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What a banker can learn from a fire chief, by a fire chief

Long hours, being available 24/7, dealing with hours of the mundane interrupted by moments of pure heroism… it’s almost the job description for a firefighter and arguably very apt for banking. When I left the fire service after 25 years to start a firm that helps top executives improve their sustainable high performance, one of my takeaways was that the business world could learn more than it might realise from a fire chief.

Firstly, when I was a young firefighter, I thought I was invincible. I thought I could work hard, play hard, and take risks with abandon. In some finance companies we work with I hear similar attitudes. They brag about the risks they take with customers’ money, about the long hours they work as if it’s a badge of courage, and, of course, about how they play even harder.

Although these attitudes can help young investment bankers and firefighters, they are also the attitudes that can get both hurt. For the banker it spells the recipe for brain fog, poor decision making, and even burnout. For the firefighter it spells a career-ending injury or worse.

The fact is that human beings possess a certain physiology and the brain and body cannot outperform this. Sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, the wrong mindset, and poor health habits will always take their toll.  And the costs can be severe.  According to Tignum data, 67% of top executives have metabolic dysfunctions or other health-related risk factors that decrease performance and productivity and 84% report that they don’t have sufficient energy to meet their daily demands.

Believing you’re invincible costs you the ability to stay in a job you love, it costs the organisation the loss of a talented (and experienced) individual, and too often it costs the customers.

Secondly, when I became a battalion chief I quickly learned that it’s what you don’t know that hurts or kills you. The same is true for bankers. Even when you are bombarded, under severe time pressure, by information and internal emotions, you need to step back and look at the problem from all seven sides. On a structure fire this means looking at it from the inside, all four sides, the top and the bottom. My job was to find out what I didn’t know. This didn’t mean I couldn’t act, but it did teach me to respect a thing called discretionary time. If I had five (whole) minutes to make a critical decision I should take as much of it as I needed to make the best decision possible. Bankers should do the same: discretionary time is one of the most important factors in risk reduction.

Finally, I learned that you can’t take better care of others than you take of yourself. We started each day with a thorough equipment check and routine physical training to be sure we had what it took to answer the bell. Too often, we see senior bankers and executives who just don’t get this. Neglecting basic preparation leaves you unable to energise those around you, unable to clear the brain fog needed for good decisions and lacking the executional stamina to lead hard fights through to completion. This type of short-term thinking can be catastrophic. There’s no logic in being responsible for a client’s investment and missing the most important investment of all – preparation for your own sustainable high performance.

Scott Peltin is co-author of ‘Sink, Float, or Swim’ and chief performance officer at Tignum, a consultancy for sustainable high performance. Prior to founding Tignum in 2005, he worked on the front line as a firefighter, as a captain, as a battalion chief, and as a division chief leading several fire divisions, serving in the fire service for over 25 years.




AUTHORScott Peltin Insider Comment
  • Su
    Sue Pierce
    30 January 2014

    Great article, Scott. Thanks for sharing.

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