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Who’s in charge of tomorrow?

Law enforcement must stop ignoring crucial succession planning and start building leadership pipelines

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With many departments currently facing supervisor shortages since the COVID-19 pandemic and a slew of early retirements, developing a law enforcement leadership pipeline has never been more critical.

Does your agency use acting supervisory positions? is it a formal or informal process? Is there a link to promotional preparation? How are those in acting supervisory roles chosen? Is it based on seniority, interest or is it part of an official career development program? Is there inconsistency and favoritism in the program? Are acting positions paid or are they volunteer? Is the local union or labor unit involved in the development of the program? Do we even need a career development or succession plan?

These questions may seem like a lot to consider, but they are essential to identifying what your agency’s succession plan looks like or if one even exists.

Change is inevitable, leaders come and go, and departments need to be proactive in their efforts to backfill those losses and handle change.

Succession planning

With many departments currently facing supervisor shortages since the COVID-19 pandemic and a slew of early retirements, developing a law enforcement leadership pipeline has never been more critical.

In many departments, succession planning is not necessarily part of an assigned role or task. It is not budgeted for, organized, planned, scheduled or evaluated despite the benefits in identifying key leadership potential in an organization. One solution may be to consider bringing officers eligible for promotion into a temporary supervisory position under the auspices of a mentoring program. This could help the agency fill positions that are temporarily vacant, as well as build confidence and competency in those officers filling the gaps.

Career development

Your department’s role in either identifying future leaders or providing opportunities for developing the skills they would need to succeed should be a priority. While many agencies may have some form of career development on the books, they may not have a formal program to help build those skills for the next step in an officer’s career development.

Most agencies continue to rely on a traditional written test followed by an interview with an oral review panel to determine leaders for the department. This process often includes little, if any, evaluation of the candidate’s actual abilities, preparation, or orientation toward leadership. Some promotional tests revolve around policies and procedures, laws and protocols but not the supervisory or managerial skills candidates need in the actual job they will be doing.

For example, considering that a supervisor or manager will meet with their units at least once a week, if not once a day, many agencies provide no training or testing in meeting management. Most supervisors or managers will obviously have a daily routine with their in-basket, yet some agencies offer no training or testing on how to communicate effectively in writing, delegate tasks, or manage projects using this technique.

Supervisors have to counsel, discipline and coach subordinates. However, many agencies have no training or testing in this area, though employee development is a critical component of a supervisor’s role. To combat this incongruity, these skills could be included in a mentoring program curriculum.

Funding vs. volunteer programs

Career development or succession planning need not require extensive funding, equipment, staffing or resources. But it does require a change of thinking. To paraphrase a mantra from community-oriented policing and problem-solving policing, it requires a philosophical and attitudinal paradigm shift in organizational thinking.

Any succession planning program should stress the skills required of leadership positions, the challenges leaders face and the transferable skills any candidate is already using in their present assignment. The department’s role is to offer candidates the opportunities, choices and challenges to succeed. In the end, it is all about skills, personality and relationships.

The department could provide skills development opportunities for potential candidates by having them carry out a few tasks. These could include:

  • Conducting daily unit briefings or musters. This includes developing agendas and scheduling rosters/assignments.
  • Writing contingency plans for upcoming local events.
  • Writing after-action plans.
  • Learning counseling skills in role-play sessions.
  • Working on unit effectiveness reports, to include use of statistical analysis.
  • Inspecting, evaluating, or assessing equipment and supplies, researching replacement costs and options, and recommending replacement or updating.

Transferable skills

Field training officers, tactical officers, K-9 officers, traffic investigators and criminal investigators already possess and use every day many of the same skills that are directly connected to the new role of a supervisor. Some agencies use rotational experiences or at least brief assignments with a variety of unit supervisors so potential leaders can see what’s expected of them in the future. Take the initiative and use transferable skills as part of succession planning. Highlight these transferable skills and use them to build confidence and competency.

Defining the program

While some terms may vary, the essence is the same: to give the potential supervisor or manager a chance to experience the new role in a hands-on environment.

  • On-the-job training: This can include officers selected to work as an acting shift supervisor or watch commander. This program would allow for potential supervisors or managers to rotate the assignment after an agreed-upon time frame.
  • Mentors: Providing volunteer mentors for potential candidates for promotion. There are informal and formal mentors. The informal mode is usually based on personal relationships, whereas the formal version has an official structure and status.
  • Coaching: This can be part of the mentoring program or could be dedicated to selective assignments over a period of time. There may be several coaches depending on the plan. These also could be either informal or formal.
  • Acting positions: These may be part of a program but are in a separate category because they are acting “out of classification.” This may be included in a successful program but would most likely be at the end of the candidate’s program. Or it could be used once the candidate has completed the program and received a successful evaluation.

Sample leadership development program

Everyone who is interested in the program has the same opportunity. Officers would have to decide whether or not they want to go through the selection process. Ideally, this would alleviate any claims of bias or favoritism. This is not dissimilar to applying to other positions such as SWAT, K-9 and investigations.

  1. An announcement is made that individuals interested in the leadership mentoring program have to apply for a space in the program.
  2. They could be asked to submit a letter as to why they should be accepted into the program, which could include how they think the program would help them reach their professional goals.
  3. One suggestion is that to be considered for the program, applicants would obtain a recommendation from at least their current supervisor and perhaps a former supervisor.
  4. If the application letter is approved, the candidate would then take a written exam, similar to actual promotional exams.
  5. Should they pass the written component, they could be asked to participate in a relatively brief interview panel.
  6. Should all these conditions be met, the candidate could agree to participate in the program, with the understanding that they could be dropped from the program under certain circumstances or drop out of the program with no adverse actions.
  7. After passing the entry requirements, the candidate could be assigned to a senior officer in the rank for which they would eventually be applying. The senior officer would be volunteering as a mentor.
  8. The schedules would be agreed upon by the mentor and candidate with the approval of the candidate’s immediate supervisor. This would be to mitigate any scheduling conflicts.
  9. The program would have a fixed length to allow others to rotate into the program.
  10. The program could include a series of assignments with several mentors such as an acting field sergeant, acting watch commander, acting incident commander and acting investigations sergeant.
  11. The program is based on the premise that both the candidate and mentors are volunteering their time. They are not acting “out of classification” during this program. This is also why the personnel department and local union should be involved in these decisions.

While the agency can develop and implement programs to help its future leaders, it is ultimately the individual officers who are responsible for their own future. However, the question of, “Who is in charge of tomorrow,” needs to be clarified. Is it the chief? The human resources/personnel department? Or is it a collaborative effort? Overall, this type of program is a win-win for both the agency and its future leaders.

Leadership development resources

Michelson R. Preparing Future Leaders for Tomorrow: Succession Planning for Police Leadership. Police Chief Magazine, 2016.

IACP. Mentors, Protégés and Acting Positions.

IACP. Succession Planning and Staff Development.

Ann Arundel Police. Policy on Acting roles.

California Personnel Services (CPS). Developing the Leadership Pipeline report.

NEXT: Active supervision challenge: Managing performance

Rick Michelson’s 30 years of experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department where he served as a patrol, SWAT and FTO sergeant. He also served as interim chief, lieutenant and sergeant with two university and college police departments. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

As director of KSA Ltd., (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities), he provides leadership development training workshops, using assessment centers methods, for officers who are preparing for supervisory and management positions. He is also the author of “Assessment Centers for Public Safety.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman University and a master’s degree in public administration from National University. He was also a Ph.D. candidate for the Union Institute and University.