Leadership starts on day 1!
This is just one massive piece of leadership wisdom that you are going to get as you listen to episode #156 on the Meeting Leadership Podcast!
That’s because you’re going to learn ‘Leadership Lessons From Canada’s 2nd Female Firefighter’ and our guest is Shirley Benson.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- Why it is so important to learn how to take direction as a young leader
- The critical significance of concise communication
- How to keep up morale
- Why gender was not a factor in Shirley’s progression through the ranks because merit was rewarded instead
- Why you can only succeed as a leader when you enable the people below you to do their work
- Why it is so important to laugh and not take yourself too seriously and more
Shirley Benson worked with the Edmonton Fire Dept from 1988-2019. Throughout her career she worked through the ranks from firefighter to Captain (in charge of a crew), Station officer (in charge of a hall, the crews in the hall and a junior officer) then to District Chief (in charge of 5 halls, all the crews and officers and more than 70 people).
You can get in touch with Shirley at email@example.com
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Click Here To Read The Show Transcript
Gordon Sheppard: Leadership starts on day one. As in the first day you walk in the door, you go in there with the attitude that you’re ready to learn, because you know that as you progress to become a leader higher up the food chain, that you’re going to need that type of attitude to succeed.
Thankfully, we have Shirley Benson, Canada’s second female firefighter as our guest on the show today and that was her attitude all the way through her career. So if you are ready to drink from a fire hose of leadership lessons then stick around, it’s going to be a great show today on the Meeting Leadership Podcast.
Are you a professional who wants to become a more effective leader? Then get ready for practical tips from the coach with the experience and inspiration to help you succeed in any leadership situation. You’re listening to the Meeting Leadership Podcast with Gordon Sheppard.
Gordon Sheppard: Welcome to another episode of the Meeting Leadership Podcast. My name is Gordon Sheppard. I just want to say thank you for being here. Thank you for being the type of leader who wants to come here to get one more tip, one more trick, one more practical strategy that you can take into your work to become a stronger leader.
You know that to be a great leader, you have to know how to run a great meeting. If you want to run a great meeting, then you have to be a terrific leader, and you’re coming to this podcast to get those tips and tricks. I really appreciate that you are here.
I also want to let you know that this episode of the Meeting Leadership Podcast is brought to you by the Meeting Leadership Academy. Now there, you’re going to find some terrific online and live training options for you and your team, especially in that half day workshop zone.
It’s a really good idea to bring in one of our trainers to help you really learn how to spark your team from just a basic sort of meeting leadership point of view, learn the basics around agendas, how to communicate at a higher level, how to become an outstanding meeting facilitator. Then from there, we actually tack on this reality, that every meeting should be connected to your strategy.
It’s a great bundle. It’s a great package is the kind of thing that really sparks and boosts teams to the next level. You can learn all about that by going to meetingleadershipinc.com/academy.
Now, I am super excited to introduce today’s show. It’s called Leadership Lessons from Canada’s Second Female Firefighter, and that is with Shirley Benson. Now, Shirley Benson worked with the Edmonton Fire Department from 1988 to 2019. Throughout her career, she worked her way up through the ranks from firefighter to captain, to station officer, to district chief.
In terms of leadership development, Shirley’s going to share her best insights from that entire career, and we are lucky enough to have her here, so I’m not going to hold you back any longer. Here’s the terrific interview with Shirley Benson.
Shirley, welcome to the show.
Shirley Benson: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for the invite, Gord.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, how could you not invite someone with your pedigree? I was so lucky to be at the leadership event where you spoke on a panel and you talked about your experience as being the second female firefighter in Canada. I’m so, so excited, especially from a leadership perspective to dig into what that really means and learn from you and your experience in this area. But there’s going to be a lot of people here that don’t know you. So if you were at a party, how would you introduce yourself?
Shirley Benson: First of all, I probably wouldn’t. I’d standing back and just waiting for people to introduce themselves to me. But first and foremost, I’m Shirley Benson. I am a retired member with the Edmonton Fire Department, which is now the Edmonton Fire Rescue Services. I’ll never get used to the new name. I’m an old timer. I have worked my way up through the fire department, starting as a firefighter, to a junior officer, to a station officer, to a district chief and that’s the position I retired from.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, and I’m just going to be gentle when I say this, because you can hang up if you’d like right now, but which decade did you get your work started in as a firefighter?
Shirley Benson: In 1988.
Gordon Sheppard: 1980s. I mean, this is not a woman’s game maybe even today, I think I was learning from you. What’s the percentage today of female firefighters?
Shirley Benson: In Edmonton, it’s less than 1%. And overall through Canada, it’s less than 4%,
Gordon Sheppard: Less than 4% in what’s supposed to be, if we call Canada maybe a more progressive gender equality type of country, as we kind of get going forward, we can hear the inequality there, but back in the eighties, I mean, it’s .001% or whatever this is, and you’re number two into the system. What compelled you to sign up to be a firefighter?
Shirley Benson: I spent the time prior to that as an EMT in the city. So I was on the ambulance and you work closely obviously with the other first responders, with police and fire. The more I looked into their job, the more I thought, “Wow, that’s something I really want to do.” Then I spent some time on a volunteer department. Went to my first fire and knew that was it. That was what I was going to be doing the rest of my life.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, it’s so nice when you hear people find their niche. So many people don’t really get that kind of calling in a sense. And it sounds like you found yours. What struck me when I saw you talking about the specific leadership aspects of your journey is you were saying that leadership starts on day one. Is that the correct way to put it?
Shirley Benson: Absolutely. I knew going into it that all eyes were going to be on me just given my situation. It was also my belief that as the new person, it behooves you to learn as much you can, to be able to take direction so that later on you’ll be able to give direction. Every aspect and trait that you garner as a new recruit and later on as an experienced sort of veteran, are the traits that you’re going to need in the leadership position. So it does well to learn it sooner than later.
Gordon Sheppard: Because you knew you were going to be sort of progressing through anyway, I’m going to guess you had that kind of instinct. Where did you get this insight in terms of knowing that it starts on day one? I mean, so many people pick up leadership skills later. How did you have this instinct to start on day one with this approach?
Shirley Benson: Well, our department is seniority based, so I knew going in that I was going to progress through it. So the career path was already out there in front of me. It was a given, it’s just time put in, some extra courses and you will progress. So there’s nothing that’s going to hold you back per se. So knowing that eventually I was going to be in those positions. I’m never going to be the most skilled person, but I am going to be the best prepared. That’s been the way it is with me in my career, in my personal life and in my athletics.
Gordon Sheppard: Best prepared. I mean, that’s a great leadership trait right there in terms of things that people listening to this can learn from. And so, there you are, do you remember your first day?
Shirley Benson: Oh, absolutely. I was terrified, knocked on the door and there was just a hoard of people that met me at the door because the halls are locked, so you have to gain entrance. So it was intimidating to say the least to walk through the doors with all your stuff, all shiny and new, but the guys that were there were super welcoming and put me at ease right away.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, and firefighting requires teamwork, right? Did you experience that right away? Was there reluctance or what happened?
Shirley Benson: Yeah. Teamwork is the cornerstone actually for all the activities that happen on the job, that’s how the job gets done. So it is fostered, it’s fostered in the meals that we prepare together. It’s fostered in the way that we do work. If there’s a task assigned like even something simple, like mowing the lawn, everybody in the hall is out mowing the lawn. Although only one person can physically push the lawnmower, but it is done as a team. So that’s hugely fostered.
Gordon Sheppard: This is so important especially when you’re saying you’re picking up these things, what were you learning from the senior leaders that you were around early in your career in those types of moments that you then took on as you progressed through the system?
Shirley Benson: So the key things that really stood out for me was that you have to have a common goal. Everyone has to buy into that common goal. Then there has to be a division of tasks to make that common goal achievable. And so, that division of tasks needs to be small enough that not one single person will fail in the delivery of their task.
Gordon Sheppard: Because you can’t have a breakdown in terms of when you’re dealing, obviously with these emergency things that you’re dealing with, how much effort does it take to become a good communicator then in these situations? Because not everybody makes it up the food chain, I assume.
Shirley Benson: No, and everyone’s communication style is different. The people in my life will definitely tell you that my communication skills are very concise and very to the point, much to their dismay. I will not flour coat or put a whole lot of words in. The message the way I’ve been, I guess, under the gun in my professional career is that the message has to be delivered and it has to be delivered as concisely as possible. So that does not involve a lot of words, but the main point has to be clear and concise.
Gordon Sheppard: So you and the adjectives just aren’t friends, I say for the most part, and I can hear that pretty clearly, but which works in certain scenarios, right? So I’m going to assume if you’re fighting a fire, this makes sense to me as a leader, but then you actually worked at different levels of the organization and that goes beyond fighting fires, right? Where you’re actually organizing teams and you’re moving up. What was your next progression after that first job that you had? Again, what were the leadership things that were happening that had to be different as you move forward?
Shirley Benson: So then you become from firefighter, you become a junior officer. So that means you’re in charge of a rig and the crew on that rig. So that’s typically three other people besides yourself, and you’ll become a sector officer on scene. So with that, you have to be able to receive information and disseminate it to your crew in a way that they can understand.
Also at that point, you’re now responsible for morale for that crew. So that’s when the softer skills come in and the conversation becomes a little less concise and a lot more about getting to know the people that work so closely with you.
Gordon Sheppard: So morale became important and you’re even being concise on this interview, which is actually pretty true to character, I can hear. The idea being that if you’re adding in those soft things, then what was your approach that you gained leadership wise to start to expand beyond being concise?
Shirley Benson: So then it became a bit about sitting down with the guys and just having just real easygoing flowing conversation so that they know that A, I’m approachable and B, that I care about them. So it was just getting to know them.
Gordon Sheppard: And you can’t skip that step as a leader can you?
Shirley Benson: No, absolutely not. That’s where you’re going to find a downfall. If you’re treating your employees like they are employees first and foremost, instead of like humans, you’re in trouble, you’re already in trouble. So it’s humans first, employees second.
Gordon Sheppard: Humans first, employees second. You were able to pick that up at that next stage. So here you are, you’ve gone from firefighter, now you’re running a rig and you’re responding to things and you’re getting to know your folks. What was the next progression that you made as a leader and then what sort of skills were you adding into your toolkit at that point?
Shirley Benson: So from there you go to a station officer. So you’re in charge of your rig. You’re in charge of the junior officer and all the personnel within the station. So again, that’s roughly eight to 10 people depending on the station. Generally two rigs in the hall that you’re responsible for.
So with that then becomes more of a mediator position. So you learn more about, again, the softer skills, which are the mediation, just making sure, because you’re the, we’ll say, stop gap before problems get run up the chain. So we try and solve everything at the lowest common denominator and that’s the station officer.
Gordon Sheppard: What’s an example of a problem that might come up? I’m going to guess, it’s funny, we say it’s firefighters, but it’s not going to be. What’s a typical problem that comes up that mediation is kind of necessary?
Shirley Benson: Usually it’s in between the agencies. It’s not uncommon for there to be misunderstandings between fire and EMS. And so, just the mediation so that each side can understand each other’s roles and responsibilities.
Gordon Sheppard: That would take, I’m sure a couple of downfalls before you kind of get it right in your experience. Does that make sense?
Shirley Benson: Yeah, absolutely.
Gordon Sheppard: And so, you’re going through that mediation point. So now you’ve gone from shiny walk in the door. Here you are at the rig. Now you’re running the thing. What’s the next step for you in your career there?
Shirley Benson: So from there I went up to district chief. So you go from station officer where you’re in charge of one station, to district chief where you’re in charge of five stations in my scenario. So roughly 80 people.
Gordon Sheppard: So now you’ve gone from overseeing 10 to 80 and you’re in the sandwich, right? You’ve got a boss above you and you’ve got these folks below you. What was it like to be in that kind of zone for you given your style?
Shirley Benson: It was interesting because again, I’m a huge believer of the human first. So my crews always had whatever they needed to get the job done and whatever would make it easy for them. So within the constraints that are being placed on me by the boss above me, but the more I facilitated them being able to do their job, the easier it was for me to do my job. So it was a win-win.
Gordon Sheppard: It sounds like you were developing kind of the right touch. I haven’t asked this yet, but how big a factor was gender in your progression in this system?
Shirley Benson: It wasn’t at all because it’s seniority based. So that’s what I really appreciate about it is when I was promoted, I was promoted solely on the criteria that was already existed. So there could be no pushing ahead, no nepotism, no anything. So I really, really advocate for that system.
Gordon Sheppard: Boy, it’s nice to hear maybe my outside impression being wrong in a sense. I’m going to say this in a way that rubs it the wrong way, but this idea of not being promoted because you’re a woman, being promoted because of your merit in a sense. And it is possible that some of these systems that you’re describing in firefighting, hold that up regardless of gender. Is that true?
Shirley Benson: That is correct. Yeah
Gordon Sheppard: Well, that is just great to hear, because again, when I think about someone breaking ground and we know there’s so many … I don’t know what the exact reasons are why others say younger women today wouldn’t want to choose this profession, because we talked about the low statistics, but this might be one of those encouraging things where you could say, “You know what? You’re going to get a fair shake. You’re going to have to work hard just like anybody. And they’re not going to judge you male or female. They’re going to help you progress based on what you can do.”
Shirley Benson: Absolutely. I believe again, my own personal view on that is that, that’s the only system that’s really going to hold up because the credibility is there. If you’ve gone through the system, you’re credible, you’re a candidate and you won’t have to fight that. Again, we circle right back to stepping through the door on day one, knowing that you have to prove that you’re a leader in order to prepare for the position.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, this is outstanding. I mean, credibility being the way it could go, wouldn’t it be nice to be 300 years from now when that was all kind of taken care of and we didn’t have to have this gender conversation, which drags so many things down? Yet we need to go through the gender reality across sectors in society. But we’re finding here a pocket that is merit based. There you were, and now you’re at this district level, you’re overseeing all these people. You progress from there as well. What happened next?
Shirley Benson: So from there I actually retired. So that’s the level that I went to and then retired from. The merit and the system itself exactly. In the fire department, we have a saying that, “We’re 200 years of tradition unhindered by progress.” This is the one place that really helped us.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, I’m just so fascinated that this could be a place of leadership as an organization, the way you’re describing it, right? Because I think if I say, if you’re introduced as the second female firefighter, we’re supposed to hear some crazy stories along the way about whatever, problems that happen because you’re a woman, but we’re not hearing that in this story.
Shirley Benson: No, not at all. It’s literally just about, I can only speak to my experience, but my experience was once I proved myself capable, that was the end of it. That’s all anybody wanted to know because nobody had been in that position before. They just wanted to know that you’re capable of doing the job. Once I was shown, that was the end of it.
Gordon Sheppard: It feels like we’re at a United Nations forum for solving big problems around the world right now and you’ve just given us the formula for how to go forward. I think there’s a lot to learn obviously from the system that you’ve come through.
You rose through the ranks, you had this sort of, sounds like really satisfying career. The other piece of in these interviews that we like to ask, because I’m going to guess, along the way, did you go to a few meetings?
Shirley Benson: Yes, absolutely.
Gordon Sheppard: And if you had to give some advice to one of these young leaders coming up through that system about how to run a great meeting, what would it be?
Shirley Benson: First and foremost, make sure that you have information that you need to go forward with. So if you don’t have information that needs to go forward, don’t have the meeting, just have a sit down and chat with your employees again, about getting to know them. So if you do have information that needs to be sent out and the trickle down, also be ready to receive information to take up.
So conversation and information should always be two ways. So you give information out, but also receive the information from the working people so that you can take that forward and see where the issues are that need to be resolved. Or if there are issues like, do you have enough resources? Is there something that is simply problematic that everybody’s experiencing that could be eliminated?
Gordon Sheppard: But if I’ve got a chunky title, I don’t need to listen to the people who are talking back to me, do I?
Shirley Benson: Yeah. Yeah, you sure do. It’s all the more important that you do because your job again is only achieved when the people below you do their job. So again, it just makes really, really good sense that you listen to what they need to be able to do their job.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, I think again, so many of the folks we have on this show, you can hear that beyond the details, this is lived experience. Folks should just simply stop, rewind that last minute, listen to you and they’re going to have a significantly better meeting. That leads us into the third part of these interviews and this is one of my favorite ones because I don’t know the answer. What inspires you?
Shirley Benson: Joy? Anything that brings a smile to your face no matter how you get that. I think that to me, that’s the price of admission to living right now. Absolutely, a hundred percent. The other day I was on a little electric scooter on the trails out here, grinning like an absolute idiot just because it was fun. It was so fun.
Gordon Sheppard: Wow. That’s so good. I love the electric scooter thing. That’s so great. What was I going to say? In terms of those joy moments that you found when you were in your leadership role in your career, did you find some joy moments along the way there too and can you give us an example?
Shirley Benson: Absolutely. That’s the beauty of the position, you’re so interconnected with the people that that’s where the joy comes from, just sharing the moments and laughing with your coworkers and your employees. To me, that’s the stuff that fills in the moments between when the job’s getting done. That’s what gives richness to the days, to the shifts, to the long hours to the freezing temperatures. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Gordon Sheppard: Wow. So well said, you can hear again, it can almost feel like I’m there with you on your first day and there you were at the end, overseeing 80 people, responsible for so much and sort of as a citizen, you get to say, thanks to people like yourself for doing that well.
You actually did that well through multiple levels of a system now that I’ve got some insight into, that I’m surprised, I really would have thought there might’ve been some shocking things in here. Because we hear about these different systems and how they deal with it.
But we think about this now, and this may be a system that’s kind of getting it right. And I think that is just a beacon for so many, I’m going to say in this case, young women that might be thinking about getting involved. I’m just so grateful to you being on the show. If people need to get in touch with you, is there a good way to do that?
Shirley Benson: Yeah. You can email marcopolosb, as in Shirley Benson @hotmail.com.
Gordon Sheppard: Marcopolosb@hotmail.com. I’m going to put that in the show notes, just in case people have heard this and they’ve got inspired and they want to reach out to you with a question or something like that. I hope they do. Shirley, thank you so much for being on the show
Shirley Benson: Thank you, Gord. Thanks for the work that you do with this. Leadership is a hugely important thing that often gets overlooked. People believe that once they’re in the position, it just magically comes to them, and nothing could be further from the truth. So I really appreciate that you send the knowledge out there and the ability, and just even the time and space to have discussion around it.
Gordon Sheppard: Well, and you’ve added to the discussion. Thank you so much for your compliments. I’ll take that to heart and I really appreciate that you were here.
Shirley Benson: Thank you very much.
Gordon Sheppard: Now that is definitely one of those episodes. You’re going to want to listen to a second time, and I’ll bet you are out of ink from taking so many great notes from the insights that Shirley gave along the way. The one that hits me and we’ve heard this over and over again, “As a leader, you can only achieve your goals when the people who work for you are empowered to do their jobs well.”
Shirley did that for her teams throughout her career. And I know that you can too. If you are looking for even more inspiration from some of the great women we’ve had on the show, check out episode 153 on the Meeting Leadership Podcast, it’s called How Women Can Become Leaders in the Boardroom, and that is with Deborah Rosati. You can get that episode by going to meetingleadershipinc.com/153. Then on episode 150, well it’s called, How Alberta Women Entrepreneurs Develops Leaders and that’s with Marcela Mandeville. You can get that episode by going to meetingleadershipinc.com/150.
Finally, if you check out episode 141 on the podcast, it’s called How To Level Up Your Leadership Skills, and that is with Chelsey Reschke. A woman who has worked her way up through the oil patch and has wonderful leadership stories to tell. You can get that episode by going to meetingleadershipinc.com/141.
And of course, I want to remind you that this episode of the Meeting Leadership Podcast is brought to you by the Meeting Leadership Academy. If you want to take your meeting leadership development up to the next level, then visit meetingleadershipinc.com/academy to learn more.
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