The Bi-Lingual Battalion Chief

By: Robert Avsec


Today’s post is not about the Battalion Chief being bi-lingual in the normal context, that is, being fluent in another language besides English, e.g., Spanish or Korean.  Rather, we’ll take a look at how middle managers who are “fluent communicators” in a variety of situations are worth their weight in gold to their organizations.

In our society today information is power and those organizations in both the private and public sector that communicate well both internally and externally enjoy many benefits, not the least of which are more satisfied employees and a more loyal and supportive customer base.  These organizations experience those successes because they can “put a face” on the organization, whether it’s to keep their employees informed about the impact of an economic downturn, launch a new product line, or respond to an incident that has generated negative publicity.

Anyone remember how Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol®, responded to the cyanide contamination of Tylenol® in 1986?  Johnson & Johnson’s communication response—quickly get in front of the public and getting  the bad news out up front along with their action plan—set a new standard for corporate communications in those types of events.

Contrast that response with the Federal government’s response to its deficiencies after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast region of the U.S. in 2005.

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For organizations to be successful in the current information age, they must have managers who are skilled and practiced in the art of delivering the right type of oral presentation in the best possible manner to effectively reach their target audience.   Let’s take a look at one of the key communicators in a Fire & EMS organization, the Battalion Chief, aka, the middle manager.  (For my friends in law enforcement and non-fire-based EMS and other public safety agencies, I’ll use the generic title of middle manager in lieu of Battalion Chief).

Communicating within the organization

I once heard this at a leadership and management seminar I attended and it’s stuck with me all these years:  Middle management is like the white frosting in an Oreo cookie.  It’s the “glue” that holds everything together and it’s the “buffer” that keeps the two hard cookie layers apart.

Middle managers, serve their organizations in a variety of staff and line functions.  In most organizations they manage divisions or units within their department that have a direct impact on internal and external customer service.  In those roles, good middle managers are skilled communicators who work both internally, with employees and members, and externally, with customers and clients, to build productive working relationships.Fire Simulation Classroom training

When it comes to getting up in front of a group of people to communicate information orally, many middle managers, particularly fire department chief officers, “cut their teeth”, so to speak, as instructors.  For many of those managers that type of presentation, the “one-way-communication” lecture, teaching knowledge and skills to entry-level employees or incumbent staff is the only type of presentation that they know how to deliver.

Middle managers, however, increasingly find themselves in situations where face-to-face communication with groups of people—from small to large—is critical, yet an instructional style of presentation is inappropriate.  Managers who can effectively use a variety of presentations that are appropriate for their target audience are an asset to the organization and they enhance their own professionalism and value.

Other Reasons for Middle Managers to Deliver Presentations

They’re communicators within their organization.  Our organizations are composed of people and people need a consistent flow of information so that they can do a good job.

The hourglass provides a good analogy of how we can use our organizational structure, i.e., the chain-of-command, to keep the flow of information moving.  It will also illustrate the key communicator role of the Middle Manager.

The hourglass provides a good analogy of how we can use our organizational structure, i.e., the chain-of-command, to keep the flow of information moving. It also illustrates the key communicator role of the Middle Manager.

The Strategic “Communicators” are the executive leaders of the organization, i.e., the fire chief and their deputies or assistants.  These leaders are responsible for “big picture” communication that is consistent with the organization’s strategic plan.  When the Strategic Leaders of the department set policy and direction for the organization, it’s the Chief Officers who go forth to inform and educate the work force with that information by communicating downward effectively.

To do this effectively they must in essence be “bi-lingual”: they need to be able to “hear and understand” the strategic information and then communicate it to their First-Line Supervisors in language and context that is understood at their level, the task level.  Increasingly, this involves delivering an oral presentation that’s applicable to the target audience.

The communication is upward--from fire stations level to the strategic levels of the organization.

The communication is upward–from fire stations level to the strategic levels of the organization.

Putting the process in reverse, middle managers communicate upward by listening to their direct reports, “translating” what they hear from tactical language into strategic language and then conveying that information to the Strategic Leaders in strategic language and context.

They also communicate with their bosses regarding progress on projects and work performance by their work units.  Once again, this is usually in some type of oral presentation.

Additional Communicator Roles for Middle Managers

Slide2They’re teachers within their organizations who are expected to teach their people and prepare them for delivery of service to internal and external customers.

They communicate with government officials at all levels of government on behalf of their organizations.  Frequently, they function as an “ambassador” for their bosses because the boss can only be in one place at one time.

Middle Managers are frequently called upon to make presentations to the organization’s external customers and stakeholders.  Not infrequently, these presentations are in response to the public’s perception that services were not delivered appropriately or in a timely manner.

What are the communication expectations for middle managers in your organization?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail,