Preparing for Your Oral Interview

Without proper preparation, don't bother to take the exam!

Lead Dog Promotions
Lead Dog Promotions

The promotional process is very exciting, because even though you passed your written examination, your placement on the eligibility list will depend on how well you perform during the oral board or assessment center exercise.

A guide entitled How to Prepare for and Pass Promotional Exams, published by the California Peace Officers' Association, stated the following regarding the interview process: "The reasons for the interview should be obvious. The department would like to have as its representatives, men and women, whose leadership, common sense and self assurance will reflect credit upon the department."

On many occasions, I have observed that candidates who passed their written examination with high scores met their "Waterloo" during their oral board presentations. Many candidates have demonstrated poor judgment in tactical situations, unusual mannerisms, immaturity, lack of leadership abilities, or anger and quick tempers. The stress is enormous and oftentimes, the unprepared candidates will fall apart and demonstrate that they are not as good as their written scores depicted.

When preparing for your oral interview or assessment center exercise, you will have to do some research. You must determine what qualities your chief of police is looking for in his supervisors. The best way to determine this is to contact the chief and request a meeting to discuss the upcoming promotional exam. Now, before you say, "I couldn't possibly do that because the chief is too busy," or "I don't think he has an open-door policy," remember that the chief is looking for a supervisor that can be depended upon and one that demonstrates initiative in handling difficult situations. What's the worst thing that can happen? The chief will tell you that he will not discuss the process with you and if this occurs, you are no worse off than before. In fact, you may be in a better position because you have demonstrated to the chief that you are interested in the position and displayed your initiative in this process.

Also speak with the city manager to determine what he is looking for in a supervisor. This will help you to obtain a feel for what the administration of the city and your department head is looking for in their management personnel.

As a police chief, I always felt it was beneficial for the candidates to know exactly what my expectations were, and then they could decide if they wanted to be part of my team. I had an open door policy that allowed the candidates to come and discuss their concerns with me, but it was up to them to take the initiative to speak with me first. Naturally, I could not tell them what questions the oral board would ask, because I didn't know. However, what I could do was to advise them, as I am doing with you now, on how to prepare for the oral examination and give some insights into how they could improve their performance during the testing process.

Some chiefs may not adhere to this type of counseling, but it was my style for 17 years, and it was comfortable for me. My personal feelings are that the best way to get your people to understand the type of supervisor you're looking for is to tell them face-to-face, and if they have any questions, you can clear the air at that time. If you discover that your chief will not discuss the process with you, go to the next highest command level supervisor and request a meeting. Find someone who has been through the process, knows the chief's philosophy, and is willing to talk with you. Once you find them, be a sponge, soak up every bit of information possible, and ask all of the questions you feel are relevant to the testing process. Discuss areas regarding what the chief is looking for as it pertains to leadership traits and management styles.

Another question you may ask is, "How much independence does the chief allow his supervisors out in the field? Does he want his supervisors to micro manage subordinates, or does he give his supervisors free rein?" Ask everything possible, so that you feel comfortable and can be happy working as a supervisor in this environment. You don't want any surprises, because if you are not happy in this position, it will affect everything you do in law enforcement as well as your personal life.

Determine what your leadership style is. There is no leadership style that is best. There are a number of books that discuss the various styles used by today's leaders, including the autocratic, situational, and participatory styles, with the latter being laissez-faire. It may be difficult for you to define exactly which style fits you, so take the time to determine how you would operate out in the field handling various situations as well as your personnel. When you are comfortable with this style, name it, then be ready to explain to the raters how this leadership style fits you.

For example, I always considered myself a "situational leader," which basically meant that I would act according to the situation at hand. There were times that I would ask others to give input or participate prior to making my decision. Other times, I would immediately take control and make the decision without any outside assistance which would be described as autocratic. I don't recall ever utilizing a laissez-faire or laid-back style of leadership.

This is a very short synopsis of leadership styles and how I use them, but make sure you have your own style and don't just copy mine or anyone else's, because it will only get you in trouble when you try to be somebody you're not. You must be comfortable with the style you have chosen; if you're not, the raters will see through your façade. Also, if you use a leadership style that is not "you," your subordinates will question your motives and become confused. This confusion or uncertainty as to what you want and who you are could cause dissention in the ranks, which in turn will demonstrate your poor leadership qualities.

Know the difference between leaders and managers, if there is one. I always liked the statement made by Ross Perot, "People cannot be managed--inventories can be managed, but people must be led." Determine how you feel about this. I personally feel that the terms "leaders" and "managers" are the same because you can't have one without the other. Whatever your feelings are regarding this argument, be prepared to defend it if the board challenges you.

"The elusive half step between middle management and leadership is grace under pressure."
--John F. Kennedy

Remember that defining your leadership style is a necessary part of your research, and it will assist you immensely during your oral board or assessment center exercise presentations. While gaining this information, you will find yourself developing more and more confidence in your ability to compete, which in turn will assist you in gaining an edge on your competition. Remember, gaining an edge on your competition is the purpose of being well prepared.

OK, you have spoken with the chief, his command staff, and anyone else you respect and feel can assist you. But your work is just beginning. It doesn't matter whether you are involved with an oral board or an assessment center exercise; the preparation is always the same.

In your research, you need to become familiar with your department's general orders as well as your administrative rules and regulations. Talk to your department's legal adviser, your city attorney, or your police officers association's legal representative. Try to contact someone who is knowledgeable with current case law, especially in matters of Skelly, the Police Officers' Bill of Rights, discipline, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Megan's Law, to name but a few. Also, be confident in your knowledge of your department's policy on use of force and vehicle pursuits and any other "hot ticket items" that may be alive in your department or community. Know them forward and backward, inside and out. Read the newspapers to determine what is happening in other communities and around the country regarding law enforcement activities, and determine how these activities may affect you and your department.

Speak with someone in finance, and discuss how the budget is prepared. Know the amount of the city's budget and what percentage goes towards the police department. Know the type of budget your city uses. Is it a line item budget, a program budget, a combination of the two, or some other type of budget not mentioned? Does it have a five or ten-year forecast? Again, ask questions until you are comfortable with the budget process. Now, you may not think it is necessary to know about the department's budget, but it is. It is true that other personnel may be handling the budget process for the department, but as a supervisor you will be responsible for certain items or programs in the department's budget. You may not receive any questions concerning the budget during the testing process, but wouldn't it be nice to have the answers in the event that one of the raters wanted to determine just how much preparation you really did during this process?

"Describe the type of budget you are working with" was always a question I would ask, both as a rater and as chief, when I was having my interview with a candidate. It didn't matter if the candidate was trying for senior officer (two stripes), sergeant, lieutenant, or a captain's position; I expected them to have some idea of the department's budget. How would you know if you were going over budget if you didn't know what the budget was to begin with?

If your department has a mission statement, be familiar with its contents. Does your department participate in community oriented policing? If so, know what it stands for and determine how you feel it benefits or doesn't benefit the community and the department. Be prepared to defend your answer. Also, if you believe it can be improved upon, have a plan in mind so you can explain it to the raters in case they want to hear your opinion. I always believed in a quote by Henry Ford: "Don't bring me your problems, bring me your solutions." Part of your plan should include how you will get your troops to buy into this philosophy. Remember, it is a philosophy, not a program. Again, this is something to think about.

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