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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

Designing a Law Enforcement Leadership Development Program

By Deanna M. Putney, Industrial Psychologist; and Cordelia L. Holmes, Social Research Specialist, North Carolina State Highway Patrol, Raleigh, North Carolina

or many law enforcement agencies, retirement comes in clusters or cohort groups as officers who graduated together from the academy retire together. The result is often a significant loss of institutional knowledge and a misalignment of the organization’s operations with its strategic direction. This mass exodus of human capital and loss of key personnel constitute a unique challenge for succession planning efforts in law enforcement agencies.

Another challenge is inherent in the paramilitary structure prevalent in many state law enforcement agencies. In these types of organizations, the vertical chain-of-command structure lends itself to isolated functions. In other words, the phrases “the buck stops here” and “the learning curve peaks here” can apply to functions that are housed in top-level positions (such as budgeting or policy making). A newly promoted individual replacing a retiree faces a steep learning curve in a paramilitary organization where information is often secured at certain levels and in various functional areas.

Law enforcement agencies must take a proactive approach to these challenges by designing leadership development programs that provide continuous and cross-functional development. A well-designed leadership development program helps ensure that qualified staff members are available to replace those exiting the organization. The leadership development program should target multiple levels of the organization, focusing on organizational operations, strategic direction, leadership, and professional development, resulting in well-trained, mentored staff.

The Leadership Development Program (LDP) implemented at the North Carolina State Highway Patrol (NCSHP) serves the following purposes:

  • It serves to build a bridge between succession planning and employee development through training and mentoring from the highest levels of decision making.
  • It communicates the agency’s investment in the professional growth and development of its most valuable resource from the top levels of leadership.
  • It facilitates implementing large organizational development initiatives and transitions by infusing organizational vision through one-on-one executive development.

There are many different models and theories that can be used to design an LDP. The design used by the NCSHP is offered as a springboard to inspire other law enforcement agencies interested in fostering a culture of employee development, professional growth, and leadership transfer. The NCSHP LDP required four foundational elements: support from the Commander’s Office; formalized standard operating procedures; internal and external partnerships; and executive coaching with “360-degree” feedback, which includes self-assessments compared with input from invested parties such as peers, direct reports, supervisors, and upper management. In some cases, feedback is also solicited from clients or customers.

A description of the NCSHP LDP is provided in the following sections to illustrate the integration of these four elements—support from the Commander’s Office, standard operating procedures, partnerships, and executive coaching—in the design of the program. Figure 1 provides a concise overview of the LDP’s foundational elements and their respective contributions to the program.

Top-Level Support

As with any organizational program, support from the top levels of the organization provides the foundation necessary for the initiative to be successful by prioritizing and allocating resources. The involvement and investment in the LDP from the highest levels of the organization ensures that the design of the program will reflect the vision of the agency’s leaders.

The NCSHP Commander’s Office actively participates in the LDP as the foundation for the first phase of the program. Each LDP participant is assigned to the Commander’s Office for the first two weeks of the program to observe the functions of the agency from its highest levels of decision-making authority. This provides participants with one-on-one exposure to the operations of the Commander’s Office for the first week and then several other operational areas of the agency during the second week. LDP participants select these operational areas during the creation of their individual leadership development plan, determined in consultation with the Commander’s Office and the industrial psychologist.

The exposure to the Commander’s Office and other areas of the organization offers LDP participants a glimpse at how the different sections of the agency contribute to the overall mission of the organization. This hands-on experience with other operational areas of the organization exposes participants to learning opportunities without the performance stress of a formal change in job responsibilities (such as lateral transfer or promotion). The highest levels of leadership are provided the opportunity to observe the participants’ aptitude or interest for the operational area, and participants receive organizationally relevant experiences for guiding their own career paths.

Standard Operating Procedures

It is strongly recommended that agencies create standard operating procedures (SOPs) to reiterate the required support from the agency leadership and to formalize the design, implementation, and evaluation of the program. Additionally, if properly distributed to staff, SOPs serve as information conduits for the program, providing guidelines for its implementation.

The SOP for the NCSHP LDP clarifies the purpose, objective, expectations, administration, and evaluation process of the program. Clearly communicating the expectations and evaluation process is particularly important for the integrity and the utility of the program. Many leadership development initiatives fall by the wayside because organizations fail to incorporate them into the “bottom-line” measurements of agency success, or they fail to convey to the participants the agency’s expectations regarding their participation in such a program.

Another very important function of the SOP underscores the perceived legitimacy of the program. For paramilitary organizations, the LDPs can be misperceived by sworn members as the “fair-haired child program,” in the sense of a necessary political step toward promotional opportunities. The design of the program must clearly demonstrate its legitimacy so that sworn members understand the demands and the expectations of their participation.

Internal and External Partnerships

Internal and external partnerships provide the necessary collaborative efforts required to ensure quality leadership training and mentoring to employees. Internal partnerships involve all levels of command staff who serve as coaches and resources of institutional knowledge for LDP participants. External partnerships with private-sector and other government organizations also offer professional growth and learning opportunities for participants.

These partnerships allow LDP participants who desire professional growth and development to enhance their understanding of the organization’s overall operation through practical exposure to the Commander’s Office and other operational areas of the agency. The success of the LDP depends on the support of command staff for these partnerships.

For the NCSHP LDP, these internal partnerships are particularly critical during the first phase, when participants are assigned to the Commander’s Office for a two-week assignment. The active involvement of command staff exposes participants to the complex variables involved in command-level decision making. The collaboration and open communication required from command staff for effective scheduling of LDP participants not only maximizes the learning opportunities, but it also facilitates cross-functional cooperation among the various sections. For example, section directors (that is, majors) are encouraged by the Commander’s Office to work together to create a schedule for LDP participants to include the most value-added experiences. These collaborations create opportunities for cross-functional team meetings in which participants can view firsthand the organizational dynamics involved in decision making at the highest levels of the organization.

The design of the second phase of the LDP (the Law Enforcement Executives Development [LEED] program) required a collaborative effort between internal and external partners. A technical advisory board consisting of commissioned sworn members was created to provide technical expertise to the academic team designing the program curricula. In addition to guiding the content areas of the leadership curricula, the advisory board provides an internal mechanism ensuring continuous feedback regarding the practitioners’ perspective of the academic segment of the LDP.

Through this internal-external partnership, the LEED program is designed to enhance and sustain career development for sworn members through exposure to external leadership development resources such as executive-level management seminars and courses. The networking opportunities with other government agencies participating in the LEED program also promote participants’ long-term professional growth.

Executive Coaching

Executive coaching, as a leadership developmental tool for management personnel, has been enjoyed by the private sector for over 20 years. Executive coaching is defined as an experiential and individualized development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short- and long-term organizational goals.1 Coaching is conducted through one-on-one interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives and based on mutual trust and respect. The organization, an executive, and the executive coach work in partnership to achieve maximum impact. As part of a law enforcement agency’s LDP, executive coaching strengthens the program for both the participants and the organization. For the organization, it provides an internal system for measuring and aligning leadership competencies for future developmental opportunities; for participants, it fosters a team approach to employee development involving multisource input and key organizational personnel committed to the professional growth of individual employees.

For participants in the program, the NCSHP LDP begins with executive coaching and involves input from multiple sources. An online leadership survey from INSIGHTMirror360, Incorporated, is conducted, including input from peers, supervisors, those who directly report to the participants, customers, and the participants themselves. The survey includes an assessment of participants’ leadership skills in the following eight competencies: communication skills, decision making, working relationships, innovation and change, leadership integrity/vision, coaching skills, utilization of strengths of others and self, and team development. See table 1 for a more detailed definition of these leadership competencies.

Note: These competencies are included in the online leadership survey by INSIGHTMirror360, Incorporated.

The survey input is automatically compiled into a technical report and provided to the executive coach, protecting the anonymity of the survey respondents. The user-friendly technical report includes the numerical ratings across the eight leadership competencies from each feedback source as well as open comments grouped into competency areas. For example, participants receive feedback on how each feedback source (peers, supervisors, and so on) perceives their skill levels across the eight competencies. The executive coach incorporates the information from the survey with other self-appraisal tools to facilitate the developmental feedback session promoting candid discussion of strengths and opportunities for improvement. Equally important to the coaching session is the discussion of future professional growth opportunities that align with career development interests.

Ultimately, coaching sessions conclude with the design of individual development plans (IDPs) outlining the prioritization of operational and developmental areas of interest to participants to explore during their tenure in the program. Each participant’s IDP contains the developmental insights discussed during the individual coaching session and is submitted to the Commander’s Office for consideration during the scheduling of phase 1 of the LDP.

The executive coaching sessions not only facilitate individual professional growth; they also provide an empirical foundation from which to measure leadership development across participants. The results of the online 360-degree leadership survey assessments are compiled into a comprehensive database, including peer, supervisor, and direct-report responses across the eight leadership dimensions (see table 2 for an example). The data are recorded and organized by rank rather than name to maintain participant confidentiality. The resulting database provides the organization with a baseline measurement of professional growth opportunities as well as performance strengths across the various levels of leadership. Periodic review of the database can identify rank-appropriate developmental opportunities for those leadership dimensions of interest for upper management.

For example, the fictitious data provided in table 2 indicate that the captain’s strongest leadership competencies are working relationships and coaching skills, according to the raters. However, the captain has a developmental opportunity in strengthening decision-making skills. Open-ended comments provided by raters can further clarify the numerical ratings in this performance area by suggesting that this captain avoids making decisions viewed as unpopular by those who directly report to him.

Another developmental opportunity found in the data involves the different perspective from the direct reports (abbreviated DR in the table) and the other rating sources. The direct reports, on average, rated this captain lower across all leadership competencies than the other rating sources (average rating for direct reports = 2). Again, the perceived lack of decision-making skills may have influenced the ratings from the direct reports, who are typically affected most by the captain’s decision-making skills.

Analyzed at the individual level, these data can be useful information for the professional development of the participant. Analyzed at the group level (assessing data across all participating captains, for example), the data can be useful at the organizational level to identify developmental opportunities across ranks. Organizations faced with cohort retirement groups and the challenges of succession planning are well advised to review leadership competencies at the organizational level and identify effective cross-training opportunities.

The professional development from these cross-functional learning opportunities also benefits LDP participants in their current positions by enlightening them on internal and external organizational procedures. In essence, they see firsthand how each functional area of the organization contributes to the overall mission and how the agency’s mission aligns with other governmental organizations to support the state government’s service to its citizens.

A well-designed LDP is equally beneficial to both the participants and the organization. The participants receive individualized mentoring reinforced with a balance of agency and academic leadership learning experiences. The program facilitates the achievement of organizational goals such as succession planning by exposing employees to a more realistic preview of the executive levels of management.

The NCSHP welcomes comments, suggestions, or questions regarding its LDP and encourages partnerships across agencies to further strengthen the development opportunities afforded law enforcement professionals. Readers can contact Dr. Putney at for additional information regarding the LDP. ■


1Executive Coaching Forum, The Executive Coaching Handbook: Principles and Guidelines for a Successful Coaching Partnership, 3rd ed. (Executive Coaching Forum, 2004), (accessed September 5, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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