I was a volunteer firefighter from 1994-1999 and a career fire fighter from 1999-2010. So how did I end up overseeing a sales team and millions of dollars in sales in the largest city in the U.S.? That’s a question I still ask myself today. The fire department was a huge part of my life. Little boys want to be firefighters when they grow up and, luckily, it was a dream that I was able to fulfill.

Retiring from the fire department was definitely a game-changer for me. As I reflect on what I learned from the loyalty and bonds I developed at the fire department, it is the leadership of many officers that I find myself incorporating into our culture that has helped me to be successful in insurance. I look at what my sales team has accomplished over the last few years and it is truly amazing. Here are five lessons I took with me:

1) Stay calm. It sounds simple, but I have seen way too many managers panic because they may not hit a goal or they may lose an account. If you are confident in the structure and processes you have in place, then stay your course. Stay calm and do not worry about worst-case scenarios. That’s not to say you don’t plan for them, but if we went to an apartment fire, our concern was not, “What if it burns the whole building?” It was, “Let’s put out the apartment fire.”

If the fire is in the walls or has gotten around us, we will adjust accordingly.

As the leader of your organization, you set the tone. Your team will always follow your lead and your emotions. If you lose an account or don’t get that big account, you need to stay calm. It is not the end of the world and nobody is going to die because you did not get the account. If you have done your job as a leader, then you should have plenty of other accounts in the pipeline.

Will you and the sales rep be disappointed? You absolutely will, but always keep that in perspective of life as a whole.

2) Every job matters. Most people do not realize that every seat on the engine or ladder has a designated job. The guy driving the truck is the chauffeur. The person in the front seat is the officer. In the back, you have the hydrant man, outside vent man, can man, etc.

In order for everyone to go home safe, in order for lives to be saved and for the fire to be put out, everyone must do their designated job. While every firefighter has a favorite job to do — and everyone wants to be the guy who rescues someone — everyone also realizes that the rescue is unattainable if everyone else is not doing their job.

The officers I had the opportunity to work with always highlighted every good save or rescue as a team effort.  Think about it. When there is a television or newspaper piece on something heroic, you almost never just see the individual. It is almost always the entire engine or ladder crew who is presented to the public.

I always take the time to acknowledge anyone who had a part in helping us close an account, complete a project, etc. Incorporating that type of culture into your business plans is essential to any leader’s growth. No job is too small or too big. In the end, it is a team that will land that account or keep that account for you.

3) Lead from the front. Reflecting on a lieutenant who was killed in the line of duty last summer, he was constantly confronting danger, yet reluctant to accept credit for himself, New York City Ladder Co. 81 Capt. Jerry Tucker said at his funeral. Mayor Bill De Blasio, who gave the first eulogy, said that while Lt. Gordon Matthew Ambelas was fighting the fire that would kill him, “Matt’s only thoughts were for the safety of others.”

The mayor’s words echo what it means to lead from the front. “He plunged into the fire to search for life,” the mayor continued. “He led from the front, as great leaders do, as he always did — and then, very tragically, made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Battalion Chief David Bell. While I have known Dave for a number of years, I never worked for him. I asked him what traits he looks for in a firefighter who wants to be mentored for promotion. His answers were immediate:

  • He must be able to think and make decisions quickly under pressure.
  • He must be able to weigh the risk versus the reward.  If a life is involved, then the reward may be greater, but if only property is at stake, he must take that into consideration.
  • Is he the type of guy who puts others before himself?

These simple answers can be applied to us all. Although we are not weighing life-and-death risks, we must always take into consideration what risk we are willing to take in relation to the reward. We all want that big account, but if underwriting has that many concerns about the group, is there a way to mediate that risk? Or is wiser to let that account go?
I then asked Dave, what was the single most important piece of advice he has received in his career? Once again, he did not hesitate and said, “Take care of your men.”

That reminded me of my first day at a new firehouse. Captain Nugent greeted me and told me what we were having for dinner and asked me if I was in. Although I did not want liver and onions, I knew that I was “all in” on dinner. I knew that dinner was much more than food. It was a family event and part of the culture of that firehouse and many other firehouses around the country.

It was never about the food, it was about bonding with your team: breaking bread with people who were willing to lay down their life for you. There was never any training at dinner. There were never any critiques or business to discuss. It was always about just talking, some humor and sometimes some good old fashioned ribbing.

This was part of the culture. Captain Nugent needed to know immediately whether or not I was going to be part of that culture. I found out later that day that liver and onions was just a joke to see what I was going to do.

As a leader, take the time to eat dinner with your team. Not lunch during a “break,” but a dinner. It doesn’t have to be fancy. While good food (and drinks) certainly helps, this is about getting your team to bond. There shouldn’t be a lot of office talk and there should never be training. This is about the team — not dinner.

You, as the leader, set the culture for your team. When you add a new team member, you must make sure that the person you bring onto your team will be part of the culture. Not part of the problem.

4) Train your successor. There are always numerous officers and crews in a firehouse. While everyone had a lot of pride in their crew, the truth is, no matter who was working that day, the job got done.

Everyone was trained for every job. If you wanted to be an officer, then you knew what books you had to study and that you could take the officers exam after your third year as a firefighter.

The veterans are always conscious that they are training their future replacements. While every veteran will tell you how much more difficult it was when they were hired and how easy it is now, everyone knows that a simple injury or illness can end their career tomorrow.

I mentioned Battalion Chief Bell earlier. He was a Lieutenant on 9/11. He knows firsthand how important it is to build your bench strength and have others ready to step into leadership roles — 343 firefighters lost their lives that day. What many do not realize is that the top echelon, the bosses, the men running the largest fire department in the country, perished that day.

When I asked Bell how much succession training came into play over the next few weeks, his answer was simple. “We lost our leaders on 9/11. Our collapse expert died in the collapse. As hard as it was to move forward, as leaders, we had to begin moving forward. … Promotions to top positions such as chief, battalion chiefs, etc., took place in the field on 9/12 and 9/13.”

Promotions to captain and lieutenants took place within a few days. “Nobody wanted to move forward without our leaders anymore,” he said, “but we knew it had to be done and that was communicated to every officer in the FD very shortly after the collapse of the towers.”

While Cantor Fitzgerald faced a very similar situation that day and thrived, in corporate America, we generally do not plan on losing a large part of our leadership and workforce in a single day.

If you are not training your successor, or involved in developing the future leaders of your company, then you should be putting that into your business plan for 2015. Leadership is not about you. It is about developing others.

5) Insist on a common respect. You’ve probably read this and thought what a glorious work environment the fire department is. Everyone gets along and there is harmony. Sit back and think about living with six other men, 48 hours per week with just a common dorm room for sleeping and a couple of TVs. I would be lying if I told you that I liked everyone I worked with. The culture of the brotherhood is real, but brothers fight.

The difference is when the bell rang, and we were dispatched to an alarm, we could focus on the job at hand and know that we were there for each other. You watch firefighting movies and it’s always the guys who are fighting that end up having to save each other. It doesn’t matter whether you like the person or not, we all came together as a team when we had a job to do.

Is that more difficult to accomplish in a corporate environment? It certainly is, but if you are leading your teams each day by example, it certainly gets easier. When your team knows that they can provide you with feedback and that you will accept that feedback to make your team stronger, then the bond begins to build.

It’s the old saying, “Sometimes we need to agree to disagree.” That is certainly true in a corporate environment, but you need to take that one step further. Explain why you disagree, but more importantly, take the time to listen why the other party disagrees. When the discussion is over it needs to be over. You can’t dwell on those issues.

Summers is territory sales manager for New York metro, Northern New Jersey and Long Island at Colonial Voluntary Benefits. Reach him at bsummers@coloniallife.com.

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