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Why you should act out your next career move

There are many benefits from serving as an acting sergeant prior to taking the police sergeant exam

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An acting sergeant’s role will give you an opportunity to learn some of the skills and tasks of a sergeant with all the responsibilities that come with the job.

You have seniority on the job but have not had any supervisory roles. During the last sergeant’s exam, you went through the process and came out in the middle of the promotional list. The list expired before your name came up. As a result, you decide to try again.

You know you didn’t do that great on the last test, particularly the structured interview and the assessment center. The latter left you wondering if you were really ready to promote. The assessment center exercises were similar roles that a sergeant would do on the job, but you had not had those experiences as a supervisor. You know your strengths as an officer, but feel you need some “hands-on” experience to not only be better prepared for the test but to be more prepared for the job itself.

After your shift briefing, and as you are getting ready to go on patrol, your sergeant says to you, “I’m going on a two-week vacation soon. How would you like to be my acting sergeant? I know you are on the sergeant’s list.” Your immediate reaction is, “Sarge, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’m not good at all that stuff you do.” The sergeant expresses confidence in you and says that he will spend some time going over the different tasks involved before you have to step into the role.

You ask the sergeant what is entailed in an acting position. Depending on your department’s policies and procedures, it may be part of an official program to develop future leaders, or it may be just a temporary assignment based on unit needs. In this case, the sergeant can ask you to fill in for a short time without compensation for an “out of class” position. In other cases, where the supervisor’s absence is substantial, the department may require you to be in an “out of class” assignment for the duration, and you would be paid as such.

You realize the benefit of this experience prior to the upcoming promotional exams. This role will give you an opportunity to learn some of the skills and tasks of a sergeant with all the responsibilities that come with the job.


The sergeant explains the different aspects of the supervisory role and tells you that this experience will help you develop your leadership skills in specific job-related ways. You realize that these KSAs (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) of a sergeant, are learned behaviors. You can see how the opportunity to step into an acting sergeant’s role may be just what you need to practice and apply these new behaviors.

For example, you will prepare and manage the daily briefing. You may have an opportunity to “counsel” some of the officers, giving you practice in dealing with personnel issues. Due to your temporary status, you would not have the authority or responsibility for an actual disciplinary-related discussion with officers, but you could answer general questions. Or you could initiate a discussion or clarification, given the scope of your authority and responsibility.

This acting role could also give you experience in planning for an event, writing a contingency plan and composing an after-action report. You will also deal with the sergeants “in-basket,” which will help you gain experience in prioritizing follow-ups, setting assignments, or delegating in written format.

During your acting sergeant role, you may have to deal with a citizen complaint. You recall during the last assessment center they had that exercise. Your perspective as even a temporary supervisor will affect your behavior. Being in an acting capacity, virtually all of your experiences will not only help you in the next test but will help prepare you for the actual job.

Use the sergeant job description to assess your readiness

You probably “scanned” the sergeant job description when it was first posted, but you may not have analyzed the different aspects of the actual description.

The job description is based on a “job analysis,” which is a more detailed description of the job, but adds a “weighted” factor to the various KSAs that a sergeant should possess.

If possible, see if you can obtain a copy of the actual job analysis for the sergeant. (Getting a copy will be one of the biggest challenges of your career since it is apparently considered the “Holy Grail” by human resources.)

Consider creating a matrix of each of the KSAs mentioned and do a self-assessment of your own readiness levels in each area. The more you know about the expectations of the role, the more prepared you can be to step into the role.

Download a sample KSA matrix to rate your readiness level for a supervisory position.

Benefits of acting sergeant positions

Acting sergeant positions not only help officers practice and demonstrate their leadership, but the department gains a more experienced supervisor once the officer completes the acting supervisor assignment.

One of the key issues of any advancement in rank is the candidate’s readiness level for the new role. Using the Hershey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model, it is the readiness level of the subordinate that affects how supervisors delegate effectively. In effect, if the officer is not really ready for that new role, and is not helped in some way to learn these new skills, the result can be devastating to the officer.

The role of an acting sergeant can help officers gain those skills, as long as the actual supervisor understands the importance of assessing the officer’s initial readiness level to perform as a sergeant.

Risks of active sergeant positions

Possible risks include:

  • The person selected is not ready to step into that role, and performs poorly. In some cases, it may be setting the person up for failure. The long-term impact could be demoralizing and affect future behaviors.
  • The person is simply not willing to do the assignment, thus gives a poor performance.
  • In some cases, poor decisions have consequences not only for the person, the squad or unit, but the department and even the public.
  • Other officers may feel slighted that they were not chosen or given the opportunity. These concerns could lead to low morale and even resentment.

Transferable skills

During temporary assignments, many of the skills you may have demonstrated in current or previous assignments are similar to those of the sergeant’s role. These are transferable skills.

Your experiences could include being a field training officer (FTO), K-9 officer, traffic investigator, SWAT team leader or lead investigator. Each of these areas has some similar KSAs of a sergeant.

Since you now realize you have some experience in some of those skills, there could be a smoother transition from officer to sergeant. Having some level of skill in related areas of those of a sergeant, plus the experience of now being an acting supervisor, can only help in strengthening those skills. As a result, you may be a much stronger candidate, in either a structured interview or assessment center. Why? Because you would have demonstrated a “proven track record” in specific supervisory skills. Ideally, you would also have some successful examples of your experiences as an acting sergeant to not only bring into the interviews or assessment center but to prepare you for the actual role of a sergeant.

It is your career

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. I wish you success.

Want a sample KSA matrix to rate your readiness level for a supervisory position? Fill out the form below to print out a chart.

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.