When was the last time your organization took a close look at its promotional process? The Leadership Challenge may be the gold-standard manual for effective leadership. The second chapter is entitled “Credibility Is the Foundation of Leadership,” and it’s true. Because of that, internally, if your management could pick one thing to get right and then build on things from there, it should be the promotional process. That’s because if the troops believe in the promotional process, the chain of command will be respected and followed. And if they don’t, at least at the heart level, it never really will.
Because cops place enormous value on the personal validation that being promoted brings, they strive for it with vigor. So even if everything was fully aboveboard, law enforcement promotionals would still be rife with dog-eat-dog competition and tension. Long-held bonds of brotherhood can be laid threadbare, and old friends can become mortal combatants — just let a little bit of biased favoritism seep into the process and see what happens.
There may be law enforcement agencies out there where the promotional process is universally admired and respected, but I’ve never heard of one. If that happens to be your outfit, you can skip this article … but be sure to write to me so I can share your model with the masses.
For all too many promotionals, they’re glossed with a surface of objectivity, but at least in part, they’re really subjective processes that are primed for gaming by the powers that be. For political reasons and more, just like in professional sports, the front office likes to hand-pick their team.
When there’s unfair favoritism going on, it reverberates like cannon shells throughout the organization. Not shockingly, there’s a one-to-one correlation between the amount of biased promotional favoritism that exists and management’s acceptance of sycophancy (ahem, “ass-kissing”). The presence of one breeds the other. In organizations where this is the normal course of business, just like the proverbial villagers who line up to admire the king with no clothes, management at once perpetuates it and at the same time ignores it as if it doesn’t exist.
From a systems-analysis perspective, ass-kissing happens because it works. Since promotional processes are all-consuming, emotionally draining, haggard affairs that change both occupational and quality-of-life trajectories, executive leaders who allow ass-kissing or any other factor that results in lesser-qualified candidates being promoted are nurturing the worst kind of hierarchical toxicity. Cops deserve — and need — the most qualified leaders they can get. When it’s widely recognized that something other than merit brings promotion, management’s moral imperative to lead is doomed.
Some of the most bitter people in any outfit are those who have tried several times to promote and, through little fault of their own, failed. Still, the desire for professional affirmation, the increase in stature and the increased financial security for family life — even if you know the process is in some ways rigged — can make the risk of failure seem worth it.
I had plenty of promotional tries and fails myself. I have also run dozens of these processes at all levels. Seeing all I’ve seen, once I got high enough in rank, I redeveloped processes to assure that ass-kissing or any other oral panel malfeasance virtually can’t come into play. In that pursuit, I researched law enforcement promotional processes, called subject-matter experts and more. Within all of the legal and policy constraints, I constructed a promotional system that increased the likelihood that the most qualified candidates would end up on top. Let me share the main components with you now.
If every candidate had a secret repository where you could learn all about their work history — the good and the bad — wouldn’t that be valuable? Well, they do. It’s called their personnel file … and it must be a secret because too many promotional processes completely ignore it. Applicants’ personnel files should be divvied up by oral board panel members and then read cover-to-cover; a gradable oral board question that asks the candidates to defend the contents should be added to your certified question list. This one has an added benefit of fixing the guys and gals whose trick is to only turn up their performance in the months prior to promotionals.
The ability to gather information and document it is our bread and butter. Report writing is the make-or-break skill that accurately demonstrates the ability (or not) to accomplish both. Particularly for promotions from the rank and file, a provably randomized means for collecting samples of all applicants’ historical written work product should be established. For example, for sergeant or detective promotional processes, two felony in-custody reports and two misdemeanor reports with suspect information, all written within the last year, should be randomly collected and then provided to the applicants for review just prior to the interviews. Then in the interview, the applicant should be asked to defend his or her work product. By the way, once this question becomes part of the norm and well known, it has the added benefit of raising the entire candidate pool’s yearlong report quality.
During the interviews, 3×5 cards with all the candidates’ names should be placed in front of each candidate. They should be asked to lay out the cards, first in the order that they believe rank and file would vote, and next in the order that they think command staff would vote. In both instances, they should be directed to explain their own placements, as well as those ranked first and last. It can be patently absurd and even cringe-worthy obvious when candidates try to game this question.
If your state employment laws allow it, every candidate should be asked to speak to their worst perceived weakness that you’ve already identified. For example, if it is well known that they abuse sick leave on Fridays, or that their fellow officers don’t like to share a beat with them, they should be asked why.
Here’s another good idea: promotional processes can really benefit if the chief or sheriff disseminates a department-wide positional statement of their general preferences for skills and work experience that they ideally want their leaders to have at various ranks. For example: “Ideally, sergeants should have a minimum of seven years on patrol, three years as an FTO and three years as a detective.” Then, applicants should be asked to defend how well they match up to these documented executive preferences and graded accordingly.
Besides the oral board, there may be other competitive processes in your promotionals that get scored by others. While it’s true that the chain of command is de facto responsible for whatever happens in all of them, this last step formally acknowledges an administration’s awareness that unfair personal bias is a costly risk that deserves formal attention. A department-wide policy should be adopted whereby the chief or sheriff gets forwarded the prospective list of all promotional raters for his/her review and formal acceptance. This policy should include a strong statement that all promotions are to be solely based on merit.
After the placements are announced, a classy thing to do is offer oral board debriefs to all candidates. You should allow them to pick any individual or combination of the panel that they would like to meet with so they can hear how they were perceived, and also get any recommendations for improvement.
Credibility is the foundation of leadership. Perhaps more than any other singular thing, respectable promotional processes galvanize management’s credibility and breed authentic followership department-wide. If you’re in a management-level position, I encourage you to share this article with command staff and offer to lead your department’s promotional process review. Or, if you’re rank and file, you could ask your union to share this article with your chief or sheriff and request a written reply. If their goal is to promote the best qualified applicants, you’ll end up with a respectable, and credible, response.
Dave Edmonds (retired captain, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, California) is a 34-year veteran. His experiences include SWAT, FTO, sex crimes, homicide, polygraph and internal affairs. He is the founder and director of the free LEO fitness and wellness membership nonprofit 360ARMOR (www.360armor.org), and a powerful, unique police chaplaincy model that you can have in your own community (www.lecf.org). Dave welcomes your calls at (650) 360-1514, or an email at email@example.com.