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Career Survival Tips: Putting Out Fires

Thursday, 10 May 2012 | 11:26 AM ET

They weren't happy to see me when I rang the fire station doorbell the other night. I was semi-desperate. On the other hand, I wasn't on fire.

John Lund | Blend Images | Getty Images

"Most people call fire trucks just for nothing, petty things. It's just ridiculous for them to even call," said one firefighter about the worst part of his job.

You know the feeling because it happens every day: someone or something unexpected comes along, and hijacks your schedule.

"Spent the day putting out fires," you say—unless you happen to be an actual firefighter. Then fires are the job; everything else is distraction.

That night at the station, I was a distraction.

Just back from a weekend trip (my wife still there), I'd managed to unpack my bags, my wallet, my car keys and my cell phone, and then lock myself out of the house.

That's not an easy trick. But the firefighters were unimpressed.

"Go back to your house," they said. "We'll meet you." I mentioned that I'd just walked a mile to the station, and wouldn't object to riding back with them.

"We've got to ask the Chief," they said. A few minutes later the Chief came downstairs. He looked extremely unhappy.

The Chief climbed into the truck, so did two other firefighters. "Get in," the Chief told me. After that, dead silence.

I had called the fire department once before (different town, same problem), but those firefighters had been extremely cheerful, even though they had to climb a ladder and break in through a high window.

Maybe that's why they were so cheerful. It felt more like their real job.

When we got to my house, the youngest firefighter took out a credit card, slid it along the inside of my door, and, presto, it unlocked.

"Don't tell anyone I did that," he said, and smiled.

But then the Chief shot him a look that seemed to say, "Stop talking immediately. And don't ever smile."

Then they drove away.

Tip: People evaluate you based on two things: your results, and your behavior. In a crisis, it's all about results. If you're a firefighter, battling a real fire, no one cares if you're cheerful.

But most of the time at work, it's not a real fire.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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