Succession planning: 5 keys to developing future police leaders

While we tend to think of succession plans in terms of the chief executive position, they are actually useful in helping us develop personnel for all positions


One of the most important tasks that a good leader can devote time and energy to is the development of a succession plan. Succession plans are relatively new in the law enforcement environment, but have been successfully used in other fields for decades.

The primary purpose of a succession plan is to ensure leadership continuity of the organization and maintain stability within agency operations. While we tend to think of succession plans in terms of the chief executive position, they are actually useful in helping us develop personnel for all positions within the organization.

One of the mistakes that many organizations make in the development and promotion of supervisors is that they “promote to failure.” We make promotions based on the performance of personnel in their previous positions, without regard to preparing them for the responsibilities of the position we’ve just placed them in. In short, we put good people in jobs they aren’t ready for, and then we wonder why they struggle.

By establishing and following the rules of a good succession plan, we can prepare our people for the challenges they will face as they move up through the organization. In order to accomplish this, every succession plan should have the following five qualities:

1. Identify and Assess Key Talent and Key Positions
Make sure that your annual evaluation process includes an accurate assessment of performance along with an assessment of advancement potential. This assessment should focus on key skills and abilities, and include a developmental process for matching skills and abilities with competencies required for key promotional positions.

2. Individualized Development Plans
Development plans should be individualized for the skills and abilities of each person and focus on helping them develop over the following year. What strengths do they have to build on? What competencies do they need to develop and improve in order to meet the needs of their next position within the organization?

3. Conduct Regular Check-ins
Once an individualized development plan is in place, make sure that it stays current and that progress is identified, documented, and recognized. Schedule monthly or quarterly meetings to review and refresh the plan, make sure the development stays on track, and verify the employee is focused on the goals of the plan. One of the worst things we can do for succession planning is develop an individualized plan for our personnel and then ignore it until the next time annual evaluations come around. We might as well tell them that their development isn’t important to the organization.

4. Include a Variety of Skill Enhancement Tools
Advanced and specialized training should be a primary component of every development plan, but don’t stop there. Explore ways to increase skills and abilities through on-the-job experiences such as inclusion on special projects, task forces, committees, and project development assignments.

Actively solicit ideas or suggestions for organizational improvements, and follow-up by requesting full proposals or presentations on new ideas. Look for opportunities for job enrichment or enhancement, temporary job assignments, or cross-training. Be creative in identifying possible ways to increase skills and experiences in preparation for future assignments and responsibilities.

5. Mentor the Best and Develop the Rest
When done correctly, a good succession plan will allow you to identify those rising stars within your organization that are ready or nearly ready for greater responsibilities. At this point, the final step in the development and growth of your future organizational leaders is a formal mentoring program. A mentoring program offers the opportunity for individualized and specific training and counseling by matching the most qualified and prepared candidates with current leaders who share their knowledge and experiences.

Mentoring programs should clearly outline the duties and responsibilities of both the mentors and their protégés, and should focus on advanced skills development and career advancement strategies. For those candidates that aren’t quite ready to assume the mantle of leadership, it’s time to identify current strengths and deficiencies, and put the focus back on their development. While these members might not be quite ready for mentoring, they are still vital to the long range goals of the plan as they will be the next wave of rising stars ready to step up and ensure that your succession plan ends in success. 

About the author

Barry Reynolds is a Senior Training Officer and the Coordinator for Career Development Programs for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Training and Standards Bureau. Barry is responsible for the development, maintenance and implementation of leadership and management education programs for all levels of Wisconsin statewide law enforcement. Barry is also a certified instructor with the International Association of Chiefs of Police in the prestigious Leadership in Police Organizations Program, the flagship leadership development program of the IACP. 

Barry holds a Master of Science Degree in Management and writes extensively on issues related to leadership and management in law enforcement agencies. He has extensive experience as an instructor and conference presenter on a variety of law enforcement topics, and he is the founder and owner of Police Leadership Resources and the Policeleaders.com website. 

Contact Barry Reynolds

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  2. Police Training
  3. Police Jobs and Careers
  4. Administration
  5. Leadership

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