How to Succeed as a First-time Supervisor

Prepare for a leadership role by acquiring the skills and training you'll need.

Author Bio Harvey 1 Headshot

Photo: Getty ImagesPhoto: Getty ImagesAre you aspiring to be a supervisor or currently in your first-time supervisor position? Many may question why you want to be a supervisor, but you must answer this for yourself. Is it because you are seeking more money, more challenges, career advancement, or "inside work with no heavy lifting," as Bob Dole once famously described the role of vice president? It doesn't really matter what your motivation or current station in life are; it is my job to help you successfully plan. An entry-level supervisory position is important in that it can set the stage for your career.

Seek Training Beforehand

Traditionally, law enforcement has created its own failing point, which is lack of supervisory preparation. In most agencies, the training of an entry-level supervisor comes after their promotion. You are flying by the seat of your pants for months, if not years. Finally, the coveted supervisor training class opens, and then you find out what it is all about. This lack of succession planning is a major issue that has daily, if not hourly, effects on a department.

A novel idea would be to offer this training to those about to take the promotion test. Results would be immediate with a knowledgeable candidate pool, quicker start-up, and then not having to "undo" poor decisions made due to a lack of proper training. Granted, there may be some who after this view into the liability infused and pressurized environment of supervision may pass on it. The bottom line is, when potential supervisors receive training at the outset, everybody wins. Even if some candidates do not get promoted at that time, they will possess deeper insights about the bigger picture.

I will be the first to admit that promotions are not fair and that people often get promoted because of a "lucky day" taking the test. Still several agencies cling to the age of seniority-based promotions. The issue I have with this is that just sitting in a garage for 20 years doesn't mean you will become a master mechanic nor turn into a Buick. In other words, sometimes you need a new or fresher look at leadership and not the career curmudgeon.

For those who aspire to become supervisors, your preparation for the test and process started the day you walked across the police academy stage. Those who wait to read the announcement for sergeant testing and only then start preparations will probably fail. Read the requirements ahead of time, as some may take some time and effort to meet. As I told my son, who was recently promoted in the U.S. Air Force, you start on the next pay grade the day you get the current one.

Science and Art

Photo: Police FilePhoto: Police FileMany ask if leadership is a science or an art. To me, it is a combination and balance of both. You can seek out social science classes, read the methodologies of leadership, and know you have authority over people. Pursue your formal education (many agencies require a degree), take traditional police supervisory classes, and even attend civilian/business-focused training as well. Some still believe in the natural born leader, one with personality, charisma, and motivational power over people. These two schools are best when combined and balanced. You cannot have all of one without a blend of the other and be successful.

If you think you have not had any preparation for this type of role, don't sell yourself short. The training of the real world is a great proving ground. If you are former military you have had great exposure. What was your prior work experience before law enforcement? Have you volunteered, perhaps as an officer of a service, fraternal, or philanthropic group? What about coaching a youth team or being an instructor of some kind? Life lessons carry over. Often general leadership skills will also carry over into your law enforcement career. Life is one big learning experience; use your experience to the fullest.

Your first day as a supervisor will be one that the great gods of Policeland will relish. Yes, these are gods that have the sense of humor that sometimes haunts us all. They will give you a few tests. Your first police squad, which you will define as 12 officers out to get you indicted, will be another test. Some of them may have been "passed over" for promotion and now you are their leader. You will hear, "But Sarge, remember when WE did this and it was OK then?" There will be some officers who will test you at the outset while others will lie in wait. Just note this: You will have to work with them all before it is said and done.

Important Pointers

There are some pointers that you as a first timer would do well to take to heart if you want to succeed in your new role. First, understand that every person makes mistakes and your job is to minimize them. The goal is that nobody gets hurt and everyone goes home. The department has the same dream but adds to its goal list liability protection and image protection. It is often what we learn from mistakes that are the most important.

To help you meet your goals, seek a mentor (not a monster) to offer you advice and give you direction in your supervisory role. Do not seek someone based on who is your best friend. Seek a trusted, successful leader who can mentor you to follow in their footsteps. Buy the coffee and sit and listen to him or her. This will be someone who can offer insights on your strengths and point out your weaknesses. This mentor needs to guide you in how to build your supervisor toolkit. This person can tell you what it takes to be a solid leader today and into the future. Look for someone who has a reputation for building future leaders.

When you become a supervisor, you'll have to work with others who were passed over for the same promotion. Photo: Getty ImagesWhen you become a supervisor, you'll have to work with others who were passed over for the same promotion. Photo: Getty ImagesYou must also learn trust. At roll call, you give beat/zone assignments. Then officers get in their vehicles and off they go. This is a trusting occupation, not one like the assembly line where the foreman oversees every production effort. As a young detective sergeant, I was once taught how to handle detectives by a wise old commander. He said they are like holding mashed potatoes in your hand; the harder you squeeze them, the less you hold. A general sign of a young (inexperienced) supervisor is one who wants to ride every call, everywhere, and then attempts to handle it their way. If you do this you are nothing but a highly paid patrol officer; learn to trust and allow your officers to grow as well.

Communication Skills

One of the reasons you were promoted was due to your knowledge, skills, and abilities as an officer. Now you need new skills or advanced versions of some you already possess. Here are a few you need to address now.

Listening as a supervisor is far more critical now. You are directly overseeing the careers, production, and lives of many. Listen to them and their needs. What may be a little problem for them today could turn into your big problem the next day. Listen, be available, and more so be there for your officers. Your confidentiality with them on personal issues is critical.

Having good communication skills is also far more important for a supervisor. As soon as you take on that role you become a spokesman for your chief or sheriff with every general order or memo. Do not "muddy" their messages. Now your orders and directions must be clear, concise, and legal. You are now the chief's extension of this order. Including humor or criticism demeans the order, the chief, and your stance as a leader. And when you interact with the public you must be the constant communicator, one who speaks with authority and is understood by all.

You may be expected to speak to the media once you become a supervisor. And you'll definitely be doing more public speaking. Photo: Getty ImagesYou may be expected to speak to the media once you become a supervisor. And you'll definitely be doing more public speaking. Photo: Getty ImagesThis is important to keep in mind because public speaking will now be a daily occurrence. You perform roll call, attend crime meetings, and now have two new demands. One is interacting with the media. As a supervisor you will be the one they seek out on the scene. Do you know your media policy? Your second new demand is public meetings. As a supervisor you will undoubtedly be expected to attend community meetings, and you will probably have to speak at them. Are you comfortable with these new areas of expertise? If not, seek out a public information officer course, which will include help with public speaking. Or find other similar courses that will help you develop this new skillset.

Administrative Tasks

As a supervisor you'll be required to take on additional administrative tasks. Journaling is a forgotten art and with the widespread use of electronic tablets and smartphones it seems nearly extinct. You will need to keep notes for staff or crime meetings, performance notes for personnel evaluations, and other organizational reports. I am still a paper guy, but use whatever form of organized note taking works for you. Just know that notes on napkins or slivers of paper crammed in your pocket will not work. Start a daily or weekly journal to keep track of important information. Six months from now you will not recall all those things you thought you would remember.

Scheduling is another big rock issue. You have hopefully mastered planning your personal schedule, work and court schedules, and family time. Now you also have to manage everyone's days off and vacations, keep the slots filled, and coordinate special event planning. Yes, there is software available to help but this is still a new skill that you have to learn rapidly. You will be reviewed on your staffing abilities and management of overtime.

Make Your Weaknesses Strengths

Nobody ever wants to admit it but you have a personal gap or weak spot. Do you know where that might be? If not, the great gods of Policeland will make it self-evident. Stop and think how long you have been out of the academy and then calculate how many new classes have been added to the curriculum since. No, I am not saying your youngest officers are smarter than you. But there are undoubtedly skills that you would do well to learn. Contact your police academy and determine your gap in the new topic areas and request to audit the classes.

You may have been told never to volunteer but there will be mandatory opportunities to excel. Accept new challenges when offered. Often these test your mettle and prepare you for bigger and better things. The next time you are up for a promotion they will be looking for motivated and self-starting supervisors; do not let the opportunity train leave without you.

I also highly recommend you seek out a finishing school. There are many that offer degrees and individual courses geared toward law enforcement supervisors. It is never too early to start the application process because the application requirements and waiting lists are long.

Finally, you may find yourself asking, "How do I know if I am a good leader?" If you set achievable and realistic goals you can measure most elements. Your mentor should be able to evaluate you as well and note your progress. It will be a special day when you are asked to mentor your replacement. I am often asked how I define a good leader. My best answer is borrowed from United States Supreme Court Justice Stewart: "I know it when I see it."

William L. "Bill" Harvey is the chief of the Ephrata (PA) Police Department. He retired from the Savannah (GA) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.

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