Roundtable: How to improve your odds for promotion in 2020

Being able to articulate how your on-the-job training has prepared you for the duties of the rank you are competing for is critical


By Nancy Perry

If you’re planning to engage in the next promotional process at your agency, you may find preparing for the written exam, oral interview and performance-based scenarios overwhelming without a roadmap in place.

In this roundtable, we asked PoliceOne columnists and subject matter experts to outline how police promotional candidates can best prepare for what can be a challenging and arduous process.

If you want to be a desirable candidate for promotion, you should strive to be someone who can always be counted on and can function with very little need for supervision. (Photo/Chris Littrell)
If you want to be a desirable candidate for promotion, you should strive to be someone who can always be counted on and can function with very little need for supervision. (Photo/Chris Littrell)

If you were recently promoted, what helped you stand out from the crowd? Email editor@policeone.com.

The art of linking

Law enforcement promotional candidates must often describe how they have prepared themselves for the position they are testing for. Answers usually include education, training, the positions and assignments they have worked, self-directed learning, books and materials studied.

Unfortunately, many officers miss a valuable opportunity to link what they do now and have done in the past – their on-the-job training – to what they will be doing in the rank they are competing for. This form of linking creates a descriptive nexus that takes advantage of an officer's connective experience and highlights it for the panel, thus showing how it has and will help the officer in the next rank. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say a 10-year officer who serves as an FTO is testing for sergeant. During the officer’s interview, the officer describes the things they have done in preparation for the position. Understanding that some of the important responsibilities sergeants have include approving written work, training/developing staff, counseling, coaching, delegation, motivation and enforcing policy, the officer describes how they have done all these things in abundance and with great success as an FTO and how having performed these responsibilities has provided the officer with unique on-the-job training for the sergeant’s position. This technique illustrates an officer who has been there and done that – performing the same important supervisory responsibilities as sergeants. Don't assume the panel knows this. You must tell them, thus delivering a clear message that what you do now is part of your preparation for being a sergeant. Use this technique sparingly (here and there) in your answers and where you think it will have the most relevance and impact.

This technique works for officers in literally any assignment because officers share many similar responsibilities to their supervisors. The key is to identify such responsibilities or duties and then build that nexus by describing and linking what you do and are skilled at with what you will be doing. Such linking allows the panel members to see you have successfully done the important things they want effective sergeants to do. This serves as a powerful blueprint of how your on-the-job training can translate to a successful future in a higher rank.

Andy Borrello is a retired police captain, the author of Police Promotion Super Course, and has coached and trained thousands of law enforcement professionals develop their careers for 20 years. 

It’s all about attitude

The nature of police work forces us to focus on task-based objectives, which require adequate skill development. We conduct hundreds of hours of training during the police academy and throughout our careers to become technically proficient; however, the single biggest factor in quality supervision is grounded in attitude. For the most part, there are no training programs designed to improve attitudes. As humans, we tend to focus more on the negative and that is especially true among police officers. Seeing the negative becomes part of us and we often see the glass as being half empty rather than half full.

Attitudes are contagious and good supervisors motivate their people. If you know you struggle with maintaining a positive attitude, your challenge as we enter the new year is to conduct a self-assessment and change in perspective. Both organizations and subordinates desire charismatic leaders who display fundamental leadership attributes that evolve from a positive attitude.

When I’m teaching leadership courses, we conduct an exercise that demonstrates the power of attitude. I ask participants to identify one-word phrases that personify a good leader. Afterword, we add an “A” (attitude) or an “S” (skill) after each word. Words like empowering, motivated, trustworthy, caring and reflective typically come to mind and relate to attitude. Although other words like capable, knowledgeable and proficient relate to skill, the As always have it, further demonstrating that effective leadership traits are grounded in a positive attitude.

Rex M. Scism, MS, is president and CEO of Midwest Police Consultants, LLC, and a content developer for Lexipol.

Show you can see the gray

For an officer to improve their chances of attaining a promotion, in addition to the job knowledge and skills a supervisor needs to possess, they need to be able to be to think in “gray” versus only black and white. All too often, officers think there is only a yes or no, or a definitive way things “have” to be done, when in actuality, the majority of the time there are options or alternative ways to handle every situation we may come across.

It is imperative supervisors show not only their ability to think outside of the box but also that they have empathy and can place themselves in the shoes of the people they are there to serve and protect, as well as the shoes of those they lead. I need to know that in the event of a crisis, either personal or professional, the supervisor is going to be able to look at each scenario from every standpoint and make the best decision on how to handle the crisis in the way that yields the best outcome for everyone involved.

So, with every question posed, I recommend police promotional candidates look for a way to show that they are human in their response and capable of giving more than just a textbook answer, as the dynamics police deal with are rarely textbook situations.

LJ Roscoe is chief of the Goose Creek Police Department in Goose Creek, South Carolina.

Study your agency’s culture

Some agencies are very objective in the selection process, so a candidate can study for the exam, check off the requirements and get their promotion based on the point system. Other agencies rely heavily on seniority, others on favoritism. I was once told that the person who got stripes ahead of me "needed the opportunity to learn and mature," whereas I had my “stuff” together already, so they gave him the formal leadership role. I told them I'd try to be less competent in the future and transferred out. Seldom is life a meritocracy. Study your agency's history and current leadership and do the things (within your ethical boundaries) that build the competencies and relationships that get rewarded.

Chief Joel Shults, Ed.D, who retired as a chief of police in Colorado, operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy

study the promotional process

While some agencies rely on traditional, standardized tests, both written and oral, many have turned to more realistic measures to gauge the performance of candidates.

Candidates seeking promotion will improve their chance of success by investing in learning the process itself. As testing is usually timed, casual candidates may lose valuable time trying to figure out the requirements or structure of the test itself.

From the perspective of a rater on various promotional boards in California, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio and Maryland, it was apparent which candidates took the time to study pre-test informational packets to prepare for the platform. Scenario-based testing may be read from a script, viewed on a video screen or acted out by actor raters. Mock scenarios may involve a review of reports or forms that the candidate should be familiar with.

Candidates who distinguished themselves knew the format, what was expected and had practiced and timed their responses. Some researched the booklet of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA) needed for the job. Some looked into the backgrounds of the subject matter experts (SME) who consulted or created the tests. Some looked into the backgrounds of individual raters of the test (if known). Insight may be gained from looking at SMEs and their expertise. For example, if a SWAT commander was one of the SMEs, you could be sure that a critical incident response would be on the test.

Finally, successful candidates tied KSAs to likely current events and issues that would be presented linked to the position they were being tested for. Issues may be national in scope such as community policing or use of force issues, or local issues based on specific incidents, consent decrees, or criticism from local media or activists. The well-versed candidate will articulate all or as many of the KSAs in their response. Candidates should learn the format and apply it to the position for which they aspire.

James Dudley is a member of the criminal justice faculty at San Francisco State University and co-host of PoliceOne's Policing Matters podcast.

be knowledgeable of contemporary issues

The best advice I would give to somebody in preparation for promotion is to know the contemporary issues. One of the biggest mistakes people make in preparing for promotion is that they get too focused on the technical aspect of the job and they lose sight of the broader, geo-political landscape, more commonly referred to as "the big picture."

When preparing for a promotion, keep in mind that the candidate will be evaluated upon their potential for entering into a job for which they aspire, not necessarily the job they are currently doing. In other words, a patrol officer preparing for promotion to sergeant should not waste time highlighting the number of arrests they have made or the number of cases they have solved. Although these skills are important to illustrate a technical understanding of the job, they are not necessarily the cornerstone of a leadership position.

If I were a chief executive today, I would evaluate promotional candidates on their knowledge and understanding of the issues that create the greatest challenges within the geopolitical arena. For example, a clear understanding of de-escalation and less-lethal force options would be critical to a police leadership role in the year 2020 and beyond.

Questions to consider are:

  • What is the overall level of understanding within the organization regarding any recent changes in the law that pertain to the use of force? Is there a training deficit on this topic?
  • What are some contemporaneous issues dealing with the treatment of mentally ill offenders and better methods to reduce the risk of psychological decompensation?
  • Are there any challenges concerning recruiting and retaining qualified personnel?
  • Is there an experience level deficit within the organization because of excessive retirements or resignations?

The promotional candidate should put themselves in the role of the person asking the questions, and then research to anticipate what the answers might be.

Be optimistic about the chances for a promotion, but be prepared for disappointment if it doesn’t happen the way you had planned. Many eyes are focused upon people within the organization who are vying for a promotion. It is just as important, if not more important, to manage your feelings about selections that will be made if they do not include you. Remember that the message you send when you criticize a promotion of another officer is that the people who made the decision were wrong. Anyone who exudes a great degree of negativity and commiseration when passed up for a promotion illustrates one thing very clearly: the people who made the decision chose wisely when they passed up the bitter candidates.

Paul Cappitelli is an honorably retired law enforcement professional with over 40 years of experience. From 2007-2012, Paul served as Executive Director for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

Excel in your current position

Every legitimate search for the best promotional candidate starts by assessing each candidate’s current performance. Therefore if I had to tell a person seeking promotion only one thing – depending on the officer – it would be either, “Keep doing your job at a high level of performance,” or “Start doing your job at a high level of performance.”

If the officer can say to themselves honestly that they are doing their job with a high degree of proficiency and professionalism, that officer should keep doing what they are doing. There is no better way to demonstrate that you are capable of accepting more responsibility than by performing at a high level of competency in your current position.

If the officer who honestly self reflects and can admit to themselves that their current job performance is at best average or lackluster, and at worst substandard, they need to realize that they must improve to be the best candidate they can be.

Building a credible resume for your promotion certainly includes things like education, training, being able to write a great test and being able to interview well. However, being the best candidate starts with being very good at what you are doing right now. If you want to be a desirable candidate for promotion, you should strive to be someone who can always be counted on and can function with very little need for supervision.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience.

be a safety advocate 

Because this promotional advice centers on officer safety, it is likely to be somewhat different than that heard from other LE professionals. What I am sharing comes from my journey with Below 100, a national non-profit effort that aims to reduce preventable line-of-duty deaths by focusing on areas under an officer’s control. It’s not that the typical promotional areas of concern like self-improvement, leadership principles, policing methodology and employee management are not important. It’s because this one – ensuring officer safety – sometimes gets overlooked and it’s something that can literally make the difference between life and death.

One of the most common shifts in an organization that commits to a culture of common-sense officer safety is to build in some changes to their promotional and special assignment process. One is to challenge applicants with a question similar to, “What have you done to improve the safety of this organization?” Another version, might be, “When is the last time you had a courageous conversation with a fellow officer about something he or she was doing?”

Here’s the point: It is the responsibility of every person wearing a badge, regardless of rank or assignment, to take individual and collective responsibility for officer safety. This includes having the courage to talk to another officer about behavior or tactics that are dangerous. At its core, this is also the most fundamental responsibility of anyone aspiring to be a leader in an organization. Good leaders care about their people. Great leaders demonstrate that care by taking proactive steps to instill a culture of safety and improve the overall wellbeing of their officers.

If the perspective above is not one that you currently embrace, then you’re not ready to be promoted. Be prepared to share what you have done and are doing to instill a culture of common-sense officer safety in your organization. And if you ever find yourself saying, “Somebody ought to ...,” remember that there is nobody named “Somebody” in your agency.

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He is the founder of Below 100.

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