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Next-generation succession planning: The role of internal internship programs

These programs transform the way law enforcement agencies prepare for leadership transitions, blending practical experience with traditional training methods

Symbol for a successful succession.

Executive law enforcement leaders constantly seek opportunities to prepare their employees for the next level.

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Read this article to uncover:

  • The limitations of traditional classroom-based leadership training in law enforcement and the need for more practical, hands-on approaches.
  • How internal internship programs serve as a practical solution for leadership development, offering real-world experience and direct mentorship.
  • The key benefits of implementing internal internships within law enforcement agencies, including enhanced succession planning and improved knowledge transfer.
  • Steps to develop and implement an effective internal internship program, including needs assessment, program design, mentorship structures, and evaluation processes.
  • The role of community engagement and partnerships in enhancing the effectiveness of succession planning strategies in law enforcement.

Succession planning is known throughout most industries as a strategic process designed to identify and develop employees who aspire to future leadership roles. This is a practical approach to prepare an employee for leadership and minimize disruptions to a division that loses someone to retirement, promotion, demotion, or resignation.

The law enforcement profession isn’t any different. Executive law enforcement leaders constantly seek opportunities to prepare their employees for the next level. Whether supervisory, command, or executive training, this is a practical approach to maintaining continuity and retaining institutional knowledge.

However, traditional classroom learning has yet to be the best source for learning the intricacies and industrial knowledge needed to perform the job at the same level of service as the individual exiting. Leadership positions have unique nuances and needs specific to the organization and the position, and this can’t be designed into coursework for delivery, but it is still vital to learn.

A solution to this challenge is to offer internal internship programs for employees tapped to replace executive-level roles. In-house internships specifically give the employee preparing for the role the opportunity to learn by actively doing the work through projects and tasks, which they would be doing if they were already in the role.

Internal internship programs grant role-specific learning while ensuring potential candidates are a good fit for the role — allowing the current leadership to assess candidate skills and abilities in real-time while witnessing the actual work being done.

In law enforcement, this is a strong fit, especially because executive leadership, more often than not, comes internally. It also has a significant number of benefits within the law enforcement field:

1. Supplements the workload of the current leader

As individuals promoted within the organization, they would gain more participation in the internship program. Lower-level candidates would be placed in a mentee role, as the higher-level leaders would begin adopting the mentor role — garnering experience in leadership as they prepare the lower-level candidates for leadership responsibilities. Blending these responsibilities into the current leadership workload demonstrates efficiency and creates an internal succession planning that is, in many ways, self-sufficient.

2. Creates a direct mentor/coach relationship

One-on-one mentoring/coaching between the intern and the leader assures the proper passage of industrial knowledge and reduces external influences that may educate in leadership tactics that are ineffective in the field. Furthermore, it allows corrections in the candidate’s actions and tactics before they fully enter the role. This means the candidate will have a firm grasp of what will and won’t work and can avoid initial pitfalls that leaders simply stepping into the role may face.

3. Enhances company-specific knowledge base

Not only do in-house internships assist in identifying and placing new leaders, but all potential candidates receive guidance and learning in their overall skills and abilities. Company-specific information is transferred to all program participants regardless of promotion, assisting those who are not promoted to continue their work with a better grasp on how to perform their job and share what is learned during this time with their peers. This knowledge can have a beneficial cascading effect.

4. Increases the employee pool with suitable candidates for critical roles

When selecting a successor, there are now multiple candidates with the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities pre-identified for the promotional process. The employees who expressed interest in the role have improved qualities due to the internship, and the selection process is made more competitive, thus driving those seeking the roles to strive for more significant improvements.

A framework for developing an internal internship program

To maximize the effectiveness of these internal internship programs, the following structured approach can be adopted:

1. Needs assessment: Conduct a needs assessment to understand the current and future leadership needs. This step involves identifying the competencies, skills and knowledge essential for leadership roles within the department.

2. Program development: Design the internship program outline, identifying key areas of learning and practical engagements. Establish clear objectives, timelines and expected outcomes for the program. The curriculum should blend practical on-the-job training with theoretical learning, tailored to the specific needs of a law enforcement agency.

3. Mentorship structure: Develop a mentorship framework that pairs experienced leaders with aspiring candidates. This includes training existing leaders on mentorship, coaching and feedback provision to ensure effective knowledge transfer.

4. Selection process: Design a fair and transparent selection process to identify potential candidates for the internship program. Involving community stakeholders in this process can foster community engagement and trust.

5. Evaluation and feedback: Establish regular evaluation milestones to assess the progress of interns and the effectiveness of the mentorship structure. Incorporate feedback loops to allow for program adjustments and continuous improvement.

6. Documentation and knowledge transfer: Implement a robust system for documentation and knowledge transfer to capture institutional knowledge. Utilize modern technologies to facilitate knowledge sharing and retention.

7. Community engagement: Actively involve the community in the program through informational sessions, obtaining feedback to ensure the program meets the expectations and needs of the community served.

8. Legal and ethical considerations: Ensure that the program adheres to legal and ethical standards, particularly concerning equal opportunity, inclusivity, and data privacy.

9. Continuous improvement: After each internship cycle, conduct a thorough review to identify areas of improvement. Engage with other law enforcement agencies to share best practices and learn from others who have implemented similar programs.

10. Budgeting and funding: Determine the budget required to run the internship program efficiently. Explore various funding opportunities, including grants, to support the program.

11. Promotion and awareness: Develop a communication strategy to promote the program internally within the department and externally to the community.

12. Partnership: Partner with local colleges or universities to create evidence-based outcomes that enhance the evaluation and feedback section. This collaboration not only informs the program’s development but also anchors it in a scientifically sound and culturally informed framework.

Succession planning is an organization and role-specific process necessary to prevent losses and failures as leadership changes hands. In law enforcement, careful execution of this matter is vital for public safety and organizational harmony. Retention depends on the smooth succession of leadership. An internal internship program makes that goal a reality and benefits the organization efficiently and cost-effectively. With one, an organization can retain industrial knowledge and vital leadership tactics as knowledge fails to pass on.

Action items after reading this article

After reading this article, here are questions and action items for police leaders:

Question: “How well does our current succession planning prepare officers for leadership roles?”

Action items:

  • Conduct an assessment of the current succession planning process to identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • Gather feedback from recent promotees on their readiness and challenges faced in their new roles.
  • Compare current training methodologies with the internal internship model discussed in the article.

Question: “Can an internal internship program be integrated into our existing training framework?”

Action items:

  • Review the structure and resources of your training department to determine feasibility.
  • Develop a pilot internship program outline, including objectives and timelines.
  • Seek input from key stakeholders, including training officers and potential interns, for program refinement.

Question: “What specific skills and knowledge gaps exist in our leadership training that internal internships could address?”

Action items:

  • Identify critical leadership competencies that are currently underdeveloped in training.
  • Design internship projects and activities that specifically target these competencies.
  • Create a system for ongoing skills assessment and adjustment of internship content.

Question: “How can we effectively select and pair candidates and mentors for the internal internship program?”

Action items:

  • Develop transparent criteria and a selection process for both interns and mentors.
  • Train selected mentors in coaching and feedback techniques.
  • Establish clear expectations and goals for both mentors and interns, with regular check-ins.

Question: “In what ways can we involve the community and other stakeholders in the succession planning process?”

Action items:

  • Organize community forums to discuss leadership development and gather public input.
  • Partner with local educational institutions for program development and evaluation.
  • Create communication strategies to keep internal and external stakeholders informed and engaged in the program’s progress.

Police1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

Shaun Ward, M.Dgt., a 20-year law enforcement veteran, is a service-minded change agent focused on encouraging people to work together representing different cultures, backgrounds and experiences. Dr. Ward is a National Institute of Justice LEADS Scholar, a policing fellow with the National Policing Institute, and considered a subject matter expert with the U.S. DOJ / COPS Office, with the Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center. He is a regularly invited guest instructor at the FBI National Academy. He has authored numerous academic and industry articles and has spoken at national and international conferences, educational institutions, and research symposiums. He is the founder and CEO of the SLW Group, a management consultancy firm focused on investing in people and improving processes to impact organizational performance. Connect with him on LinkedIn.