The police leader's first 100 days

How to transition into a top role in an organization

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit A leader's first 100 days | Cop 'brain training' | Perception v. reality, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Navigating the transition into a new police leader role can feel a bit like juggling swords. But if you take the time to find your place in the organization and focus on new relationships, you’ll be off to a great start.

What follows is a compilation of best practices I have learned over the years and have used to coach others as they transitioned into top roles in organizations. Download a copy of these tips to keep as a reminder or share with the new leader in your department.

Your first 30 days: Stop to listen and learn

Cracking the code of organizational culture often comes down to learning how people communicate with one another.
Cracking the code of organizational culture often comes down to learning how people communicate with one another. (Police1)

Be an observer. Resist the urge to “fix things” immediately. Don’t try to do too much. You may feel the need to validate yourself by proving your creative genius. Instead, feel confident that you’re there, and at least initially, listen carefully rather than talk. Find ways to highlight the strengths of others.

Gather data, through written documents and interviews, regarding the organization’s current values, strategy and goals.

Assess the “business” case for your hire. Learning where you fit within the overall municipality’s strategy is something that may seem obvious but is often overlooked. Figure this out early.

Understand how the organization is structured today, what staff and partners believe the citizen and officer needs are, and how well those needs are being met.

Use neutral data to highlight the current organization’s strengths, blind spots and opportunities. Be aware and wary of those who say, “Let me be honest with you” for they are about to lead you down a rabbit hole that you may never get out of or recover from.

Learn about your players, the passions, skills, strengths, blind spots and leadership styles of your staff and officers. Most organizations have extremely talented and smart people that may have been held down or exiled by the previous administration. Find five to eight of these individuals and get them on your side by acknowledging their potential and giving them tasks to accomplish. 

Share your personal leadership philosophy with their team. Explain your definition of leadership, your personal values, your operating principles, your expectations of others, what others can expect of you, your non-negotiables (what you will not tolerate), your pet peeves and your commitment to feedback. Put this into a 600–800 word document that is posted for all to see, review and offer feedback.

Your second 30 days: Move slowly to clarify

Learn communication patterns. Cracking the code of organizational culture often comes down to learning how people communicate with one another. Does your boss expect you to keep him or her informed on the details, or come to him or her with only the big problems? Does your team need constant validation or complete autonomy? It is not only a matter of imposing your own communication preferences on the organization but assimilating into the patterns that already exist. This is extremely important.

Put expectations into place. Expectations may be refinements of existing plans or they may be more formal outlines. The previous administration may have had some great plans that for some reason they did not get to execute. These plans may also have some very powerful people within the organization attached to them. You create instant enemies if you throw out existing plans and people without a thorough review and a conversation with the people associated with the existing plans. At the same time, if the existing plans are crap, call them crap and explain why you think they are crap, BUT do this only after you have crafted undisputedly better plans that are not crap. Reveal new plans slowly and cautiously. Fast change is never welcomed.

Describe WHAT targets you have in mind and HOW team members will deliver on those targets. Identify early "easy wins.” Early easy wins excite and energize people, build your credibility and quickly create value for your organization. It is important to define what a win is in your boss’s eyes and in the eyes of the officers. What do your boss and officers expect you to learn and accomplish? How quickly do your boss and officers expect to see results? The more clarity you build around these issues, the easier your transition will be.

Formalize the organization’s vision, values, valued behaviors, strategies and goals. Valued behaviors define what a “good officer” looks, sounds and acts like in the police organization. The police leader shares all these with the organization and gains commitment from each member of the organization to meet these goals.

Plans, decisions and actions that serve the organization’s vision, values, strategies and goals are supported; those that don’t are not. Leaders should engage team members and citizens in discussions to gain agreement about organizational goals and standards and describes accountability systems to ensure goal delivery by every officer (including the leader!) and the organization as a whole.

Your third 30 days: Align and communicate internally and externally

During this third phase, the police leader should align activities to declared expectations. Effective accountability means the leader uses a combination of positive consequences and negative consequences to maintain traction toward the desired outcomes.

Communicate when expectations are met and when expectations are not met. The police leader must communicate enough with officers and citizens to allow officers and citizens to have a feeling of trust and transparency in dealing with the police leader, but not so much that you drown out other important voices in the organization. Require and allow your command staff to speak to officers and the community in a manner that demonstrates a continuity of message and transparency throughout all levels of the organization. Teach and allow everyone in the organization to speak to organizational vision, mission and values.

The last 10 days: A time for reflection

For the new police leader, self-reflection means setting aside time to review all that you have learned, heard and read about your agency and yourself as a leader over the past 90 days. Self-reflection is very important to your development as a new police leader. It accelerates and improves leadership development and enables the new police leader to better understand themselves and others.

NEXT: 12 traits of effective police leaders

Infographic: Plan for your first 100 days

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