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Transforming organizational culture: A captain’s leadership development journey

How forward-thinking leaders can drive positive change and create a thriving organizational culture

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Captain Evans left the Marines in 2008, but the philosophy of “leadership at every level” stayed with him.

As an independent consultant and police/public policy researcher, I am privileged to interview amazing police leaders from across the country for various projects.

While researching trends in police training, I met several chiefs and sheriffs whose creative minds and innovative spirits caught my attention. These dynamic leaders are implementing meaningful change within their departments and communities, and they are seeing tangible results. The most impressive part is that many of them are operating on shoestring budgets, which makes their creativity and motivation even more valuable.

I am honored to showcase these leaders in this multi-article series titled “Pioneers in Policing: Innovative Approaches in Law Enforcement Leadership.”

In the realm of law enforcement, the importance of leadership development cannot be overstated. Developing the next generation of police leaders shapes not only the effectiveness of a police department but also its reputation and relationship with the community it serves.

In this article, we delve into the remarkable transformation of the Hitchcock (Texas) Police Department through the leadership of Captain Evans. His strategic focus on leadership development has not only improved trust and communication within the department but has also led to enhanced recruitment and retention rates, ultimately preparing the organization for a brighter and more sustainable future.

Lessons learned as a marine

Captain Evans’ time as a marine in the aftermath of 9/11 profoundly shaped his understanding of leadership development and accountability. The challenges he faced and the lessons he learned in the military emphasized the critical importance of cohesive teamwork, strategic thinking and individual accountability at every level.

Witnessing the impact of effective leadership in high-pressure situations, he recognized the significance of instilling these values within his team. “What the Marine Corps is phenomenal at is creating leaders at the small unit level,” Captain Evans said. “They push the attention and focus on decision-making down to the lower level and they trust that individuals in those leadership positions are going to make the best decision they can make.”

Evans left the Marines in 2008, but the philosophy of “leadership at every level” stayed with him. When transitioning to a leadership role in policing, he recognized a gap in professional development that he saw as an opportunity to enact meaningful change within his department. He began at Hitchcock Police Department in 2021 and quickly developed a strategy to institute a comprehensive professional development program to enhance the skills, knowledge and effectiveness of the police force under his leadership.

Drawing on the principles of accountability and leadership development, he began implementing training programs for officers, fostering a culture of responsibility and continuous improvement. By instilling a sense of duty and a commitment to excellence, Captain Evans sought to create a resilient and accountable police force capable of navigating complex challenges with integrity and efficiency.

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The challenges at Hitchcock Police Department

Hitchcock Police Department, like many law enforcement agencies across the nation, faces its fair share of challenges. Low pay, high turnover rates and a lack of preparedness for leadership roles were just a few of the issues that plagued the department when Captain Evans began.

Considered small and rural, with 23 sworn officers, Hitchcock PD’s jurisdiction encompasses about 90 square miles and a population of 7,500 residents. Nestled in the Houston/Galveston metro area means there is no shortage of medium and large departments in the surrounding area. Captain Evans realized many officers were joining Hitchcock PD fresh out of the academy, getting some training under their belts, and then moving on to better-paying departments.

He also realized that there was a lack of defined leadership within the department, which also led to a lack of accountability: “We all knew who the chief was, and there was another captain at the time, but below him, there were a few sergeants and not a lot of cohesion when it came to decision-making. One of the first things I wanted to focus on was putting accountability on our sergeants and first-line supervisors.”

Recognizing these problems, Captain Evans embarked on a journey to transform the organizational culture of the department and address these issues head-on.

Accountability through self-assessment

Captain Evans was determined to instill a culture of accountability, self-policing and self-correction within the ranks through the transformative power of self-awareness.

“One of the tenets I built those first few months with the new supervisors was having them identify who they were. If you don’t know who you are, it’s hard for you to work with anybody else,” Evans explained.

To start this process, supervisors underwent DiSC and Myers-Briggs personality assessments. These assessments served as a catalyst for open conversations about diverse leadership and communication styles, as well as the foundation for personal growth and development by allowing individuals to identify areas for improvement and build on their strengths. Officers became better equipped to collaborate effectively and adapt their approaches to different situations.

Captain Evans believes that this foundation of self-awareness laid the groundwork for a more accountable and connected police force, while also creating an environment where continuous improvement is not only supported but also expected. This introspective approach enhances officer morale by empowering individuals to take ownership of their growth. He plans to have all officers take these assessments within the next 12 months.

Leadership symposium: Fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing

The self-assessments led to one of Captain Evans’ most notable initiatives: the Leadership Symposium, where all supervisors come together once a month to share experiences, insights and best practices on leadership and trends. This collaborative event promotes cross-functional learning, breaks down silos and fosters a sense of community within the organization.

“There’s a lot of experience we all have obtained, and we’ve all been to classes. Why not put our minds together?” Evans asks.

Captain Evans reinforces the idea that leadership should not be restricted to a select few, but should be cultivated at every level, which is why he plans to soon open the symposium to all members of the department.

Reframing the narrative on police and education: “Brilliance in the basic”

“There’s brilliance in the basic,” Evans notes. “If we just focus on the basic components of being leaders, leadership doesn’t have to be taught from the lens of law enforcement to provide valuable lessons. We learn from commercial and business leaders, we learn from politicians, from military leaders, from academia, we look anywhere for leadership training as long as it’s valuable.”

Captain Evans encourages all personnel to focus on the balance between their professional and personal, educational and family goals. In Texas, most agencies offer incentives and stipends for education. Captain Evans wholeheartedly supports the concept of “professionalizing the police,” which he believes begins with education.

“It always bothers me when I hear, ‘If you push education then officers get training or degrees just to leave the department and go elsewhere.’ To me, the goal IS to get them to that point. If any of my officers came to me saying they got an opportunity to go to a new agency paying $20,000 a year more, I’m going to congratulate them and write them a letter of recommendation. But what we’re finding is that the revolving door of people looking to leave is diminishing. We actually have 10 applications for a single position right now and we just went nine months fully staffed. A positive work environment drives people 365 days a year.”

The department chief (a 35-year police veteran) just completed his bachelor’s degree. The lieutenant has a bachelor’s degree, and three of the five sergeants are currently working on bachelor’s programs. At the officer level, several members are enrolled in associate or bachelor’s degree programs.

And Captain Evans certainly practices what he preaches. He has a master’s degree in management and organizational leadership, he’s 12 credits shy of a second master’s in criminal justice, he earned a graduate certificate in executive law enforcement leadership, attended the FBI-LEEDA academy, was the 24th graduate from the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s Law Enforcement Command Officer Program (LECOP), and also attended the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s three-week “Developing Texas Leaders” course.

Hiring for character: Building a values-driven team

Another of Captain Evans’ notable initiatives is character hires, which he began immediately. Rather than solely focusing on qualifications and experience, he seeks candidates whose values align with the organization’s mission and culture, who have a growth mindset, and who are eager to learn.

“We’re looking for someone who can come in and understand what we’re doing, see where we’re trying to go, and who wants to be a piece of that machine,” Evans explained. “We’re not looking for someone to come on with 15 or 20 years who wants to change everything we have going on or be set in their ways. We appreciate the experience and impact they might’ve made, but if you’re not going to fit in with the culture here, we’re not going to hire you.”

Hiring for character enhances trust within the organization by ensuring that new team members share the same ethical principles and commitment to excellence. It also fosters a sense of unity and common purpose among officers.

After character hires began, “Nobody had to walk on eggshells anymore,” Evans said. “When I got here, people were just generally kind of nervous around each other. But if we don’t treat each other right inside of the PD, how can we expect our officers to treat people right out on the street?” Captain Evans continued by describing how much the culture improved after he implemented character hires. Enhanced trust and confidence among personnel, more collaboration, better dialogue and greater overall efficiency as a team were some of the tangible results experienced simply by focusing on character over experience when bringing on new team members. “If you don’t have a culture of trust, your agency just isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Leadership feedback: Creating a feedback loop

Captain Evans understands that feedback is essential for growth and improvement. He has established regular leadership feedback mechanisms that allow officers to provide input, voice concerns, and offer suggestions for improvement: “When it comes to feedback, you don’t need to be brutally honest, you just need to be honest. If you set expectations, explain the standards, and treat people like adults, then they’ll act like adults.”

Once a quarter, he asks the supervisors who have the most daily interaction with him to fill out note cards answering the following questions:

  • Are there things I’m doing that you would like me to stop doing?
  • Are there things I am currently doing that I should continue doing?
  • Are there things I’m not currently doing that I should start doing?

In turn, Captain Evans fills out the cards for his personnel. He follows the “praise, correct, praise” format when offering feedback and builds on the work they’re doing and the things they’ve done right.
He established feedback mechanisms for his sergeants, as well. Each shift, sergeants have four responsibilities in addition to their other work. First, they must find someone doing good work and thank them for a job well done. Second, they must find a problem (it can be as simple as reloading the printer) and fix it. Third, they need to learn something. They can read an article or a book, study case law, or anything that adds to their current knowledge. And finally, he asks that they teach something. It’s not uncommon for Captain Evans to walk around the department toward the end of shift and ask, “What did you learn today? It’s 5:30, better get on it.”

This open feedback culture not only improves communication but also demonstrates Captain Evans’ willingness to listen and adapt. It opens the door for conversations and helps personnel better understand policies and practices, and it fosters trust and enhances officer morale by making officers feel valued and heard.

Early leadership development: Nurturing emerging leaders

Captain Evans was determined to instill a culture of accountability, self-policing and self-correction within the ranks of Hitchcock PD: “One of the first things I wanted to focus on was putting accountability on our sergeants and first-line supervisors. Self-policing, being responsible for not only their actions but the actions of their officers, getting them the ability and authority to self-correct, review reports, and make decisions.” He believes this laid the groundwork for a more accountable and effective police force.

Recognizing the need for a pipeline of strong leaders, Captain Evans also invested in early leadership development programs: “A big issue we have here is budget, so I try to focus our training budget on the leadership of the department, and that means leadership at all levels. I’m not saying our entire budget is going to be spent on leadership development, but that’s the focus, that’s our priority.” These development programs identify and nurture emerging leaders within the organization, providing them with opportunities to acquire leadership skills and experience.

While the majority of his training budget is allocated to professional development, he allows (and encourages) personnel to request specialized training that interests them, as long as they can justify their reasoning: “If someone requests specialized training I can say, “The training budget is X, and this training costs Y, so why do you feel you need to go? If the answer makes sense and the budget allows, then let’s do it.”

One of his requirements for personnel who attend specialized training is a written summary upon their return that outlines: What did you learn? What are the takeaways? What are some of the lessons learned that your partners also need to know? Once the officer turns in their summary, Captain Evans then disseminates the information to the team along with an explanation of the training and the message, “Read it, learn it, apply it.” He understands that asking the trainee to summarize the training for others, not only helps them retain what they just learned but also brings others who were not able to attend up to speed.

By investing in the growth of potential leaders, Captain Evans not only improves officer morale by offering clear pathways for advancement but also ensures the long-term vitality of the organization by cultivating a new generation of capable leaders.

Advanced leadership training: Elevating leadership skills

To further strengthen the leadership capabilities of current officers, Captain Evans has implemented advanced leadership training programs such as the FBI-LEEDA three-week programs for Supervisor, Command, and Executive Leadership. These courses focus on a range of leadership competencies, from decision-making and conflict resolution to strategic thinking and emotional intelligence.

“Along with command staff, I decided I wanted all of our sergeants to go through it,” Evans said. “It’s very much driven by concept and philosophy, but also teaches how to implement those concepts and philosophies. But that’s just the beginning. We’re also looking to implement other trainings such as Police2Peace and getting that agency certification, as well as the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s LECOP program.”

The advanced leadership training enhances the organization’s overall leadership quality and contributes to improved communication. Well-trained leaders are better equipped to guide their teams effectively and communicate organizational goals. “The hope is people will do what they see. So if our sergeants and lieutenants, along with myself and the chief, are investing in ourselves with leadership training, it will become valuable for the officers as well,” Evans noted.

Conclusion

Captain Evans’ strategic leadership initiatives have had a profound impact on his organization, fundamentally transforming its culture and fostering a positive environment. Through self-assessments, leadership symposiums, character-based hiring, early leadership development, advanced training and leadership feedback mechanisms, he has created a blueprint for success in leadership and organizational development.

“People here are happy,” Evans said. “You can see it, it’s a tangible thing. They’re not walking around with their heads down, they’re laughing, they’re joking, they’re cuttin’ up, it’s a comfortable environment.”

In fact, on a recent trip to pick up a kidnapped juvenile in another state, an officer expressed to Captain Evans how glad she is that he came along because everyone on the team just seemed happier. While he believes his personnel are all responsible for their happiness, the officer explained that he allows them to be happy. Those positive affirmations mean the world to Captain Evans, and he pays them forward by telling his sergeants, “The work you do has value and it’s driving happiness within the department.”

These initiatives have not only improved officer morale but have also enhanced trust, communication and overall organizational effectiveness. Captain Evans’ leadership serves as a powerful example of how forward-thinking leadership can drive positive change and create a thriving organizational culture. Under his guidance, the organization is poised for continued growth and success.

Personally, Captain Evans stands out as an exceptional leader. He is committed to the development and well-being of his staff. His leadership style is marked by a rare combination of intellectual acumen and profound emotional intelligence. Beyond just recognizing the professional growth of his team, Captain Evans goes the extra mile to ensure their well-being, fostering a work environment that prioritizes mental and emotional health. By embodying an adaptive leadership approach that balances intellect with empathy, he has not only elevated the capabilities of his team but also inspires them daily to excel both personally and professionally. His leadership serves as a powerful example of how forward-thinking leaders can drive positive change and create a thriving organizational culture.

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Dr. Michelle Gundy is a researcher, consultant, veteran and SME in the fields of communication, trauma and policing (both civilian and officer trauma). She is a doctor of education in organizational change and leadership with graduate and undergraduate degrees in communications. She educates members of law enforcement on the emotional, physical, neurobiological and physiological effects of trauma and how it relates to the field of policing.

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