5 steps to begin leading transformational change in your agency
Get together with everyone on your shift or unit and decide on at least one transformational goal that you are all passionate about to achieve
By Sgt. Aaron A. Widener (Ret.)
Author’s note: About a month before the COVID-19 lockdowns, I was asked by Police1 to write a column on how to implement transformational change in law enforcement as a result of a project I worked closely on as part of my doctoral program with Brandman University that resulted in actionable success in a police agency.
In the following months, the uncertainty and fear people were experiencing worldwide as the spread of the coronavirus accelerated weighed in heavily on my hesitation to write about our successes. I wondered if the message I hoped to convey would be disregarded and overlooked due to the distress we have all been experiencing as a result of the pandemic. However, I strongly believe executing a Transformational Change Project (TCP) with the Marina Police Department is an unfiltered and encouraging testament to how change can be achieved. This project was fully supported by the Chief of Police Tina Nieto (formally of LAPD) and was embraced by the sworn and support services staff of the police department. The Marina Police Department is located in Monterey County, California.
As I began writing the first draft, the death of George Floyd prompted rallying cries to defund the police and increase police accountability. As a transformational change leader and public servant in law enforcement for more than two decades, I wrestled with the context of presenting not only the results of a successful and sustainable change in a police department when things were “normal,” but wanted to share this experience with readers in a way that would not be clouded by the unanticipated climate our profession is suddenly up against. This sentiment includes the unfair light cast upon the hard-working, selfless and dedicated men and women of law enforcement during truly transformational times in our profession.
I feel it is important to begin by reflecting upon a portion of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s sheepdog analogy in relation to police officer roles: “Although sheepdogs will fight to protect the flock, they are not fully beloved by the sheep. Perhaps it is because the sheepdog’s role was to nip at the heels of sheep when they strayed" as cited in Landavazo, 2019, p. 27.  Teaming with respected community members is key to effective law enforcement and is critical to building trust with the community. There is also a necessity for transformational decisions to be made to provide continuous coaching support for officers and their teams to boost their morale and resilience as they face multiple traumas, such as what we currently see happening with the stress from the pandemic and active community concerns.
The law enforcement family needs each other’s support now more than ever and must stand together to continue the progress as a profession to protect and serve, regardless of the current state of animosity and turmoil. There is no better time than the present to encourage and inspire you to act now and facilitate transformational change at any level possible within your police organization.
Transformational change is typically driven by internal and/or external conditions that trigger an urgent need for a radical change with breakthrough results, requiring both a change in culture and mindset.
During the initial process of assessing the Marina Police Department and its internal structures and operations, it was clear there was a need for a transformational shift in leadership behaviors and practices. As a result, an on-going, in-house leadership development program was created, and an easy to follow Transformational Reconstruction and Change (TRAC) Model was formed based upon other successful change models, such as John P. Kotter’s Change Model. 
The TRAC Model can be used as a simplified guide to begin conducting transformational change at any level of your organization.
The following five steps provide a summary of how this model was applied at the Marina Police Department and how to implement the same process at your agency:
1. Identify Changes Needed and Create Urgency for the Change
What internal and external factors might impact the success of transformational change at your organization? Keeping these factors in mind, generate a list with your team of the most pressing changes needed, then conduct a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) to help determine what your strategic plan should address. Then narrow down your list of goals depending on how complex you want the change effort to be.
For example, the Marina Police Department team came up with this list:
- Improve the police department’s organizational culture, enhance teamwork and provide greater transparency to the public.
- Increase trust within the police department and help leaders serve as models of accountability.
- Provide sworn officers and department staffers with training and education plans outlining paths to individual career goals.
- Develop an ongoing program to keep officers apprised of new legislation and case law.
2. DETERMINE THE FUTURE DESIRED STATE
Conversations for the future desired state naturally occur in the first step. However, your projected outcomes become more targeted as you discuss and plan specific strategies.
This is where the importance of mapping out your plan comes into play, such as determining who is in charge of what strategies, creating deadlines for completion of the work involved, reviewing how and when your plan will be implemented, and details of the revaluation process.
At the Marina Police Department, a personal and professional development plan was designed specifically for each employee where they meet with their supervisor every six months to review and revise the previous development plan. During these one-on-one meetings, they discuss the status of their progress with training, personal and professional goals, as well as adjust their personalized plan as needed.
3. GENERATE BUY-IN AND COMMITMENT
Reflecting upon the TCP at the Marina Police Department, I found this step to be the most crucial. The project leadership team stepped up and raised their standards of excellence as they actively embraced personal and professional improvements together.
As such, peer accountability, trust, teamwork, open communication and active listening quickly became the tenets of a revitalized leadership team, and the entire organization began to benefit from this early shift in culture months before the TCP officially launched.
Mostly, the workshops were focused on relationships and teams, grounded on Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team: the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. 
4. Action and implementation
This step involves completing predetermined tasks for each of the goals created to ensure the strategies are completed and in place by the official start date and then implementing the changes.
With the Marina Police Department project, several forms needed to be designed and approved for the personal and professional development plan goal. In total, seven workshops with the project leadership team were conducted throughout the planning process and the ultimate implementation of the TCP in September 2019. Project team members completed their strategic plan tasks in various stages and finalized details of the project were communicated to organizational members through two kick-off meetings one month before the official launch. Additionally, a summarized presentation of the change project was shared with the city council.
5. Evaluate, reconstruct and begin the next phase of transformational change
The positive results of the TCP as indicated by the members of the police department through various forms of revaluation data, such as interviews and surveys, were very encouraging.
The main department-wide survey was an anonymous, internal electronic survey that was sent to all sworn and non-sworn personnel before the start of this project. As a result of this first survey, the data gathered revealed that employee satisfaction was rated at only 29% positive within the department. Ten months later, the same survey was sent out again and employee satisfaction had been elevated to a 63% positive rating! There is no doubt that more improvement and work need to be done. However, considering this was the first TCP of this magnitude at the Marina Police Department, the evaluation results from the data are motivating for those continuing to lead the change process going forward.
Was the process seamless and without flaws? No, of course not. Did everyone buy into the project from the start? I would be lying if I said yes. Currently, the Marina Police Department is looking at the next phase of the change project by evaluating the results, making improvements to the original goals as needed and creating new ones to move forward with.
As with any change process, there will always be those who are resistant or reluctant to change for a variety of reasons. The concerns often include an organization’s previous track record when it comes to implementing change. For example, if a directive from leadership is sent out mandating a new change or process, yet no input was solicited from the employees in advance, they may feel the organization and its leaders do not value what the employees think – especially if this type of practice is consistent or the norm. Therefore, it is crucial as a change leader to be objective, transparent, and reach out to the doubtful and hesitant individuals to give them a voice as well.
The transformational changes that began occurring came about because an opportunity was presented for those desiring the change to truly be empowered to lead the change. The change model design empowered the participants to lead the internal transformational change, which contributed to a change in the mindset of the officers as a whole. The project leadership team consisted of various stakeholders within the organization, which included commanders, sergeants, members of the officers’ association, front-line officers and administrative employees, and they were provided a safe forum for their voices to be heard through several facilitated workshops ahead of time. Other than what was agreed to share with the organization progress-wise about the project, it was agreed that the facilitated conversations stayed within the team. Likewise, rank was set aside to allow more honest and fluid discussions.
How does this success story of a police agency apply to you in current times? Easier said than done understandably. However, I hope to encourage you to take the initiative to lead any needed change in your organization now. Set aside the contentiousness of the fray and focus on the future and desired results of your department, its members and the community. Start small and create your own mini transformational change project.
Get together with everyone on your shift or unit and decide on at least one transformational goal that you are all passionate about to achieve. It does not have to be too complex or a huge undertaking. Consider referring to the TRAC model and make it your own dynamic guide. Once you achieve your goal and the results are apparent, revaluate, broaden your process, involve more stakeholders and expand your goals.
By simply reading this article you have already taken the first step to successfully begin and lead transformational change in your police department, however big or small.
1. Landavazo CT. The muzzling of the sheepdog: A mixed-methods case study of the impacts of media reporting on police officer performance. Doctoral dissertation, 2019.
2. Kotter JP. Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review.
3. Lencioni P. The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
About the author
Sgt. Aaron Widener (Ret.) has served in law enforcement since 1994. Since retiring from the Marina (California) Police Department in 2014, he continues to work part-time as the training manager for this same agency. He is currently in the final dissertation phase of his doctoral candidacy (Ed.D) with Brandman University, where he also serves as an adjunct professor for the School of Business and Professional Studies. Due mostly in part to his facilitation of the TCP at Marina Police Department, he received awards this year from the police agency, as well as Brandman. Additionally, Aaron manages his own consulting business, Transformational Change Management Consulting, LLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.