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Are You a Firefighter or an Engineer?

A look at two personality types that you will no doubt recognize in your business.

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ProSource’s Dave Workman has a way with words. “There are two types of people,” he mused in a conversation with me last month, “firefighters and engineers.” I asked him to elaborate. I loved what followed next and wanted to share it with you.

The Firefighter

Workman described a crisis scenario where everything’s gone wrong and panic is in the air. The Firefighter enters the building and extinguishes the blaze, alleviating pain before moving on to the next crisis. I’m sure we can all relate to this coworker (and maybe you are one). Do you move from crisis to crisis in your organization and feel like your life’s running you vs. you running your life? If you do, channeling the great Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a Firefighter.

What’s a Firefighter to do? In some ways, the Firefighter’s identity might be wrapped up in his or her ability to save the day. No fires, no need for Firefighters. In the same way Superman needed Lex Luthor, fires and Firefighters are strange bedfellows. Perhaps a small pivot may be in order? What if you continued putting out fires but left a fire extinguisher behind each time to keep that particular fire from igniting again? Identity crisis averted. Sure as death and taxes, fires will continue to send us running around like headless chickens — they’ll just be different fires. In this way, the Firefighter can evolve into saving the day and effecting positive organizational change at the same time.

The Engineer

Have you ever met someone who seems prepared for any contingency and is always calm? That’s Workman’s definition of the Engineer. These folks are planners by default, looking at the long game and working backward to achieve predictable results. Engineers may seem to have a better quality of life than Firefighters, but looks can be deceiving. Engineers can be risk averse or prone to analysis paralysis, and easily stymied by non-linear thinking.

Just like the Firefighter, Engineer’s identity may be interwoven with his or her ability to be predictable and hyper-organized. Those traits can be crippling when it comes to scaling anything larger than oneself. If you find yourself struggling against your Engineer traits, consider delegating a task and letting someone else fail at it. Growth comes from experiences (especially making mistakes). After enough mistakes have been made, you might find yourself surrounded by a team of fantastic people with all sorts of personality types where you’re helping each player leverage his or her strengths.

Also by Henry Clifford: You Can’t Make Unhappy People Happy

Is it better to be a Firefighter or an Engineer? Our industry loves to reply with the stock response, “It depends.” In this case, that annoying retort couldn’t be anymore apropos. It’s all about context. Some situations need Firefighters and some call for Engineers. One might stand back and think that Firefighters would never be needed if everything was engineered properly. Maybe. Of course, we need to look no further than Mike Tyson’s famous quote, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

No matter which personality you identify with, try to find complementary colleagues who shine in areas you don’t and vice versa. You may just find yourself having a whole lot more fun at work!

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.

Also by Henry Clifford: What I Learned From A TV Falling Off The Wall