Managing change in the fire services

Following her appointment to lead the Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting service across Australia, Michelle Bennetts improved morale and successfully created a more engaged national service of fire fighters, which saw her achievements recognised at the NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

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Since stepping into the role of Executive General Manager, Aviation Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) for Airservices Australia, two years ago, Michelle Bennetts has led the 900-strong workforce through an unprecedented period of change. Her success at improving morale saw her pick up Emerging Leader in the Public Sector at the 2014 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

Building trust

Bennetts joined Airservices in 2005. The government-owned organisation manages air traffic operations and aviation rescue fire fighting services for over 90 million passengers travelling on more than four million flights every year. ARFF undertakes about 9,000 responses a year, involving aircraft incidents, structural fires, medical assistance requests, water rescues and fire alarms.

Successful ARFF applicants are highly specialised. Prior to placement at their home fire station they undertake 11 weeks of intensive training at Airservices Melbourne based Learning Academy and undergo a range of increasingly complex certifications to augment their on the job training.

“Taking on the role I quickly determined that the staff were very dedicated to being fire fighters but were less engaged with the organisation itself,” says Bennetts. “We set out to build trust between the workforce and management team. In all our communications we were careful not to ‘over promise and under deliver’. We showed them that we followed through on what we said we were going to do and showed them we were working in the best interests of the fire service.”

Giving staff a voice

Part of this strategy was setting up the Operational Capability and Advisory Committee. This showed the fire service that the leadership team recognised the technical and operational nature of what they do and gave them a high level forum to raise any issues directly to the Airservices Chief Executive where necessary. “If there are technical matters that need to be discussed, prioritised or funded then they can be discussed in that high level forum,” says Bennetts. “Essentially it gave the fire service a voice within the most senior ranks of the organisation.”

The biggest challenge in implementing change was that the workforce is spread across the country. Airservices has more than 900 operational and support personnel based at 26 airports around Australia.

“You can’t lead a team of people that size from Canberra in the way I like to – which is quite a hands-on personal way,” says Bennetts. “This meant I needed to build the middle-management leadership capability so the things we wanted to achieve could be reinforced right down the line until we got to the frontline. Part of this was having more locally based managers who could support our change agenda.”

Recognition for a job well done

Bennetts’ efforts to improve staff engagement didn’t go unnoticed among her team – they were the ones who nominated her for the award. “That was great recognition in itself,” she says. “Winning the award has been fantastic; I certainly received a lot of accolades from right across the organisation and it’s really nice to know that people recognise what you do and that it’s valued.”

Bennetts’ tips for managing change

1. Keep it simple; don’t try to achieve too much by over promising and under delivering.

2. Be very clear about what you want to achieve and put in place the mechanisms to achieve it.

3. Review it regularly.

4. Make the change process transparent.

5. Ensure you have consistent messaging in all communications.

The NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards celebrates Australia’s best emerging and established female leaders, and recognises and celebrates the men and women who help women achieve. Get more information about purchasing tickets to the 2015 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

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