Promotion interviews: 6 steps to put you above your competitors
Everyone they’re talking to can likely do the job – here’s how to make yourself stand out
By John Weinstein, Ph.D.
In their 1969 book, “The Peter Principle,” Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull noted that people in a hierarchy get promoted based on success in previous jobs, but at some point they reach their “level of incompetence” because the demands of their new position exceed their skills. 
Your task when standing for promotion is to convince your interview panel that moving to a higher level of authority and responsibility will not exceed your skill level. Past successful performance in your current position may admit you to the promotion process but does not guarantee your future success. After all, as you increase in rank, your span of control increases, potentially corrosive personnel headaches must be addressed, paperwork abounds, and you now hold the careers (and possibly the lives) of others in your hand. You have, at once, become more visible but also more exposed!
You may have excelled as an investigator or firearms instructor or in traffic enforcement, but these successes don’t necessarily translate to the leadership, administrative and communications responsibilities of your next position.
Understand the promotion process
Most departmental promotion processes contain various assessment elements, such as:
- A written exam that covers such elements as general orders; department history, responsibilities and jurisdiction; supervisory responsibilities; responses to various crimes; and incident command.
- The development and presentation of a briefing, followed by a question-and-answer period.
- A written project, such as developing an operation plan or writing a letter of reprimand.
- An “in-basket exercise” in which the candidate is required to address various job performance criteria in a short time, often under some induced stress. [2,3]
Far more daunting is the oral board interview, often the last step in the process, where a candidate’s vision, instincts, communication skills, grace under pressure, job knowledge, creativity and a host of other subjective factors are scrutinized.
How to interview successfully
The interview, usually given in the final stages of the selection/promotion process, is about more than whether you can do the job. Presumably, many of the position finalists have already demonstrated their desire to move up the chain, willingness to work hard and history of successful performance. The interview is also about whether you can make your new colleagues look good and whether they want to associate with you more closely for the next several years. The interview is not unlike a blind date, in which both parties hope for a more permanent and rewarding relationship, but it doesn’t take much to derail the encounter. Hence, you will want to be on time, look good, avoid rude or bizarre behavior and make eye contact with your interviewers.
Here are six suggestions to ensure a rewarding interview experience.
1. Have a plan.
What are the top four or five things you want interviewers to remember most about you? For instance, each candidate will possess some combination of the following positive traits:
- Tactical proficiency
- Investigatory excellence
- Administrative thoroughness
- Research capability
- Community outreach and commitment (e.g., associations, volunteer work)
- Conflict resolution
- Commitment to diversity
- Interest in related areas of expertise, such as psychology
- Technological facility
You may possess many of these characteristics, but the interview is no place to present a laundry list of your traits. They must be tied to the goals and priorities of your department. What complicates the preparation is that various departments have different priorities, usually affected by size, wealth, the agency head’s personal philosophy and the department’s recent experiences. Concerning the latter, departments just placed under a consent decree, pursuing accreditation, or responding to a serious liability lawsuit will be looking for different things. You must determine what the department needs and wants before you can divine how you need to package yourself. Once you do this, ensure you showcase these positive characteristics in the questions asked during the interview. Use them to illustrate your answers.
2. Prepare answers for likely questions.
Most interviews for first- and second-line supervisory positions will ask some of the following questions (remember to highlight your leading traits in the answers):
- What are the goals of this police department?
- Why do you want to be a sergeant (lieutenant, etc.)?
- What specific traits and/or skills do you bring to the position?
- What makes you the most desirable candidate?
- What are your weak points?
- What are your top 3-5 priorities as a leader?
- What’s the difference between leadership and management?
- Describe a personal ethical dilemma (or failure) and how you addressed it.
- How do you police fairly and effectively in a diverse environment?
- Based on your experiences in your current position, what three improvements would you make, what would you do first and why?
- As a sergeant (or lieutenant), how would you respond to [specific crime or incident]?
- What are the biggest challenges to policing, and how would you address them in your command?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
You will not be asked to answer all of the above, but preparing and practicing the answers has several beneficial effects: You will not have a deer-in-the-headlights look when asked, you will minimize your number of “ums,” you will demonstrate your commitment to preparation, you will exude an aura of confidence, and your answers will be organized, complete and succinct.
3. Know your general orders.
Bosses hate surprises; they prefer predictability. One way to calm the fears of your future supervisors is to assure them your actions will be governed by a knowable set of rules and prescriptions. Citing your general orders in your answers when appropriate will convince your interviewers your decisions will be well-grounded in procedures endorsed by the department.
4. Be a problem-solver.
It’s easy to gripe about problems. However, coming up with solutions is tough. Whenever you discuss a problem in the department, be able to address how you would correct it in a cost-effective and realistic manner. Further, knowing how to prioritize corrective actions will identify you as a realist and prudent planner.
5. Be thoughtful.
Don’t rely on your memory under the stress of an interview. Write down the key areas of information asked for in each question so you don’t need to ask for a repeat or omit part of an answer. Also, it’s a good idea to delay your answer for a few seconds while you gather your thoughts. You can jot down a few words while formulating your answer. If an answer occurs to you after you’ve moved to the next question, make a note and either incorporate it into a subsequent question if you can or mention it at the end of the interview when asked if you have anything else you want the interviewers to know.
6. Make a good exit.
As the interview concludes, you will likely be asked if you have any questions for the panel. You should! For instance, you might ask where your interviewers see the department in five years (and then remind them how your strong traits can help achieve their vision). Also, you should prepare an exit statement, thanking the panel for interviewing you, summarizing your key strong points and noting your confidence in your ability to help the department. Shake hands with each interviewer as you depart and thank them for the opportunity to meet with them.
A final thought
You may assume most, if not all, of the candidates invited for an interview can do the job. This means the panel is looking for reasons to rule candidates out. The suggestions above will ensure you come across as a thoughtful and systematic problem-solver who is organized, creative, personable, a promising colleague and ready for a challenge.
1. Peter L, Hull R. The Peter Principle. William Morrow and Company, 1969.
2. What is In-Basket Technique? peopleHum.
3. Roberts M. The In-Basket Exercise and How to Use It.” LiveAbout.
Weinstein J. The Challenge of Innovation in Law Enforcement Organizations. Police Chief.
Weinstein J. How to Evaluate and Improve Your Agency in 6 Easy Steps (Part 1). Campus Safety.
Weinstein J. How to Evaluate and Improve Your Agency in 6 Easy Steps (Part 2). Campus Safety.
NEXT: Show you’re ready for promotion: How to document success
Raters are genuinely looking for candidates who are most likely to be “ready” to step into the role. To do this, you’ll want to keep a running catalog of your successes – both formal and informal – for easy reference.
About the author
Lt. John Weinstein, Ph.D., is commander of strategic planning and outreach at one of the country’s largest institutions of higher education. Formerly he served as a deputy sheriff, patrol officer, town sergeant and chief of police. Weinstein has extensive teaching, program planning and assessment, and training experience in all aspects of security operations. He is a certified instructor for firearms, active incident response tactics, mental health training and verbal judo. He lectures nationally and internationally on these topics. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.