Non-Dominant Group Members Need Champions, Not Just Mentors

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Last week, I posted this blog, Is Your Dominant Group Bias Showing?, and it reminded me of a similar piece that I posted in this space several years ago. Isn’t it funny how these topics never get old? No, it’s not funny. For too many fire departments, it’s a sad reflection on their inability to grow and develop as an organization.

My motivation for writing that earlier missive, Women and minorities in the fire service need champions, came from a post I read on LinkedIn entitled, To get promoted, women need champions, not mentors. Though that title and article specifically addressed women, I believed then, and do more so now, that the concept of having a champion applies equally to all those members of the Non-Dominant Group in fire and EMS departments.

As a ticket to the top, a sponsor will work equally well whether you’re climbing the corporate ladder or a working as an entrepreneur, a writer or activist, said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author of the new book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor. A sponsor—a power broker who will endorse you in closed door meetings and support you in stormy moments—could also be valuable for executives established in their careers.

Hewlett goes on to say that women are too passive about finding a sponsor. According to her, women have twice as many mentors as men, but half as many sponsors.

Mentors vs. Sponsors

The key difference between mentors and sponsors is that mentors are “one-way streets”, giving their chosen mentee a gift of wisdom, time, and advice. Sponsorship requires reciprocity and commitment; sponsors serve as champions.

It is important to note that mentorship and sponsorship are not the same things. In fact, they are quite different from one another. A mentor is someone who supports you, offers you advice, and provides guidance to help you achieve your career goals. A sponsor is typically someone in an influential role in the organization who advocates for and helps create career opportunities for the person they are sponsoring.

I personally like the term champion. It’s a term that a mentor and champion for my career, Deputy Chief (Ret.) Jim Graham, frequently used regarding people, programs and projects. When it comes to people, a champion advocates on behalf of their protégé, connecting them to important players and assignments. The reciprocity part comes in as the champion trusts that the protégé will prosper and help advance the champion’s causes as well.

A Case Study

During my 26-year career serving with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (Va.) Fire and EMS Department, I had the honor of being an adjunct instructor who served on the training staff for every recruit school (entry-level training) beginning just a few years after my own. Toward the end of my career, I served as the Chief of the Training and Safety Division for 3+ years.

During that tenure, we were conducting an average of one recruit school per fiscal year. One of my observations over my time as an instructor, and then as the Training Chief, was that our department was being somewhat successful at recruiting women and minorities to join the depart. But they still made up a small percentage of our total entry-level firefighters. Most of the schools had one or two women and one or two non-white males on average out of a total population of 20-25 students.

Historically, the Recruit School Coordinator was a full-time member of the Training and Safety Division (a captain) while the Lead Instructor (a lieutenant) was a temporary duty assignment coming from the Emergency Operations Division. The selected lieutenant would come to the Training and Safety Division a month or so before the commencement of the school to assist the Coordinator in the planning, preparations, and organization necessary for the school’s success. They would typically remain for several weeks after graduation to assist in the school’s demobilization activities.

Both the Recruit School Coordinator and Lead Instructor had always been white males. Nothing wrong with that. Conventional wisdom, however, says that men and women bring different perspectives to any workplace. I saw an opportunity to bring another perspective into our recruit training process: Select a woman to serve as the Lead Instructor for an upcoming recruit school.

At the time, we had a total of fourteen women firefighters (out of a total staff of about 230 total career firefighters); at the same time, only one of those women was a lieutenant. Lieutenant Amy Burnette, nee Vest, had been an exceptionally talented and motivated firefighter and her promotion to lieutenant was no surprise to anyone. But she was still relatively new in her position as an engine company officer (only a little over a year if my memory serves me correctly).

But Lieutenant Burnette was the “right person for the job” at the “right time” for our organization. A company officer can have a direct and positive influence on a small number of people, primarily the two or three firefighters assigned to them. I saw the opportunity for Lieutenant Burnette, a woman, to have a positive influence on a “bigger audience”:

So, I set out to recruit Lieutenant Burnette for the position. First, I approached her one-on-one and “pitched” my idea to her. To say she was not interested would be an understatement. Like any firefighter who gets that first promotion to company officer, she was excited about learning and growing in her new position; not just for herself, but for her team as well. She expressed her desire to serve as a Lead Instructor one day, but just not now.

So, I developed this recruiting presentation for her to “step up” my recruiting efforts.

Why was I so persistent?

If we’re ever going to make meaningful changes regarding diversity and inclusion in the fire service, our efforts must go beyond recruiting entry-level personnel. We must start the retention process at the very beginning of a new firefighter’s career for both career and volunteer firefighters. We must expose them to positive role models during their entry-level training.

Continuing that theme of cultural change, we must expose incumbent firefighters and officers to women and minorities in positions of greater responsibility and authority early in the protégé’s career, not later. Male firefighters—for the most part—never think twice about seeking such positions, especially promotions, before they’re “ready.”

Female firefighters on the other hand, like their counterparts in most other professions, don’t actively seek promotions and the like until they feel they are “ready.” This is because of the male-centric aspect of our fire service culture that that in many fire departments requires that a female firefighter has to work twice as hard and be twice as good as their male counterpart to “prove” themselves as being “worthy” of promotion.

I was successful in my efforts to recruit Lieutenant Burnette to take the position of Lead Instructor. I was also successful in persuading my Training and Safety Division staff and my bosses that it was the right thing to do and a positive development for our 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,