A Discussion with Kirby Clock, Colorado’s 2019 EMS Director of the Year
Sometimes a reporter must coax a conversation along as a diamond exists somewhere in the rough of prehospital medicine and management. Other interviews write themselves because the subject has thought through so much, and is so circumspect about the why, the mission and the method of the madness.
All a reporter has to say is “tell me why you’ve been successful,” and start taking careful notes. When those interviews happen — they’re rare — a reporter rests comfortably knowing that he has discovered brilliance that was nearly overlooked. Even though in this case, his subject also recently won statewide accolades as 2019 EMS Director of the Year.
Kirby Clock is a country son of Delta County, Colorado, and director of its ambulance district. He studied in Denver until entrepreneurship called him home: Clock’s father saw opportunity in a commercial call center business when the local utility could not make one thrive, and two generations helped small businesses gain footholds for twenty-two years.
The grandson of Colorado homesteaders (or at least “the next person to arrive”) from the mountains near Paonia, Clock earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, the former in finance specifically.
Scrappiness is in his blood, so it is little surprise that the rural EMS agency he leads today punches above its weight class, engaging in critical care ground transport and even wildland fire response, eyeing Community Paramedicine and ET3 while paying, he says, “a great wage.”
Like many with advanced schooling, he sees complexity in the very vogue advocacy for formal education, believing that degrees tell more about a person’s ability to commit than about how smart, or even educated, the graduate is.
Clock didn’t play sports in college but fell in love with officiating them, and has done so for over three decades across hockey, basketball and baseball. This says much about his sense of justice: he believes in “walking the tightrope of when do I rein somebody back,” and “giving them enough rope to hopefully save but not hang themselves.”
If sports are a microcosm of life, then in the obvious parallel between teamwork on the field and on the prehospital line, Clock’s approach is as measured as his temper: train his team then watch what happens.
What matters most — besides the health and safety of his crew and their patients – are the lessons learned. Asked how he gets his crew to trust his decisions, which are the cornerstone of leadership, Clock’s calm demeanor belies the intentionality of his approach.
“I’ve had people tell me if my office… they start confiding in you… that one of their biggest concern was: ‘Am I going to get fired today?’ We have formally, in the last year, adopted ‘Just Culture’ [which means that] I expect everybody to make mistakes — a mistake is a mistake, says Clock. “Learn by it, and if you make the same mistake again, we’re working toward a problem. If you make it a third time, you’re not trying to do correctly. I give people the benefit of the doubt [but my approach is] not too punitive unless deserves to be.”
His reward is loyalty: “We [at Delta County Ambulance District] have almost no turnover,” Clock says. “Money is not the only reason for that by a long shot — they were here when they weren’t making the money—but now it’s the payoff for sticking with us. I’m proud of that.”
When expounding on specific team members, Clock contrasted the internal ambitions of his highest performers with the unfortunate habit across our industry of promoting people to leadership roles by virtue of seniority, consensus, or worst of all, because no one else wants the job:
“If you have any aspirations, you’re going to move up the ladder,” Clock says. “Fire and EMS don’t have a lock on that.” We agreed that “you don’t make someone CEO just because they’ve been there a long time.”
Clock laments what he calls the “easy entry into EMS.” He says seen “thousands of educated idiots. No common sense, no ability to lead people. But they have a degree. And that’s the one where truly the piece of paper doesn’t mean much [but] what are you going to do?”
Some agencies are compelled to hire a candidate because he or she has a master’s degree, but some “let that piece of information out way too soon,” he says, hoping to bias the discussion with a sense of rareness.
Yet it takes gumption to stay in the prehospital care business. “Much of leadership is inherent or not,” he says. “You can teach some for sure but [one of my officers] is someone who doesn’t have it innately at all… he’s worked very, very hard at both educating himself and educating others and learning how to do that.
“How to speak well. He’s an interesting one in that he’s working on getting his degree finished up and when he started the journey [he used to say] ‘I just don’t understand the big deal about having a degree.’ But as he’s gone through it, he’s like “Wow, I do understand the reason for it.”
During our conversation, Clock used a word that seems comfortable coming from a man of faith yet was welcome in the context of prehospital care: “vocation.” Religiously tinged and defined as a “calling,” it is an apt reminder from a leader in an industry that notoriously grinds on prehospital clinicians with challenging hours and challenging patients.
Yet Clock draws on his entrepreneurial experience: “My job is managing a business and you can’t run a business without people—inspiring them and managing them,” he says. “Not just public people but also my own people here.”
How does faithfulness inform his decision-making? Clock’s answer was a concise, worthy template for our changing industry.
“The Golden Rule, frankly,” he says. “That type of world view is what I grew up in. It is fair by definition, I guess. What always grounds me is this principal of treating others with respect, treating others like you would want to be treated. Love your neighbor, love your enemy. Faith-based principles are some of the greatest ways of interpersonal that you have. I suppose that’s kind of the groundwork and all faiths, all religions have a component of that. Treating people right.”