Officer Safety and Wellness: The Missing Link

I started the Police Academy in January of 1994 and don’t remember the topic of officer wellness ever coming up.  We talked a lot about officer safety, but wellness and resiliency weren’t discussed back then.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since 1994. Officer wellness and resiliency have become a priority for many organizations. There are many conferences on officer safety and wellness, a welcome change from the mid-90s. I’ve not attended a conference in the last two or three years where officer wellness and resiliency haven’t been presented at least once.  However, I’ve noticed that almost all the presenters I’ve heard talk about wellness and resiliency have been talking about specific programs that organizations can implement.  While I applaud that, there’s a missing link that we all need to pay attention to.  An agency can have all the “programs” they want, and they can say they place a high priority on wellness, but if they aren’t intentional about creating a great culture, they can never have healthy employees.  Wellness programs + great culture = healthy employees.  This is especially true in organizations that have a toxic culture. No amount of programs can result in healthy employees if the culture is toxic.

So, let’s talk about organizational culture.  In his fantastic book Culture by Design, author David Friedman says, “Culture is the commonly-held set of values and principles that show up in the everyday behaviors of the people.”  That’s an essential message for us to hear. Your organizational culture is not what you say you believe. Your organizational culture is not the motivational posters that are hanging on the walls of your building. Your culture, whether good or bad, shows up in the everyday behaviors of the people in your organization, from the most senior person to the newest hire.  Great culture doesn’t just happen; it must be intentionally designed. 

So, let’s talk about how to accomplish that.  We have rolled out our “roadmap” to extraordinary culture, focusing on three fundamental principles.  First, we believe you must invest in leadership training at all levels of the organization. Secondly, we think you must intentionally design the culture your people deserve. Lastly, you must have a succession plan for talent, not just title. We’ll explore each of these below.

1. Invest in leadership training at all levels of the organization

Great organizations invest in leadership training at all levels.  In too many cases, leadership training is reserved for people who are either newly promoted or for executives, but non-supervisors need to be included in the conversation. We recommend three tiers of leadership to all of our clients.  Tier 1 focuses on non-supervisors with a heavy emphasis on self-leadership.  In Tier 1, we teach people how to lead themselves first, lead their peers, and create a personal leadership development plan. We also focus on individual accountability for executing their plan. Our Tier 2 training focuses on supervisors who are not executives or command staff.  The main focus of this training is to teach people how to lead up, down, and across their organization.  The primary focus of Tier 2 is to build and lead highly functioning teams by learning to build trust, delegate, and add value to their subordinates and bosses.  Our Tier 3 leadership is intended for executives and command staff focusing on leading organizations. At this level, we spend time on strategic communications, higher-level team building, and the importance of leaving a legacy.  Legacy is not whether you are the most popular boss but rather whether you left the organization in a better place.  To create an extraordinary culture, start by investing in leadership at all levels.

2. Intentionally design the culture you deserve

The 2nd key to establishing extraordinary culture is intentionally designing the culture your people deserve. This starts with a why-based, purpose-filled mission statement.  Most organizations have mission statements, but only some employees know the mission statement beyond rote memorization. Most mission statements are multi-sentence statements that outline what and how an organization functions. However, effective mission statements should answer the question, why do we exist? Effective mission statements clearly state the purpose of the organization. Mission statements are the north star and should be the primary decision-making model for the organization.

Once we have a clear mission statement that tells us why our organization exists, we can move on to selecting fundamental behaviors expected of every organization member.  Fundamental behaviors differ from core values because measuring a core value can be difficult. For example, how do you measure integrity? We all agree that integrity is essential, but it’s not something that can be measured unless someone screws up. However, behaviors are different. A behavior is either being done or not being done. It’s measurable. When employees do the identified behaviors, then we celebrate that. When employees do not do the fundamental behaviors, it’s an opportunity to coach, teach, mentor, or discipline.  One of my favorite examples is the behavior of “treasure protect and promote our reputation.”  All employees are either doing it or they’re not. When people in our organization do things that treasure, protect, and promote our reputation, we recognize that publicly and show meaningful appreciation. If their behaviors do not treasure, protect, and promote our reputation, then it’s an opportunity to coach, teach, mentor, or discipline the employee on their conduct.

3. Have a succession plan for talent, not just title

The third piece of the roadmap to extraordinary culture is to succession plan for talent, not just title. Here’s what I mean. In most organizations, when discussing succession planning, it’s almost always about who will get the next promotion.  It’s generally about achieving a specific title. However, succession planning for talent means that we are helping people use their abilities to be on a career path that may or may not include promotion. Instead of asking who will get the next promotion, we might ask ourselves who will be the next detective, firearms instructor, dog handler, or drone pilot.  We need to think of all the jobs in our organization and have a plan for how we will fill those vacancies when people move on. So how do we do this? It’s simple: we established formal mentoring and career path programs.

Do you have a formal mentoring and career path program?

Mentoring is an essential part of a healthy organization. While informal mentoring is undoubtedly valuable, formal mentoring programs can provide employees with unlimited opportunities to enhance job satisfaction. There are a couple of things to consider with traditional mentoring programs. First, we recommend that they be voluntary. Don’t force people who don’t want to be mentors to be mentors. Secondly, please send them to training so they know how to be influential mentors. We also want to be very intentional about matching mentors and proteges. Decide when the mentoring process will start. It should begin as early as possible in their career, and they should be checked with somebody who is doing the job they would like to do someday.

In addition to mentoring, if you want to succession plan for talent, not just title, you must have a formal career path program that outlines the pathway to achieving a specific job. Every position in your organization should have knowledge, skills, and abilities identified to achieve that position. This goes beyond just a job description but indicates what that person needs to do to get into that position successfully. Once someone has identified a potential career path, they should be allowed to shadow others doing that job. We should send them to training that will help them eventually get that position. For example, if someone wants to be a detective someday, let’s go ahead and send them to interview and interrogation school earlier in their career. It’ll make them a better patrol officer and prepare them to be a detective at some point. Getting people on a path early in their careers can increase the morale and retention of our best employees.

I’m not the expert on extraordinary culture, but when I look at the best organizations in this country, they consistently do all three of these things. While it may seem overwhelming to do all three, we recommend starting small and picking some low-hanging fruit. Maybe it starts with getting leadership training to everyone in your organization at all levels. If you do this, you’ve taken the first step to having an extraordinary culture.

John Bostain Headshot-modified

John Bostain

John Bostain is the President of Command Presence Training, a law enforcement training and consulting company headquartered in Brunswick, GA. He has committed the last 29 years to law enforcement, 27 of which have been as a trainer. He has trained more than 35,000 law enforcement professionals at the state, local, federal, and international levels and is a frequent speaker at executive level conferences.  John is currently a guest lecturer for the FBINAA Leadership in Tumultuous Times Forum, the VALOR Officer Safety and Wellness Program, and was the keynote speaker for the FBINAA 2023 National Conference.

John began his career with the Hampton Police Division (HPD) in Hampton, Virginia where he held positions as a patrol officer, patrol supervisor, detective, academy instructor, and SWAT team member. In 2001, John joined the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, GA where he served in multiple training divisions and taught multiple disciplines. John left Federal service in 2014 to pursue his dream of establishing Command Presence Training, which was recently selected as the 2023 Georgia Veteran Owned Small Business of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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