By John L. Gray, Chief of Police (Retired), Arlington, Washington
eadership is often tested when times are tough and the road ahead may appear dark and lonely. With the financial crisis and the resulting global economic downturn, nearly every police agency is affected by budget cuts, and nearly every executive is faced with difficult choices. These are times that often test an executive’s skills, character, and courage. Chief executives may not be able to control the external forces that caused this situation, but they can control their outlook and model their behavior to inspire the organizations they lead. This article contains several tips for providing effective agency leadership during difficult times.
Everyone wants things to get better, and over time, they will. However, if chief executives do not believe this in their hearts, their staff will not, either, because the attitude of the executive permeates the agency and sets the underlying tone. The attitude of an agency is a reflection of the top management team. Therefore, executives must be optimists. In the short term, there will be difficulties; but the wise executive knows that this, too, shall pass. Every veteran executive has seen periods of difficult times and budget cutbacks before only to watch the agency not just survive but eventually grow.
Be in Touch
Acknowledge that employees may be anxious and worried about their jobs and their future. A veteran executive once said that managers do not supervise people; rather, they supervise people’s feelings: about themselves, their jobs, and their future. Effective leaders may not be able to fix their officers’ personal problems, but they should be able to listen to every employee and be empathetic. The most effective role of the executive is to be physically and emotionally present with the management team and with the employees—not to lecture, but to listen, understand, and coach. Employees do not care what their supervisors know; they want to know that their supervisors care.
Stay Connected to the Community
Budget cuts may mean fewer staff and programs, but funding levels should not dictate the quality or quantity of important relationships with the community. Regardless of budget problems, the community and the stakeholders still need their agencies’ continued delivery of professional service. Maintaining Web sites, distributing group e-mail, attending community meetings, and participating in service clubs are all low-cost, high-yield strategies to remain connected. An effective leader works to maintain one-to-one connections with community members and to be a visible reminder of the agency’s stable commitment to service.
Prevent a Siege or Bunker Mentality
A so-called siege or bunker mentality is one that defensively “circles the wagons”; agencies are known to adopt this mentality when they perceive they are under attack. Wise executives know that they have more options when they are proactive in dealing with a challenge rather than simply reacting to a crisis. There is danger in not continuing to reach out to the community; the public’s needs and concerns can go unheard this way. The bunker mentality can be recognized by the following symptoms: conversations within the agency that embrace an “us versus them” point of view; an attitude that values winning at all costs; and “hunkering down” actions, such as cancelling meetings with stakeholders and partners or stopping the outward flow of information from the agency.
Reward Creativity and Innovation
Most employees want to make a positive contribution in addressing problems. Executives can inspire creativity and innovation by sharing information on problems, removing obstacles, creating a climate of mutual respect and collaboration, and quickly rewarding acts of creativity and innovation. Use visual tools in employee group settings to display complex information, because this inspires creative problem solving. The agency may have less funding, but the human creative potential within the agency is not restricted. Effective leaders nourish creativity and innovation and encourage critical thinking within their agencies.
Look Ahead for Opportunities
A famous ice hockey player is known to have said essentially that he skated to where the puck was going to be, not where it was. Similarly, chief executives should always be looking ahead to where their agencies are going to be in the near and the long term. Every crisis eventually creates an opportunity, and executives need to know if they will be able to see the opportunity and if their agencies are going to be ready for it. Opportunities may take the form of embracing new partnerships or new technology, or they might involve shedding something that has always held back the performance of a team.
Make Time for Planning
In times of scarce resources, agencies may limit the number of projects and programs they undertake, but these are great times to plan and prepare for the next stage of growth. Effective leaders use such periods to inventory their agencies’ needs, diagnose problems, research the options and resources needed to address a problem, perform feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses, and plan solutions. This is the time to be proactive and thoughtful. Veteran executives know that when funds become available, they often come with tight deadlines and require detailed justifications. A slowdown in action should not mean a slowdown in planning and preparation.
Be a Buffer
Smart executives serve as role models for open communication and encourage it with their teams. Being open means communicating facts and conditions and being willing to spend time being a listener and hearing ideas that may be nontraditional or contrary to past practices. However, open communication does not mean becoming a conveyor belt for rumor, speculation, and gossip. When budget cuts force the need to end programs or lay off employees, executives should be very careful about with whom they share the preliminary process and discussion, because if the information gets out to the staff, it will create otherwise preventable swings of anxiety within the agency. An effective leader will continually strive to influence the pendulum of emotions by keeping things calm and balanced. Employees do not want surprises, nor do they want to ride a rollercoaster of rumor and speculation.
Build the Agency’s Infrastructure
Many agencies have experienced growth or change at a rapid pace over the past years. Hard financial times and tightening budgets create opportunities to build the infrastructure of a team. Supervisors can become better teachers; more skills can be developed inside the agency; rotations and assignments may be allowed to last longer to develop deeper experiences; and officers can be given more quick temporary assignments to broaden their experiences. Like college students who use these times to go to graduate school, supervisors can be sent to command courses. Hold more training sessions and more mock scenarios, work toward accreditation, and refine and review the high-liability, low-frequency policies. Limited funding does not have to mean limited preparedness.
Refocus the Mission
When an agency has less, its chief executive must prioritize the resources to address the demands; the first step is often to reexamine the agency’s mission and purpose. If the agency’s written mission statement is longer than a few sentences or if employees do not have a good grasp of the mission, perhaps the agency’s focus is too broad or vague and therefore difficult to fulfill. Effective leaders focus the mission of their agencies to what is attainable with the available budget and staffing resources. An effective mission statement can be recited easily by the agency’s staff, not because the statement is on the letterhead but because it is etched in their hearts.
Stick to the Basics
A pragmatic executive will always staff and fund the effective programs and projects that reflect the agency’s core purpose. Over time, many agencies extend themselves into new areas to meet a transient need or a political agenda; these extensions, originally intended to be temporary, can become fixtures that take up valuable agency resources. Executives should ask themselves, if these programs went away, what are the ramifications, and would they be missed? These “sacred cows” can be viewed as opportunities for change. Effective leaders can distinguish between the “have-to” and the “want-to” programs and assignments within the agency and then demonstrate the courage and political will to implement change.
Combine and Reduce
Hard budget times can create an opportunity to eliminate the barriers that previously prevented a good idea from coming to fruition. A collaborative team of employees can create a list of these opportunities, which can range from purchasing supplies, conducting regional training, and formulating new policies and procedures to combining teams and sharing leadership. A wise leader knows that “smaller is better” does not mean the same thing as “economies of scale” and can differentiate between them in their application.
Do Not Punish the Public
When cutbacks are necessary, avoid the ones that will close the accessibility of the public to the agency, because when people need the police for their safety, they will remember the busy signal or the locked door more than the budget decision. Agencies that have closed busy walk-in reception services, limited times when the phone will be answered, and lowered customer service standards may save pennies in doing so but lose thousands in reputation and long-term support. An effective leader avoids publicly ending a highly supported and successful program for the purpose of punishing the elected representatives who cut the budget.
Be Plain Spoken
If an agency can no longer provide a service, its chief should tell the public quickly and plainly to avoid surprises and should do so without fanfare or judgment. An effective leader will be realistic and pragmatic. Fancy footwork, dazzling data, and sound bites are generally viewed by an educated public with suspicion and will diminish the credibility of the agency. Effective leaders admit mistakes, adjust with new information, and keep focused on their goals.
Make Time to Energize
The challenge of leadership in difficult times causes executives to suffer fatigue and stress. Leaders can easily spend their entire day responding to difficult situations and can be consumed with difficult decisions. Effective leaders will pace themselves and will take time every day to pause and take stock of themselves with the intention of becoming better leaders; a valuable 20 minutes of reflection can reorient and energize any leader.
Do Not Go It Alone
Faced with the burden of difficult choices and an uncertain future, leaders in difficult times sometimes isolate themselves. On the other hand, wise leaders regularly seek support through inspired professional friendships with other executives. Seeking options, asking questions, and challenging their own perceptions are hallmarks of self-assured and confident leaders. Use these times to forge better relationships with other police executives. Become a mentor to others or, if new to the mantle of leadership, seek out a mentor.
Conclusion: Where Not to Compromise
Do not compromise on issues of integrity, employee performance, or quality of customer service, because allowing lower standards and expectations only sows the seeds of a poor level of performance that will likely take years to correct. The core values of policing should be permitted to continue regardless of the number of employees, the variety of programs, or the level of funding. These are the enduring qualities that are remembered, whether times are hard or good. ■