AT SOME point in their career, most employees in the fire and rescue service will consider trying for a promotion. There are many factors involved in this decision, not the least of which is ‘am I ready for the assessment process?’
There has been a lot of upheaval in recent years with regards to assessment and career progression in the UK fire service. What used to be a relatively straightforward matter of getting through your exams and then applying for promotion has changed dramatically – it is no longer about promotion, but about development. The processes used now are much more lengthy and multi-faceted, and include Assessment Development Centres (ADCs) where candidates are assessed on their Personal Qualities and Attributes (PQAs).
This article looks at what candidates considering promotion at supervisory, middle and strategic management levels in the service can do to prepare for and successfully negotiate the ADC process, and move one step closer to promotion.
Promotion opportunities in the fire service were previously related to success in technical examinations. For many people, this system appeared more manageable – in that you revised and hoped that the right questions would come up. However, under the new assessment processes which have been introduced in the service, candidates undertake an ADC, during which assessors evaluate how well the underlying attitudes and behaviours of candidates match the PQAs – the core values and priorities of the service.
Personal qualities and attributes
SUCCESSFULLY passing an ADC is dependent upon how well a candidate’s behaviour matches the standards outlined by the Personal Qualities and Attributes (PQAs). These are the fundamentals, the core values and priorities of the fire and rescue service, and the underlying attitudes and behaviours upon which individual performance lies.The PQAs are:
- Commitment to Diversity and Integrity
- Openness to Change
- Confidence and Resilience
- Working with Others
- Effective Communication
- Commitment to Development
- Problem Solving
- Situational Awareness
- Commitment to Excellence
- Planning and Implementing
- Political and Organisational Awareness (applicable to Middle/ Strategic Manager)
The PQAs vary slightly at each management level, with differences in definitions reflecting the responsibilities of the management level. For instance, at supervisory manager level, the openness to change PQA is defined as ‘proactively supports change, adjusting approach to meet changing requirements’, whereas at strategic manager level, it is defined as ‘drives and manages the change process, seeking opportunities to create and implement improved organisational effectiveness’
Although these new processes have been in place for a few years, they are unfamiliar to many in the service, and many candidates are rather less confident in gaining promotion than individuals were under the previous system. This apprehension has nothing to do with ability, but more to do with uncertainty about what is expected at an ADC and how to get it right. But, while a candidate cannot ‘revise’ as such for an ADC, they can certainly prepare and improve their chances of passing.
An ADC is not a place, but an event which allows assessors to assess the potential of a candidate for further development. It can be held anywhere – a fire service headquarters or an external venue – that has sufficient rooms to manage the different activities in close proximity. It may take up to a full day and, generally, up to eight candidates are assessed on any one day.
The day consists of several different activities or exercises, which are job simulations reflecting the types of activities/tasks you would have to do in the position being sought. This gives a ‘preview’ of your potential, and how effectively you are likely to perform in future roles.
The event is carefully timetabled to ensure each candidate has the same amount of time to complete each exercise, and there are regular breaks throughout the day. Candidates may find that they complete the exercises in a different sequence, but all will have completed the same activities by the end of the ADC within exactly the same timeframe.
The assessors will generally be fire service managers and human resources/support staff. Each exercise is assessed by two assessors, who sit discreetly at the back of the room during role-play exercises. They are not there to judge you personally, but to match the way you behave against the PQA criteria. Two assessors will also mark your written work, but this is usually done after the event.
The role-players that you will do the exercises with may be professional actors or fire service personnel who have volunteered to take part. Their role is to work with the script they have for each exercise and adapt it, depending on what you say, but making sure they provide certain information needed for the exercise. They will also have information that they will not volunteer unless you ask, or make it easy for them to do so through the approach you take. The role-players do not have any part in assessing you.
There is a great deal of well-meaning advice available with regard to how to get the best out of an ADC but, unfortunately, not all of it is accurate. Here are a few of the popular misconceptions that candidates might have:
1) I need to revise topics such as legislation, technical developments and procedures
This is not the case. The ADC exercises are based on the PQAs, which show your potential to be a good manager. If you consider the really effective managers, it is often not their technical skills that first come to mind. It is far more likely that your perception of their management skills is based on factors such as how they build cohesive teams, resolve problems, communicate their view and ensure high standards are maintained.
2) I need to memorise the Generic BARS
The Generic Behaviourally Anchored Rating Scales (Generic BARS) provide a comprehensive guide to effective behaviours which are specific to the fire and rescue service, and are used to score candidates for ADC exercises and assess their potential.
There is so much information contained in these guidelines that once you begin an exercise, it will be very difficult to remember it all. Plus, not all of it will be relevant. It is far better to read through this information in a general sense but to not become too fixated on retaining it. If you understand the concepts of the PQAs, you will automatically demonstrate the right behaviours.
3) I need to be able to recite key phrases of the PQAs
The assessor can easily spot a ‘buzz phrase’ from a candidate during an exercise, and is not often impressed. For instance, stating that ‘I intend to build relationships with others’ provides limited evidence of your real approach to working with others. Instead, if you describe how you intend to build these relationships, you present a much more convincing case of your potential to do this effectively in the role.
4) I need to know how to run an airport/ leisure centre/ council department
The context for ADC exercises is different from the fire and rescue service environment for specific reasons. Across the UK, fire service processes and candidates’ experience can differ. In order to ensure that all candidates approach the ADC from a level playing field, a fictitious external organisation is used as the basis for all the tasks.
All the information you need to understand for the tasks is given on the day. How well you perform them is down to your individual capabilities. Many of the responsibilities of a manager are similar, irrespective of the situation. For instance, irrespective of whether you are the manager of a fire service Watch or a leisure centre, you will still need to be able to work effectively with others, create solutions and provide clear guidelines for others to follow. The context does not matter – how you behave does.
5) I need to find out which PQAs will be assessed during each exercise
Each ADC exercise is carefully put together to give you the opportunity to demonstrate a range of specific skills. The exercise instructions will give you clues as to what you need to do, and the conversations you have with role-players will provide the rest. However, knowing what you will be assessed on in advance means that you may be distracted from resolving the issues faced by instead trying to satisfy the main points of each PQA.
The ADC exercises are about practical demonstration, not theoretical application. For example, you might be told by a colleague that, in your one-to-one role-play, you will be assessed on the PQA for commitment to diversity and integrity. Throughout the role-play, you make repeated reference to respecting individual differences and considering the needs of the community, because you know these are important factors to this PQA. But this approach may well result in you performing badly, if these points have no actual relevance to the issue being brought to your attention in the exercise.
If you had approached the task without any preconceptions, you would have been more likely to pick up on the fact that the individual, for instance, needed to acknowledge their mistakes and be guided towards an ethical approach in relation to personal responsibility. These are also part of the PQA for commitment to diversity and integrity, but they are the behaviours which suit the context.
What you need to cover in the exercises will be more subtle than just throwing a range of PQA references into the role-play and hoping one of them will be picked up on by the assessors.
6) I should find out how other people resolved the exercises
There are various ways to approach different issues, and just because they vary does not mean they are any less effective. Do not try to follow the path others have taken; you need to approach tasks according to your own personal style. By doing so, you will present a much more authentic picture of who you are and how you react to situations.
Preparing for the ADC
There are things candidates can do to maximise their chances of success at an ADC. Not only can you prepare, but you can do so in a way which develops your PQAs, improves your confidence, and raises organisational performance standards.
The following is some advice on what candidates can do to ensure they are in the best position to perform to their highest standards at the ADC:
Understand the role of PQAs
Whereas for the previous examination-based system, detailed knowledge was essential, in your ADC it is the PQAs which are the key. That is not to say that technical skills are not important for fire and rescue service roles – very far from it. Indeed, a number of UK fire services have recently started to incorporate knowledge-based examinations back into a stage of the assessment process.
However, with the ADCs there is the recognition that it takes more than an understanding of the technicalities to be a good manager. Dealing sensitively with people, promoting necessary change, resolving conflict and creating a culture of integrity are just some of the crucial responsibilities a manager faces. How many of us have struggled to work for someone who lacked the ability to understand the needs of others? How much more time is spent in the workplace dealing with breakdowns in communication, rather than breakdowns of equipment?
At the very core of successful ADC performance is an understanding of the behaviours associated with the PQAs – what they are, why they are important, and how you can recognise them.
It appears that the relevance of the PQAs in fire service promotion and development processes is not yet sufficiently highlighted at a personal and usable level. Candidates still find it easier to memorise the PQA examples as a means of preparing for an ADC, rather than replicating the positive behaviours that they demonstrate on an every day basis. Within your career, you and your colleagues have demonstrated working with others, for example, in a hundred different ways, but how regularly are you prompted to put these behaviours, positive and negative, into a broader organisational context? It is this sort of feedback which would help individuals to see how they are meeting the PQAs in their current role, and what they might need to do differently to show the potential for their next one.
PQA development is a longer-term solution but, as explained here, candidates can certainly prepare for an ADC and improve their chances of successful promotion. There is a great deal you can do to make sure you showcase your skills in a way which will do your abilities justice. ADC preparation is as much a developmental activity as using practice question papers to prepare candidates in examination techniques. Similarly, athletes with a wealth of raw talent are not expected to compete without first undertaking intensive training. After all, without practice, how else can they be certain of demonstrating their full potential?
Why do not more candidates know about this? Perhaps it is because ADCs are still relatively new, and there is concern that preparation could undermine the process; perhaps it is because there are limited resources within fire services to provide this type of support internally. Realistically, the top priority for organisations has to be managing the rigorous ADC process to ensure candidates are assessed fairly and comprehensively. Rightly or wrongly, preparing for this important event appears to be, at present, the responsibility of the candidate themselves.