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Engaged supervisors set the tone for employee retention

Using LEAD principles, EMS leaders can encourage employee retention at their organizations

By Jennifer Kirkland, ENP, CPE, RPL

Susie is a 911 telecommunicator in a dispatch center in Smalltown, USA. She has six years of experience and loves her job. Even though shift work is tough on her family, she loves the team she works with and genuinely enjoys her job. One of the things she likes best about it is training; she has been a CTO for two years and enjoys building new team members. However, Susie’s life changes when her team is assigned new supervisor. The new supervisor says, “It’s my way or the highway,” nixes the weekly team potluck dinners, and puts out a list of forbidden TV channels. Worst of all, the supervisor nitpicks Susie when she’s training her trainee, and won’t listen to Susie’s concerns that this particular trainee needs a specific style of training. Within six months, Susie’s performance goes from exemplary to poor.

When you and your supervisor are on the same page, life at work is pretty sweet. You bring up ideas, they get incorporated, and you feel both validated and valued. When this is not the case, life at work goes downhill pretty fast.

“People leave their bosses, not their jobs,” is a commonly held management tenet. While the validity of that particular statement is up for debate, the principle behind it is not. The impact a supervisor has on those being led cannot be underestimated. It is the direct supervisor who has the most control over the everyday culture, work environment and conditions for his or her employees, and it’s an awesome responsibility.

Not surprisingly, it’s the working relationships the supervisor cultivates (or doesn’t) with each member of the team that have a large percentage of impact on whether people stay or leave their positions. In an article about employee disengagement, Forbes magazine states, “The central relationship between manager and employee plays a critical role.” A relationship is a two-way street, and both the employee and the supervisor are responsible for cultivating a positive working relationship. However, the responsibility for opening the door and being intentional about creating that relationship lies with the supervisor. It’s the supervisor’s job to lead that relationship – to open the door, set the stage, allow for open communication and guide the way.

Keeping this in mind, here are four ways leaders can LEAD to increase engagement and retention.

1. Learn: Build real relationships with your team members

Most leaders know they are supposed to “manage by walking around.” This is useful for getting out with your team, but it’s the tidbits you glean and retain while you’re out there that matter. Genuine curiosity and interest in people’s lives goes a long way toward building a relationship with each person you supervise. Learning as much as you can about your people pays priceless dividends. When the supervisor remembers something they’ve been told, and asks about it –“Hey, how was your son’s recital?” – trust is built and relationships are strengthened. Once that has been established, you can build upon it and expand the topics to include work-related issues and challenges. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” When you demonstrate that you care about your people as people, then they are willing to walk the path with you in work matters as well.

2. Eat with your team: Create your culture

Many people believe that culture cannot be created; that it’s an organic thing that “grows,” regardless of management’s intentions. This is not the case. The Society for Human Resource Management believes that “company leaders play an instrumental role in shaping and sustaining organizational culture” and that “a strong culture is a common denominator among the most admired companies.” Leaders must define the culture they want to see, design processes to promote that culture, clearly explain the culture and its goals, and then model the behavior that results in the specified culture.

For example, if respect is one of the hallmarks desired in your culture, then you must model respect in every interaction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” does not work in leadership; your people must see you behaving in the way you wish them to behave. Eating with your people accomplishes two things: (1) It allows you to learn; and (2) it allows you to witness your culture in action and model the culture you wish to build. Eating with your team does not have to include a formal meal: surprise your team with snacks and hang with them while you all enjoy them!

3. Appreciate: Create growth opportunities for your people

The word “appreciate” means “to add value to.” The Harvard Business Review agrees that the relationship between supervisor and employee is critical, but it also states that people leave jobs because of the nature of the job. This can be especially true in emergency services, an industry where the basic job skills and tasks are repetitive, and opportunities for advancement are sometimes limited. Stated simply: people get bored. Add value to your people by creating growth opportunities for them. If you can’t create new positions in your agency, help them create career paths from within. Invest in training opportunities for your profession, obviously, but also training opportunities that interest them. Training opportunities that are employee-driven create value both for the employee and the agency. When employees know that their supervisor is committed to supporting their goals and growth – even when they aren’t work-related – they become more loyal to the supervisor (and the agency).

4. Decisions: Involve your team

The more control employees can have over their environment and work processes, the happier they are. There are many decisions that you can have your team help with, or delegate to them entirely. Depending on how you design your culture, you could even have the vast majority of decisions affecting your employees’ day-to-day life either made by your team or weighed in on by your team. Another term for this concept is “autonomy.”

According to HR Dive, “Employees who have control over how they do their work and the pace they set are likely to feel more confident in their jobs and like they are making a difference for the company. In turn, they are more satisfied overall.” Many people will cite autonomy as a leading factor in deciding whether to leave a position or stay. Take a look at the decisions you make every day, and either involve your team in them or delegate them entirely. Rather than losing control, you gain respect.

After six months, Susie’s supervisor was re-assigned to a different team, and John became her team’s new supervisor. John practiced the LEAD principles, listened to Susie’s plans for her next trainee and allowed her to implement them. John started a weekly event based around the local football team’s schedule, and allowed his team to determine how they would celebrate EMS week. Susie stopped looking for a new job and started working on how she could lead the team’s new wellness committee.

Employee engagement and retention are challenges faced by every agency in public safety. The LEAD principles are simple, and, when they are put into practice by individuals, these principles benefit the team, the organization and the profession.

About the author

Jennifer Kirkland is a senior consultant with Fitch & Associates with extensive experience in 911 leadership, customer service, and strategic planning. She serves as faculty and on-site facilitator for the ASM/CCM programs. She also serves as the 911 Operations Administrator for Vail Public Safety Communications Center, after rising through the ranks as dispatcher, trainer, supervisor, and interim director. She can be reached at

For more than three decades, the Fitch & Associates team of consultants has provided customized solutions to the complex challenges faced by public safety organizations of all types and sizes. From system design and competitive procurements to technology upgrades and comprehensive consulting services, Fitch & Associates helps communities ensure their emergency services are both effective and sustainable. For ideas to help your agency improve performance in the face of rising costs, call 888-431-2600 or visit