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Back to Archives | Back to November 2006 Contents 

The Personal Competency Model - When Round Pegs Don’t Fit

by Alan G. Caddell, Commander, Santa Ana Police Department, California

aw enforcement managers and executives are finding that all ranks in law enforcement agencies are filled by younger and less experienced personnel, if the ranks are filled at all. Personnel shortages resulting from enhanced retirements and a shrinking applicant pool have taken the do-more-with-less mantra to the breaking point. As agencies struggle to maintain service levels and meet rising expectations, it becomes necessary to get the most out of employees in new ways.

In the seminal book Supervision of Police Personnel,1 Nathan Iannone writes about the wisdom of placing “round pegs in round holes” and the importance of matching an employee’s talents to a particular job task. While one can appreciate the author’s example that “colorblind persons are not the best strawberry pickers,” the reality today is that few agencies have the luxury of having enough round pegs—or sufficient pegs of any size—to fill the holes representing community expectations. In fact, today it seems as if holes are continually changing shape. Police departments must now meet not only traditional demands, but also new and expanding ones that require continual flexibility and adaptation. The challenge today is not to identify the specific talents and preferences of the employee for subsequent assignment but to provide employees with the tools and incentives necessary to prepare them to fit into any number of assignments to meet changing demands.

Police officers perform a greater variety of tasks than ever before. Many of these considerably exceed traditional expectations. The remaining veteran officers, who have not yet retired, typically were not trained for current demands and no new officer can be fully prepared for the changes the future may bring. With the fast exodus of retiring officers from police departments everywhere, newer officers have not had as much time to learn from veteran officers and often lack the training required to assume responsibilities for such activities as facilitating community meetings, working with outside agencies, coordinating grant projects, and working on large-scale collaborative efforts that today are more likely to involve line officers. Standard internal assignments are also posing challenges for officers who lack the experience base associated with appointments to investigative units and other lateral or promotional assignments that traditionally prepared officers for more responsibilities.

To adjust to the reality that an officer must carry out any number of tasks—and prepare for some not yet envisioned—agencies must provide employees with a tool that allows for ongoing adaptation to changing needs. One such tool is the Personal Competency Model (PCM), which uses candid self-assessment and supervisory feedback to bridge the gap between an employee’s existing skills and the current and anticipated needs of the organization. Used extensively in the California POST Master Instructor Development Program, the PCM takes instructors entering the program and identifies their personal learning objectives for their subsequent one-year period of study. Introduced and refined by program codeveloper and facilitator Jim Fraser, the model forces the participant to move beyond current levels of performance to those required for mastery of a number of dimensions that vary according to the individual goals of the participant and his or her sponsoring agency.

The PCM uses a baseline measurement of a person’s current capability in a given area and determines where future growth is needed. The PCM is easily adapted to any number of goals and objectives of law enforcement. By adopting a proactive approach to employee development and evaluation, agencies can move away from gauging an officer’s effectiveness based solely on current capabilities and move toward a model that prepares employees for new challenges. The PCM offers the following benefits:

• Enhances performance and professionalism of employees through a structured plan
• Increases retention of department policy, procedures, and training by linking the relevance of this information to the employee’s personal goals and objectives
• Improves connectivity between the employee and the supervisor
• Instills a philosophy of value-added performance to meet community expectations
• Puts more responsibility for an officer’s professional growth on the officer and does not put all responsibility on the supervisor
• Helps supervisors and managers become facilitators of the employee’s plan for success

The PCM can be adjusted to use criteria for any goal, including an agency’s standard rating system. But it may be advantageous—especially when the model is first introduced—to limit the PCM to future goals rather than an employee’s current performance evaluation. This is because the key to the Personal Competency Model is self-assessment. Officers must trust the process if they are to be candid about their responses. It can be difficult for an employee to admit a weakness in an area that a supervisor will later formally evaluate, whereas discussing a future task or assignment often leads to candid discussion.

The employee rates himself in the various categories established for the PCM and then compares this to the supervisor’s assessment of his skills. Any areas in which the employee falls far short of the goal, or any areas in which the employee’s rating and the supervisor’s rating differ significantly, need to be addressed. Supervisors may be surprised to find their employees may rate themselves lower than the supervisors rated them. Often, employees are quite aware of their true levels of performance but are rarely considered responsible for measuring their own success or coming up with a plan to improve. Of course, some will also have exaggerated opinions of their performance and need to be exposed to reality.

To illustrate the Personal Competency Model, a hypothetical example is showed to assist an officer to prepare for an investigative assignment. A similar PCM could be designed to prepare officers to lead community policing projects or other nontraditional roles. The content is adjusted depending on the needs of a particular assignment and should include the essential traits or dimensions for the position. The dimensions are in no particular order. It is extremely helpful to fully explain what each dimension means in the context of the overall goal. For example, an officer at the Santa Ana Police Department might initially rate himself high in the dimension concerning using electronic resources, based on his patrol experience, but might not understand that for an investigator electronic resources include not only patrol applications but also statistics, case tracking, crime tracking, satellite mapping, and so on. The ideal use of this model includes narrative descriptions of each dimension, but good results can be achieved with a careful discussion of what the dimensions include, as figure 1 makes clear.

The next step of the process is to have the employee rate his current skill level for each dimension. Figure 2 features an example of an individual rating.

Even an honest assessment will likely differ from how the supervisor or manager perceives the employee. This in many respects is the point of the exercise. An employee will probably identify areas where he or she needs new skills, but the objective feedback supervisors provide may reveal areas of concern the employee is unaware of. Figure 3 is the supervisor’s assessment of the same employee featured in 2.

Figure 4 combines the two assessments. The gaps between the employee’s assessment and the rating of the supervisor require a plan to bring these numbers closer together. Gaps between the current rating and that required to successfully meet the needs of the new assignment must also be addressed. Although raising performance in all areas is desirable, the PCM helps identify those essential areas where improvement is most needed so limited time and training resources can be most effective. In this example, the officer possesses sufficient skill in the area of interviewing but needs considerable work in the area of managing crime scenes and working with others, which are essential skills for an investigator.

Once the supervisor and the employee have determined where growth is needed, they work together to devise a strategy to acquire the skills, knowledge, or attributes needed to achieve the goal. This is where the PCM is used to tie the employee’s goals to that of the department. For example, the employee now recognizes the need to develop skills in problem solving to be a viable candidate for investigator and the department desires to encourage problem-solving projects at the patrol level. The employee meets a department objective while enhancing chances for a desired assignment.

When areas of needed improvement are identified, the agency must provide resources to bring the employee to the desired level of performance. This can include coursework, cross training, mentoring, and exposure to new challenges. By identifying areas where improvement is needed, the agency can maximize its investment in training by ensuring the training provided to an employee is relevant to his or her specific needs and the goals of the organization. Rather than having employees attend random training that perhaps meets a mandated number of hours, agencies can gear training content toward moving employees in the direction that benefits both.

When it comes to developing employees, it is helpful to understand the basic principles of adult learning. The leader in his area is Malcolm Knowles. Here are his basic guidelines:

Establish an organizational climate to learn.It is healthy for employees to admit they need new or enhanced skills, and executives should foster an environment where candid assessment and organizational support are the norm.

Involve learners in mutual planning activities.The personal competency model is used to establish a plan for growth based on input from the employee and the supervisor that meets the needs of both.

Help them candidly diagnose their needs.It is especially valuable when designing the PCM to consult those who have worked assignments employees aspire to obtain or have performed tasks the agency deems essential for the employee to master. Including this information in the PCM dimensions adds relevance and credibility. What does it take to get the desired assignment? What skills are needed to effectively handle a community project?

Help them formulate their learning objectives.A realistic plan for growth should be made to fit reasonable timeframes. Some attributes might reasonably be expected to be accomplished over a long period of time, such as leadership through mentoring, whereas others require more immediate results arising out of a specific block of hands-on training.

Help them design ways to meet their need.Consider cross training, mentoring, advanced schools, and other opportunities. Identify role models to bring practical advice and experience to the employee. Look for opportunities to allow the employee to apply newly acquired knowledge to actual situations to enhance retention.

Help them determine whether they learned what they needed to learn.Ongoing candid assessment is needed to ensure the plan stays on track. Supervisors should be monitoring performance to verify that the plan is working as designed and to identify where changes might be needed. Periodic updates of the PCM can provide evidence of the employee’s success and increased competency and identify those areas where additional improvement is required.

The Personal Competency Model is designed to help executives fulfill one of their most important obligations: developing employees to their fullest potential. Ultimately, it is a tool to allow police supervisors and managers to better know their people and for employees to recognize the agency cares about their individual success and how this contributes to the success of the agency and the community it serves.

1 Nathan F. Iannone, Supervision of Police Personnel (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987).



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 11, November 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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