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Chief Insights: ‘You can’t outwork bad leadership’

Setting the tone and driving organizational change from the chief’s seat

Holly vanSchaick.jpg

Holly vanSchaick, fire chief of Orcas Island Fire & Rescue in Eastsound, Washington.

Photo/Courtesy of Holly vanSchaick

The following content is part of EMS1’s EMS Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new EMS leaders increase their effectiveness, enhance their leadership KSAs, develop trust among crewmembers, and build confidence. Through a handful of questions presented by EMS1, veteran chiefs reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email to offer your insights for the EMS Leader Playbook.

In this installment of Chief Insights, we feature Chief Holly vanSchaick, fire chief of Orcas Island Fire & Rescue, in Eastsound, Washington.

The spark: What put you on the path to becoming a chief?

I came to the fire service for a love of the work and the team environment. At its best, the fire service unites a diverse group of individuals around one common goal – helping someone on their worst day. Early in my career, it did not occur to me to ever want to leave the line and move to admin.

As I transitioned from volunteer to career, I had a variety of experiences with fire chiefs I worked for; some positive and some negative. As I grew up as a first responder, it became apparent to me that positive cultural change can’t happen effectively when it is only being driven from the bottom up. An organization’s leadership sets the tone for what the culture of the team will be.

Back when I was training for a few different running events, I had a coach who would say, “You can’t outrun a bad diet.” In the context of my work environment, I turned that into, “You can’t outwork bad leadership.” I realized that in order to help bring about the cultural development the fire service was in need of, I would need to be willing to put myself in the arena in a leadership role. Two of the best chief officers I had the honor to serve under encouraged me to enroll in a Fire Service Administration degree program. I did so and earned a BS in Fire Service Administration from Eastern Oregon University.

Look ahead: What’s something you want to accomplish in your first year as chief?

In my first year as chief, my goal is to continue to build on the positive groundwork we have laid in the last two years at OIFR. When I joined OIFR as assistant chief in 2021, it was amidst significant turmoil between labor and management, and between career and volunteer staff. Volunteers rarely just dropped by our headquarters station. Many told me they avoided it altogether because it felt like a dark cloud was hanging over it.

Fast forward to today, and some days I have trouble finishing a project I am working on because volunteers and career staff pop into my office so frequently. As far as I am concerned, this is the best “problem” a chief officer could have, and one I will strive to keep! Our department is now united, labor and management have the best relationship I have ever seen (including during my own time as a union officer), and volunteers have told me time and time again how much they now enjoy working with the career staff. My goal in the next year is to continue to foster these strong relationships, while also looking forward to the significant impending apparatus needs of our aging fleet.

How will you create an organizational culture that people want to be a part of, to join and to stay in?

Again, as discussed above, I think we have mostly gotten there today in terms of creating an organizational culture people want to be a part of. Now, we have to be committed to keeping it going. In 2022, our department participated in a culture and values workshop with Rob Nielson of All American Leadership. This was an important endeavor for a few reasons. First, it helped refocus and unite our team on our purpose – that thing that is the foundation of our relationship, the reason we are here, together. Second, it provided (and still provides through ongoing surveys) feedback regarding what those of us in leadership positions are doing right, and what we still need more work on. Building on the positive while not ignoring the negative is essential to ongoing cultural maintenance.

How are you going to support and stand up for your personnel, internally and externally, to show that you care about them as a person and a professional?

Our relationships need to be built on trust. Trust is mutual. As their chief, it is my job to extend my trust to my personnel, before asking them to trust me in return. This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect; extending trust means that I know their intentions and purpose in their work. Every conversation I have with those who report directly to me has to start with that premise. I trust why they are doing things. Then, when we sometimes have to discuss how we get our common goals accomplished, we are doing so from a collaborative, trusting team approach. When we have a good pattern of communication and trust, it is easy for me to stand up for them if needed.

As far as showing them that I care about them as a person? It’s a two-step process:

  • Step 1. Caring about them, authentically. This is easy. I currently work with the best team I have encountered in my entire career. I wouldn’t know how to NOT care about them.
  • Step 2. Making sure I take the time to let them know that I care.

How do you demonstrate servant leadership?

My job is to serve the members of my department so that they can go out and do their best work to serve the public. This isn’t accomplished in any one action. I may cook them dinner, or take out the trash, or roll hose with them after a fire or training, but if my heart and mind aren’t in the right place, that will be obvious. Servant leadership starts from within, from constantly refocusing my own mind on acts of service toward the members of the department that I am responsible to. One of my favorite quotes is from political satirist and Journalist, P.J. O’Rourke; “Everyone wants to save the earth; but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.” I remind myself that “doing the dishes” is as much a part of my job as anyone else’s.

Leadership lightning round

  • What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable? The FBI-LEEDA Command Leadership Institute taught by Anne Kirkpatrick, was the best leadership course I have ever taken.
  • If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today? I would hire a full-time division chief of training to allow more frequent onboarding of volunteers, as well as increase training opportunities for career and volunteer staff to train together.
  • How do you recharge/improve your resiliency? I recharge with time spent in nature, or with my friends and family, and by working out. I also work on triaging issues into “area of concern” and “area of control.” There are so many ways to spend my time in my direct “area of control,” it is a good reminder that I have to prioritize my own energy in ways I can be effective.

Read next: Chief Insights: Foster a culture of respect with consistency in leadership. Division Chief of EMS, Shaun Ford, shares how to be the leader you always wanted to work with.