InTouch: Hot career path for young award winner

A meteoric rise through the New Zealand Fire Service has put 34-year-old Dan Coward in role usually reserved for those with lot more experience under their belts – but as area manager for the Christchurch Metro Group, he is comfortable with bucking tradition.
“It is quite change in an organisation where officers are usually appointed after considerable length of time in the service, and the majority of my colleagues are more mature. So it was bit of culture shock when I took on the role of chief fire officer down here in 2007. But two years down the track, I’m really enjoying it and the feedback is that people are quite happy to have me hanging out here for bit longer.”
Coward’s leadership credentials have now earned him the NZIM/Eagle Technology Young Executive of the Year title for NZIM’s southern region – an accolade that’s made him “as proud as Punch”.
“It’s great recognition for the Fire Service – I don’t think we’re seen by the general business sector as an organisation that produces leaders. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some amazing people and it’s an area where you get exposed to situations where you have to demonstrate leadership capability. [The Service] continually produces crisis management leaders as well as great all-rounders.”
His own career with the NZFS started in Gisborne where he spent six-and-a-half years – one of the highlights of which was taking on maritime safety officer role when the logging ship Jody F Millennium was beached on Waikanae in storm. Later came roles as health and safety coordinator for the western region, Palmerston North fire officer, manager of operational quality/resources and deputy chief fire officer in Wanganui, brief stint as project manager in the Fire Service’s Wellington HO, then chief fire officer, Christchurch.
While it’s challenge leading older team members, Coward says age as such has never been barrier. “I think within short time those working with me and for me recognise that I was appointed both for my skill set and knowledge rather than age and experience.”
He describes his leadership style as open, communicative and strongly values based.
“I suppose it’s about making decision because it’s right not because you’re out to prove point. It’s important people see that your values and ethics are consistent and fair.”
As far as he’s concerned, everyone starts with clean slate – he doesn’t pre-judge people based on others’ feedback. “If someone’s gonna let me down – it’s up to them to destroy the trust, I guess.”
With wife and two young kids, Coward says one of the neat things about his role is that it hasn’t compromised family life. As to the future, he believes he can contribute quite lot at senior management level and, long-term, has his eyes on chief executive role in either state or public service.
• The overall Young Executive of the Year winner will be announced at the Top 200 Awards being held at SkyCity Convention Centre on Thursday November 26.

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