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Why I Ended My Career as a Firefighter

I used to spend my days at the office running from meeting to meeting and eventually getting to what I thought was important and HAD to get done that day. An accountant moonlighting as a firefighter (or is it the other way around since I was doing my accounting work in the evenings?).  Another coworker and I even joked about a bad habit that we both picked up during our public accounting days, a habit of saying, “I’ll do that tonight.”  If we knew we would be at the office until 11 PM anyway we’d save the REAL WORK for uninterrupted patches of the evening.

I carried this bad habit forward into my corporate finance roles. I acknowledged and tried (but not that hard – a good college try) to stop doing this.  But most of the time I just spent a couple evenings a week or a Saturday “catching up on real work” at home.

Then, nothing like being sleep deprived to bring out the best (Ahem – WORST) in me.

During maternity leave while taking care of infant twins, I reverted to a hyper-state of firefighting. My decision process went something like this – Ben’s crying, pick him up and feed him, wait Nick’s crying, pick him up and try to lay him on the couch next to me until it’s his turn to eat.  Oh sh*t…the water that I started boiling on the stove for dinner is overflowing and I can see the gas flames getting bursts of energy as the water boils over…put both screaming babies down and go turn it down and pour in the noodles…and repeat. Non-childrearing personal activities were even worse.

Sometimes it can feel good…an adrenaline rush…instant gratification.

Feeling valued or receiving praise when I would come to the rescue during an emergency could feel good. But really, there shouldn’t have even been an emergency in the first place.  I didn’t have to cook dinner for the adults during the boys’ mealtime.

Most of the time this method wasn’t successful. And for every time I felt the rush, there were 10 others where felt defeated, like I had failed my family or my team.  Too many emergencies at home left family members feel like they were not important and created unnecessary tension.  And too many emergencies at work that can’t be solved…not a predicament I want to find myself in.

It was time to refocus and define my priorities.

I set out to develop a structure to help me make decisions so that what appears urgent on the surface isn’t always how I spend my time. I created a short list of priorities and a short list of personal mantras.  And the best part, it only took a small block of time to define this list and immediately it became part of my toolbox, a POWERFUL tool that I call on often.

Priorities: FAITH – MARRIAGE – KIDS – CONTRIBUTION

Mantras: DO THE RIGHT THING – BE LESLIE – RELAX & RESTORE – SMILE – GIVE THANKS

Life is SIMPLIER, in all aspects, when I honor my defined priorities and act is ways that are aligned with my personal mantras.

Don’t be fooled by the order. Doing great work that I love is something that supports our family and teaches my kids important values.  And even though faith is listed first, you won’t find me camped out in church every day. The order of my priorities is not directly correlated with the amount of undivided attention that’s allocated.  And that’s ok.

If you’d like to join me in making your own lists, try thinking about the people and beliefs that are most important to you. Your list should transcend and include current situations.  Your list may change periodically like if you get married or have children.  Priorities and mantras will be different for everyone.

I also applied this concept at work. At work the list may look something like this: CUSTOMER SERVICE – EMPLOYEES – QUALITY.  Then you can take it down a level, selecting near-term goals that support each of the overarching priorities.  Ta-Da!  Everyone on the team now knows that if they have competing or conflicting priorities that that first item listed in priority order is what they should choose.

This newfound tool has helped exponentially in my professional life.

I lived this new priority-based focus, first out of necessity in my personal life and it has actually helped me exponentially in my professional life. In a new role – a change to a global matrix organization – I spent the better part of the first 12 months drinking from the firehose and firefighting.

Then I finally took a step back and starting taking a more STRATEGIC VIEW and we actually got more done – an amazing amount done in the next 6 months because we specifically focused and helped others to focus on a few strategic goals rather than everything that appeared to be urgent.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t close the books every month, sometimes that urgent edit to a month-end report was the most important thing to do. But most of the time it wasn’t the most important thing to do because we took the time to focus on the right things throughout the month – Aha FEWER EMERGENCIES!  And that enabled us to close the books in half the time, automate recurring activities and deliver on countless other initiatives that have lasting benefits rather than in the moment saves.

The credit for the big projects, the improvements in quality and reduction in emergencies all goes to the team. They came up with the ideas and put in the effort to implement them.  I’d venture to guess that they were all thinking, FINALLY – clarity and focus!

And so my firefighting career is in the past – for good!

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