reyna Matthes.

Fire and Rescue NSW recognises the benefits for both our existing workforce and the communities we serve to build an inclusive environment and workplace culture within our organisation. There are many facets that form an inclusive workplace and this program focuses on building capacity in our existing women so they may act as role models for those others within, and attraction beacons for those women who may be considering Fire and Rescue NSW as a career,” Chief Superintendent Phillips said.

“At the very least, Fire and Rescue NSW recognises that career advancement appears to be difficult for women due to cultural and confidence issues and this course was seen as a way to build confidence in its women to achieve whatever their goals are.

“There are still not many women progressing through the ranks. Just one of the reasons for this lack of progress is women’s confidence and knowing when they can go for a promotion. So, we decided that for the 17 most senior women in NSW, we needed to organise coaching and a networking opportunity so they could become empowered.

“We chose Executive Central because they had a tailored leadership program for women. Executive Central had delivered the Women Leading programs in similar organisations to ours and it had a good track record for what we needed.”

In relation to key outcomes, Chief Superintendent Phillips said: “We were looking for higher engagement from our senior women, more trust in the organisation to develop women and to increase the representation of women in leadership.”

While currently under evaluation, informal feedback from participants has been positive. “I had informal feedback along the way that the participants felt we had really invested in them and their leadership,” he said.

“Building the pipeline for women in the organisation is one of the reasons we went down this path but it’s only one part of the pie. We are also building a more flexible and inclusive workplace for everyone – men and women. This is a public-sector-wide trend,” Chief Superintendent Phillips added.

What participants said about the program

Tracey Spindler, Leading Station Officer, Forestville, said: “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 Women Leading coach Reyna Matthes. It’s the most perfect balance of group work and individual focus. 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 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,” Tracey continued.

“Particularly useful was the Career Map work (a roadmap for career management). 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.

“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.

“As an organisation, I think the fire service realised that we have a really tough gig – even as firefighters it takes a lot of courage to step up as leaders, you have to be very confident – and 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 (EC coach Reyna Matthes) Reyna’s credit, she really challenged us; she was very good at looking for a way forward in relation to issues that were preventing us from stepping up and moving ahead in our careers.”

Zena Mehanna, Station Officer, Leichhardt, said:

“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. The reason I’m where I am today is that I had the benefit of great leadership from the start.

“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.

Expectations of the program

“To be honest I didn’t know what to expect from the course but this turned out to be a quality leadership program for women initiated by the (fire) service,” Zena continued.

“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 allows me to, firstly, recognise what people bring and, secondly, that I work for them, 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’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 at Fire and Rescue NSW, 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.”

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