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The Leadership Beat: ‘The more people told me that you can’t change the world, the more I was driven to prove them wrong’

Chief Chad McCluskey discusses how culture, trust and respect are the foundation for officer retention

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The following content is part of a new Police1 initiative – the Police Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new law enforcement leaders move beyond basic management and supervision skills and become inspirational leaders with integrity and passion. Through a handful of questions presented by Police1, veteran leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email editor@police1.com to offer your insights for the Police Leader Playbook.

Chief Chad McCluskey, MBA, CPM, was sworn in as chief of police for the City of Waukee (Iowa) Police Department in January 2023 after spending five years as the Public Safety Director/Chief of Police and Fire Services in Windsor Heights, Iowa. Before moving to Iowa, Chief McCluskey spent over 20 years with the Augusta (Kansas) Department of Public Safety where he was a watch commander and police canine trainer. The Waukee Police Department currently has 34 officers serving a rapidly growing population of nearly 30,000 in one of the fastest-growing cities in Iowa. The Waukee Police Department responds to approximately 18,000 calls for service annually.

What was the incident or person in your career who put you on the path to becoming a chief?
There are so many people who had a hand in my success. From my early teen years as an explorer in the fire department and those who nurtured my growth, to my first chief and patrol sergeant, and so many more. Early on, I knew I wanted to effect change. The more people told me “You can’t change the world,” the more I was driven to prove them wrong.

What do you (or did you) want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first 30 days as chief, 6 months as chief and year as chief?

I have been chief of two organizations, and in both, I came in as an outsider. The very first thing I did was sit with every member − newest to most senior − and ask a series of eight questions to help me understand what was going well and where opportunities for improvement existed. This gained quick buy-in and support from the team as it presented an open forum for them to talk about everything and anything directly with me and in confidence.

Additionally, get out among your people. Go on calls, learn new things, admit you don’t know it all and admit when you are wrong. Minimize the “This is how we did it in <fill in previous agencies>.” This will come into discussions from time to time but be cognizant of it and try to keep those comments to a minimum. You aren’t with that agency anymore. How are you going to create a better environment NOW?

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How are you creating an organizational culture people want to be a part of?
Culture, culture, culture! Trust, equal respect, a level demeanor and showing your people you trust them to do their job without you interfering. My first agency as chief was a very small department in the middle of a large metropolitan area. The agency was known as a “training ground” and then officers left. I spent five years and had zero turnover - ZERO! This was due to the culture of support, trust and inclusion I built. In my newer organization, we are now fully staffed (the first time since 2015 I am told) and we have certified officers knocking at the door to join us even though we have no openings. It is all about taking care of those in your organization! Support them, build them up, mentor them and minimize unnecessary tampering with their environment/work.

What’s your process for making major decisions?
First, identify the end goal. Then start looking at options. Talk to EVERYONE − not just your command staff. Ask line-level officers questions like “How is XYZ going?” “What do you think about XYZ?” You won’t be able to do this with every decision, but you would be surprised how often you can do this if you just slow down and take the time to get input. Plus, this adds equity to the times when you don’t/can’t ask for whatever reason.

Then, develop a plan. Sleep on it, revisit it, sleep on it again, revisit it again. Be sure you are doing the right thing for the organization and your people. Then, when you make the change, be clear about the change, the reason for the change (the WHY) and invite questions/discussion to work through the change. Your people want to know the WHY!

How do you show your personnel you are leading with value-based behaviors?
Every action you take reflects your integrity, honesty and values. Don’t involve yourself in gossip and idle rumors. Instead, focus on where you are going. Talk about what your agency (NOT just you) is doing and where your agency is going. Then be honest. It is better to have tough conversations early rather than let things build up. Hold people accountable, but more importantly, hold yourself accountable. If you ask for input, make your decisions using that input, don’t ask for input knowing the answer as your team will see right through you and that erodes your equity.

Leadership lightning round

What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable?

Not really a book or podcast, but continuing education has been invaluable. Through my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, I have interacted with more diverse people, in different roles, who have different thoughts/ideas/values and this has been invaluable in preparing me to lead a diverse organization.

How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?

Leave time for you in your schedule and be intentional in leaving gaps to address issues that come up throughout the day, so you aren’t so bogged down and don’t have time to resolve issues in a timely manner.

If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?

I am extremely lucky to be in an organization where we really have no outstanding huge requests. We have great equipment, and we are getting a new building. We really are lucky!

What is one way leaders can show they care about their people?

Show up! Whether during a normal day, on a scene, during a difficult call, to fight for needs at a meeting, or talking to the community. You build equity by simply showing up!

At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?

Physical fitness workouts.

Access more Leadership Beat interviews here.

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