7 lessons from a first-year sergeant

New sergeants must implement intentional work routines that will create opportunities to communicate with officers, peer supervisors and command staff


By Sergeant Christopher Littrell

After lots of anticipation, you have been promoted to the rank of sergeant. You are excited to step into your new role. You remember your past sergeants – the good and the bad – and pledge you will learn from their strengths and weaknesses.

Transitioning from peer officer to supervisor can be tough though. Your success is largely dependent on your effort, attitude and patience. Here are seven lessons I learned in my first year.

Transitioning from peer officer to supervisor can be tough without a roadmap for your path to leadership success. (Photo/Christopher Littrell)
Transitioning from peer officer to supervisor can be tough without a roadmap for your path to leadership success. (Photo/Christopher Littrell)

1. Find a mentor

You will need a mentor. This is someone who will affirm when you are doing great and correct you when you are veering off course.

Your mentor might be a senior member of your agency or another significant leader in your life. Trust is key, so pick someone who you will be able to fully disclose your thoughts and intentions to. This will empower them to help you navigate this first year.

You will need to actively pursue your mentor. They are likely very busy and so are you. Schedule times to meet and respectfully follow up with them for future discussions. This mentor-mentee relationship will be very important because you will not be able to speak with officers about another employee’s performance.

“Self-deception has such a strong pull on all of our lives that we cannot rely on our own opinions of how we are doing.” ‒ Jack Enter, Challenging the Law Enforcement Organization: Proactive Leadership Strategies

2. Communicate

I know what you are thinking. Duh! Every leadership class and book focus on the need for good communication. Unfortunately, most of us are still lousy communicators. We are distracted by our thoughts, our to-do lists, our emails, the police radio and our smartphones. If we are going to understand others and be understood, we must actively listen to others and ask Socratic questions.

One method I practiced during my first year as a sergeant was to allow for long moments of silence at the end of roll call. This was hard for me because I like to talk. However, almost every time officers would break the silence with a spontaneous discussion that led to impromptu training, interesting stories and many moments of laughter.

Another method I used to seek out moments of communication was to meet officers on their turf. Roadside with officers after a call and check in with them. Again, allow for silence. Listen to what they are saying and ask follow-up questions to make sure you understand. Do not solve their problems. Ask them how they plan to approach an investigation or interpersonal conflict. If they have a great plan, encourage them to press forward. If their plan is incomplete, guide them to a better approach or a subject matter expert.

“Being effective as a leader involves building others’ trust in you, and you cannot build this trust without knowing those you lead and letting them get to know you in return. A leader understands that he or she can accomplish this task only through proactive and consistent communication, which means cultivating various communication strategies, planned and spontaneous.” ‒ Jack Enter, Challenging the Law Enforcement Organization: Proactive Leadership Strategies

3. Carry a notebook

A notebook is a critical tool to help you execute tasks. As officers, peer supervisors and command staff engage you in planned and spontaneous communication, write down your thoughts. As a new supervisor, you are going to be busy, sometimes juggling a dozen responsibilities in your head, but you must be ready for conversation. Once an impromptu talk is complete, take a few moments to write down any ideas to contemplate or tasks you need to accomplish. Not taking notes leads to forgetfulness and failing to get the job done. To build trusting relationships with persons throughout the organization, sergeants must develop a reputation for “getting the job done.”

“No company can deliver on its commitments or adapt well to change unless all leaders practice the discipline of execution at all levels.” ‒ Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

4. Create a safe environment to fail

As police supervisors, we want our officers, deputies, troopers and agents to become more competent in their jobs. The best way to achieve competence in a task is to fail. If your officers are not failing, they are either not trying anymore or they are hiding their failures from you.

You are also going to fail. You are going to fail to communicate effectively, fail to follow through on a task, or fail to meet a need of one of your officers. The way you respond to failure, both your failures and those of your officers, is going to limit or expand your team’s ability to grow as law enforcement officers. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote about General Electric CEO Jack Welch, “He also recognized that it’s not useful to beat other people up when they make mistakes. On the contrary, that’s the time to coach them, encourage them, and help them regain their self-confidence.”

If you own your failures and seek ways to succeed in the future, your officers will do the same. If you are patient with officers’ failures, and coach and counsel them through these learning opportunities, you will create a culture where failure is accepted as officers strive toward greatness.   

“You will never stop making mistakes. We hope that the new ones won’t be the same as the old ones, but I promise you they’ll be just as painful … But, as upset as you may get, it’s important to bear in mind that failure is still the best teacher.” ‒ William Cohen, The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership

5. Pick your battles

Most law enforcement agencies promote officers to sergeant because they have proven themselves to be a competent officer. Officers develop certain areas of expertise and work tempos that have helped them succeed. As you transition to your new role as a sergeant, you must remember you are not always right. The routines and work tempos that worked for you may not work for the rest of your team.

At my promotion ceremony, a sage sergeant shook my hand and pulled me in close. He complimented my work ethic. I would often skip lunch breaks to do more work because I thought it was fun (crazy I know). Then he dropped the hammer. He told me that my tempo would not work for most officers and I could not have that expectation. He was correct. It was important for me to support officers varying tempos and recognize the difference between a different pace versus failing to do their job.

I decided instead to pick my battles. I focused on addressing officers when I saw deviations that were governed by law, policy and major expectations. Expecting officers to follow law and policy is a no-brainer. These are the areas that open officers up to injury and liability. No officer wants to get injured, lose their job, or be sued in federal court. As for major expectations, keep them simple. I had four:

  • Communicate;
  • Safety;
  • Attitude;
  • Work ethic.

All four of these major expectations impact squad culture and job satisfaction.

When I observed a significant problem, I kept in mind that my perception might be wrong. I would directly tell the officer why I wanted to talk with them and tell them my observations. I would ask what happened. When I was wrong, I immediately owned my misunderstanding and thanked the officer for responding to the situation correctly. If my perceptions were correct, we discussed how it could be handled in the future to ensure the job was done right.

I remember one instance early in my first year as a supervisor. I heard a veteran officer respond to a call knowing that the female subject in the call had a warrant for her arrest. I heard another officer radio that they were en route to cover. Before I heard the backup officer arrive, I heard the veteran officer radio, “One in custody.” Although this was not a policy violation, it did violate our unwritten standard operating procedure of “Wait for backup.” It also violated my major expectation of officer safety. This veteran officer was one of our defensive tactics instructors and police training officers. He knew his stuff. Why would he deviate from officer safety practices? I called the officer for a roadside. I was direct and told him what I heard on the radio. I asked why. He immediately told me that his cover officer was in fact on scene when he made the arrest. He asked me if I wanted to call the other officer. I said no. I knew this officer to have the highest integrity. The cover officer either did not radio he was on-scene or I missed it. The officer and I continued in conversation. He knew I was serious about officer safety and I knew he was too.

6. Let officers work and lead

Line officers often complain that supervisors do not give them the space to do their job. No one likes to be micromanaged. Officers are good at their duties and want the freedom and support to get the job done. This can be a challenging transition. One moment you are in the game and doing the work. Now as a sergeant, it is your job to watch, support, supervise and lead. Officers have varying skill sets and styles. As long as their style does not violate law, policy, or one of your major expectations, let them handle their duties.

Also, recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a police officer. Lean on officers who have specialized experiences, such as SWAT and investigations. Ask their opinion on how to handle a situation. At the end of the day, you have to take ownership of the decision, but seeking their wisdom will lead to better outcomes.

As young officers call you with questions about how to handle a call, do not give them the answer every time. I had a mentor tell me that when I called him, he was going to ask three questions:

  • What is going on?
  • What is your plan?
  • What do you need from me?

This planned series of questions forced me (and later my officers) to identify a solution before calling the supervisor. It prepares officers to be decision-makers on future calls when time is of the essence. Finally, it builds confidence as you affirm their good decision-making skills.

7. Thrive in conflict

Sergeants are constantly in conflict. Tension is created because of the vying wants and needs of the members of your team, peer supervisors, command officers, prosecuting attorneys and the community. Sergeants must understand how these groups fit together to meet the mission of keeping the community safe.

Thriving in conflict does not mean you enjoy arguing. In contrast, it means you maintain readiness to engage others with different points of view. You ask probing questions to better understand the situation.

In my first year as a supervisor, I had a senior officer who believed he had a reputation for complaining. One of my big expectations was to have a good attitude, so pointless complaining was not going to work with me. As I listened to the officer’s ideas, I realized they were valid issues. He wanted our agency and our officers to look professional. We had dirty HVAC ducts in the station and a department-issued uniform hat that showed dirt easily. These were easy fixes.

I recall speaking with citizens who were upset because they believed an officer did not handle a situation correctly. I actively listened to the citizen. I asked clarifying questions to make sure I understood the reason they were upset. I provided more information to help the citizen understand the law, the process, or the circumstance. Most of the time these inquiries ended on a positive note.

“Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” ‒ Jim Collins, Good to Great

Success

Transitioning from peer officer to sergeant can be difficult. New sergeants need to maintain a humble, positive attitude. They also need to implement intentional work routines that will create opportunities to communicate with officers, peer supervisors and command staff. With effort and patience, sergeants can successfully transition into their new role.


About the author

Sergeant Christopher Littrell has been a law enforcement officer in Washington State for 14 years. He has had the opportunity to serve as a patrol officer, gang detective, CISM peer support group counselor, SWAT member, school resource officer, patrol sergeant and detective sergeant. Previously Sergeant Littrell served in the United States Air Force as a Security Forces member and is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.

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