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The Need For Strategic Planning

Just recently I was contacted by a Chief of Police (friend of mine) who asked me to review his five-year strategic plan.  This is the eighth one he’s done but he’s not been the Chief for 40 years; instead, he’s done a five-year strategic plan each year for the past eight years.  Why, you might ask yourself, would a Chief do a five-year plan every year?  The answer is simple: stuff happens.

If I could go back and change ONE thing in my life it would be to add strategic planning into my career decisions starting when I was in the Army.  While I had several good mentors giving me advice on how to advance my career, few offered advice on long term planning of the same career.  Fewer still (in fact, none) offered words of wisdom about planning for AFTER my law enforcement career.  Thankfully I kept driving on, creating and pursuing new goals and I’ve landed in quite a good place.  I’ve enjoyed a 30+ career in law enforcement that is still on-going; I’ve met my goals of being both a police instructor and a published author and I’ve done so while making time to enjoy my family as much as possible.  Still, much of what I’ve enjoyed was a matter of pure happenstance or sheer luck; very little of what’s occurred in the past 30 years has been planned.

And today, as I prepare to review that Chief’s five-year plan, it occurred to me that some of the younger officers stopping by to visit the site might need to be reminded of the necessity of strategic planning.  So let’s talk about it a little bit.  Bear in mind that all of the following is MY OPINION and there are certainly plenty of differing opinions.  As you begin to build your own strategic plan, consult a mentor or coach that you trust and get their input on how you should best go about building and implementing your plan.

I’m going to start off with what, to me, is the most basic necessity of any strategic plan: building and maintaining yourself.  We all tend to take for granted the need to keep ourselves in decent physical condition.  It’s simply healthier and increases our officer survival rate as well as lowering job-related health and wellness risks.  What a lot of folks don’t tell you, though, is that being physically fit also tends to increase your career advancement potential.

Yes, we’ve all seen the grizzly 25 year veteran sergeant who has more gut than is healthy.  How many of you see an equal number of over-weight captains with only ten years of service?  Stop to consider this for a moment: when you are applying for that next promotion, is a fitness test part of the process?  Even if it isn’t, is your general appearance during an oral interview taken into consideration?  I’d be willing to bet that it is and, no matter how you look at it, a physically fit officer in a properly tailored uniform is always going to look more professional than an overweight officer does.  So maintaining your fitness levels is not only in your best health interests but also in your long term career interests as well.

Let’s also look at educational “maintenance.”  A wise man once told me that if you’re not steadily improving yourself then you’re not just standing still but you’re actually falling behind.  Then he asked me, “Why do you think we call it the ‘human RACE’?”  Even if the only person you’re competing with is yourself, are you better today than you were yesterday?  I’ll add another observation: I’ve heard many folks say that the best instructors are perpetual students.  The theme repeats itself.

Many agencies today have a minimum educational requirement that includes a two-year college degree.  Some agencies have a four-year degree requirement.  Several agencies I know of require a PhD for the position of Chief of Police.  Once you attain that level of education though, does that mean you should stop continuing your education?  Think of it this way: when you’re in that interview for your next promotion and someone on the board asks what you’ve done to improve yourself since your last promotion, what are you going to say?

I submit to you that whether you take one class per semester or pursue recreational education opportunities like getting your certification in scuba diving, as long as you’ve learned something new each year then you have demonstrated, and can articulate, how you’re NOT remaining static in life; how you’re steadily improving yourself, thereby making YOU a more valuable commodity / asset for your agency.  Educational “maintenance” is as necessary as physical maintenance, so include them both as the base needs in your strategic planning.

Now, where do you go after that?  To some extent, ‘where you go’ is determined by the size of your agency, the opportunities that may arise, and the interests you have in law enforcement.  If you want to be on the SWAT team then you should tailor your training and educational goals to support that goal. If you want to be a homicide investigator then you should tailor your training and educational goals to support that.  If you want to be a park ranger, plan your training and education accordingly.

THIS is where a proper mentor proves very valuable.  If you want to be a SWAT cop, approach one of the veterans, ask him for some of his time and pick his brain.  Build that friendship and let him (or her) coach you on how to mold yourself into a good SWAT applicant.  If you prefer investigations, do the same thing with a veteran investigator.  If you prefer to work as a School Resource Officer, find one and pick his/her brain on how to get into that assignment and then start working toward it.

Here’s the kicker though: you shouldn’t just be planning for the next assignment.  You should be planning the next three to five assignments.  If each one lasts two to five years, then you plan half or all of your career with multiple optional branches of decision along the way.

I know a man who had a pretty long career as a police officer.  In fact, he’s still enjoying it at least 45 years later.  While that’s a fantastic career, what strikes me is that he spent 34 years never attaining a higher rank than Corporal.  I can’t help but wonder if that was actually his plan.  If it was, so be it.  Nothing says you can’t plan a career wherein you reach a certain rank in a certain expertise and never leave it… because that’s what you want and love to do.  That 34-yr corporal excelled in his position and only left it because he reached mandatory retirement age.  He moved on to a leadership role with a different agency and is enjoying the benefits of 34+ years of experience as he mentors younger officers along in his new position.

Maybe your goal includes a badge that says “Detective Sergeant.”  Maybe your goal includes having your officers call you by the nickname “Lou” which would actually be spelled “Lieu” because it’s the abbreviated nickname for Lieutenant.  Maybe your goal is to work up through the ranks, taking whatever assignment is necessary to achieve each promotion because you’re just trying to get as high as you can so your retirement check is as big as you can manage.  As long as you can be happy in that pursuit then more power to you and good luck.

The bottom line is that unless you want your employment to control your life (and let’s admit it: being a law enforcement professional already controls your life more than you’re happy with at times)… but unless you want your job to control your life in ways you can’t even think about 20+ years from now, then it behooves you to sit down and craft a plan; a strategic plan with options and back-ups so that you can steer your career and end up where you’d prefer to be.  Creating such a plan the first time can be daunting.  Updating it each year can be tedious.  Both are necessary – so get it done.

Stay safe!