Employee Growth and Succession Planning

By Michael J. Williams, M.S.

A stock image of a block tower with the words Growth, Efficiency, Improvement, and Performance.

In today’s law enforcement, succession planning requires police leaders to be forward thinkers on behalf of their officers, agency, and community. Effectiveness in this effort involves more than simply replacing retiring officers. It should also entail cultivating new personnel and infusing them with the skills and knowledge to push the agency ahead.

Succession planning prepares some officers for advancement and, for others, establishes mentoring for external leadership opportunities. Perhaps one of the best compliments agencies can receive is about their well-groomed administrative and command staff.

Police leaders must be proactive in planning the development of next-level leaders. An important part of this is including key stakeholders within the community, department, and municipality. Top-notch agency administrators understand employee development is an ongoing process.

Leaders’ Role

Agency leaders should focus on self-development because they cannot lead others well without first leading themselves. This includes gaining self-awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of their leadership style and working on their “blind spots.” It also involves learning and practicing self-leadership strategies to overcome the myriad obstacles on their journey. They must expand their leadership capacity from the inside out by building a strong personal foundation, complete with their vision, purpose, mission, and values.1

Lieutenant Michael Williams

Lieutenant Williams serves with the Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 281.

Leaders play a critical role in preparing future managers. They must demonstrate the need for and value of leadership development and how it should be effective, continuous, and enhanced throughout officers’ careers.

Identification and Development

Agencies are full of potential leaders. How can managers identify and develop those who have an unexpressed desire to ascend from operations to administration?

Evaluations and Appraisals

Criminal justice researchers understand the benefits of performance evaluations and appraisals and their role in developing personnel. These tools can help identify talent and set the stage for improving an officer’s output. The end goal is promoting optimal leadership capability.2

Providing developmental opportunities is an effective way to increase officer performance. According to social exchange theory, personnel who perceive that their organization invests in them by providing developmental and career opportunities respond by reciprocating the benefit provided.3

Testing and Assessment

Although commonly used, at best, multiple-choice testing and assessment centers paint a dim picture of future police leadership. Using such tools to identify leaders has disadvantages. The questions do little more than assess whether students have memorized certain facts and details.

Even using assessment centers in conjunction with multiple-choice testing may not fully identify leadership potential. Assessment centers have limitations — they are more expensive than traditional testing programs and difficult to administer effectively. Further, staff performance is critical, and testing equipment requires proper maintenance.4

Officers have complained that the role-playing exercises at assessment centers do not allow them to fully display their abilities and that the limited amount of time with assessors prohibits a thorough evaluation. Another complaint is that prior job performance receives little weight compared to the evaluation results.5

Progressive Performance Plans

The inclusion of community and other projects can help develop officers as they move up the ranks and into administrative positions. Integrating these assignments requires administrators who promote career growth. In turn, this growth can prepare employees for successful professional development practices like progressive performance plans.

A progressive performance plan is an additional measure — beyond standardized promotional testing and assessment centers — to identify leadership and should be voluntary for personnel. Such a plan should begin at the start of an officer’s career, with each progressive stage commensurate with rank — from entry level to just below agency administrator.

Upon entry into the program, officers attend the first stage of the training, which builds upon that received at the academy. This includes quarterly or biannual leadership training (e.g., public speaking and conflict resolution exercises) and mentoring and problem-solving workshops that progress through all levels of the plan.

Before they complete the initial phase of training, officers receive additional development through participation in a community project, such as setting up a food drive for a neighborhood or coordinating a home cleanup for older adults.

During the second stage of the program, an officer may seek an investigator position. This officer may build an investigative team coordinated with a cold-case unit to move an investigation forward.

At the supervisory rank, an officer may coordinate a sports event for a team of children to demonstrate management and leadership skills.

“Agencies are full of potential leaders.”

As officers continue upward mobility, the community projects grow in intensity and size to reflect their ability to take on the coordination and responsibility of larger tasks. Leaders who witness success stories from progressive performance plans attest to how practical application can showcase officer maturity and development within the agency and community.

Officer and Agency Success

Professional development programs serve as the foundation for officer performance. Continuous improvement sets the stage for fast-tracking, high-performing, professional officers who operate as future emergent leaders. As these individuals develop, they grow and learn to emphasize the importance of succession planning, steering employees toward success, and promoting cooperation toward agency survival.

Officers who “lead up” demonstrate effective leadership. Some may spend their entire career leading up to superiors.6 Others, whether official or unofficial leaders, will continue to advance in skills, knowledge, and ability for top leadership positions, whether within the current agency or at another one.

Success in leadership directly results from following human resource management standards, which involve effective business practices included in the management process. These standards stimulate growth and development as well as overall advancement of the agency mission. Their application not only improves job performance and the effectiveness of the organization but also the commitment from and quality of work life for officers.

Individuals with a better understanding of the benefits of professional development efforts, such as progressive performance plans, are more inclined to participate. Their success in such plans helps highlight the returns to the individual, agency, and community.


Agency administrators should consider implementing an officer development and mentoring program. Current and future police leaders must remember that career development involves consistently evaluating and appraising personnel, completing community projects and leadership schools, and staying on top of relevant training courses and other specialty programs. This may seem easier said than done. However, agencies should remember the end goal — the development of officers who can successfully ascend the ranks as leaders and manage police agencies of the future.

“A progressive performance plan is an additional measure — beyond standardized promotional testing and assessment centers — to identify leadership. …”

Lieutenant Williams can be reached at mjwillness@gmail.com.


1 Jon Lokhorst, “Take Your Leadership to the Next Level: Lead Well in All Directions,” SmartBrief, January 7, 2021, https://corp.smartbrief.com/original/2021/01/take-your-leadership-next-level-lead-well-all-directions.
2 Christina G. L. Nerstad et al., “Negative and Positive Synergies: On Employee Development Practices, Motivational Climate, and Employee Outcomes,” Human Resource Management 57, no. 5 (2018): 1285-1302, https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21904.
3 Ibid.
4 Charles Hale, “Pros and Cons of Assessment Centers,” Law and Order 53, no. 4 (April 2005): 18-21, https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/pros-and-cons-assessment-centers.
5 Ibid.
6 For additional information, see Lokhorst.