Has any company or agency in the civilized world developed a promotional process that even the majority of their personnel are satisfied with? I haven’t heard of one, ever.

I am not aware of any such practice that truly identifies who the best “leaders” are. As a rule, many promotional processes test the ability of candidates, in terms of their knowledge of applicable legislation, policy, management practices and the ability to tell a few lies about what they have done (or perhaps not done) to demonstrate specific competencies. How they treat people, their ability to make decisions, their communication ability in terms of their subordinates and peers, how much their colleagues trust them and whether or not they’ll stand up and be counted for when the chips are down or whether or not they’ll take credit for the good work of others, are seldom tested.

The senior managers administering the process may “think” they know the individuals and their capabilities, but generally speaking they often only know what the candidate allows them to know. What happens when those senior leaders aren’t around can often be a totally different world, but the people that these individuals do or will lead if further promoted, may see nothing but a train wreck every time some of these candidates open their mouths. There’s a huge difference between managing up well and effectively leading people.

Resumes, exams, written exercises, oral presentations, in-basket exercises, panel interviews, 360 assessments, personnel file review, or combinations thereof are the norm in most agencies’ promotional processes. Some level of psychological testing has been included intermittently in some organizations.

Assessment centres can be fairly effective tools, but are really just a few days of intense testing utilizing some or all of the methods above. They are also resource intensive and expensive.

Unfortunately, and it also makes me want to self-ignite, but personnel files are often full of performance assessments that do not accurately reflect the individual and his/her performance or ability to deal with people.

“The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.”

 John C. Maxwell as quoted by Diane Landers, Ph.D.

When I was a brand-new Corporal in policing, I went into the performance review file in the station and pulled completed reviews on a few of the best, the worst and the average officers that other Corporals supervised.  I was truly shocked. There were very few differences between the comments regarding great officers and those that shouldn’t have been allowed to carry a firearm. Wonderful officers didn’t stand out when reading the documentation, nor did officers who rarely did anything but cause trouble. How unfair to the good members and how disappointing to the organization that the poor officers weren’t being appropriately documented.

Author Victor Lipman said:

“There’s been considerable dialogue in this publication and others that annual employee performance evaluations are useless – unsatisfactory, demoralizing, at best a blunt instrument for a delicate job. I’d argue that employee evaluations are one of the most important but misapplied elements of management. As a longtime corporate manager, I’d say the problem is most often management – not the evaluation tool itself, but the way that tool is used.

Unfortunately, all too often managers aren’t doing their jobs properly, and in such instances the formal evaluation just reflects a broader problem.” 

Unfortunately in many organizations, little emphasis is placed on previous performance evaluations during promotional processes, although it should. Based on the apparent lack of honest feedback in many such evaluations, to this point, that may actually be a good thing.

Many promotional interviews are competency based. Members appear before a panel and give examples of things they’ve allegedly done to demonstrate that they understand and practice the various competencies. But is any of it true?

I sat on numerous panels during my career. In many cases candidates gave examples that largely exaggerated their personal involvement in the success story they were citing; in other cases their illustrations were outright lies.  

Therein lies a danger if the panel doesn’t know the history of the organization and the roles various people truly played intimately. It’s much better in my view to have written competency examples submitted by the candidates – with identified corroborating sources, that can be verified accordingly.

But we have to ask ourselves, how valid is any process where key decisions will be made to promote someone or not, that comes down to who writes a good resumé or who can spin a tale of lies better than the next candidate? If they have to completely make up examples or embellish them, then they really have nothing to say that interests me.

I personally like 360 interviews or assessments so that peers, supervisors and subordinates can comment anonymously as to leadership ability. They are time consuming and resource intensive as well, but they often tell a valid tale. Sometimes everyone interviewed loves the candidate and they give great examples of how the candidate functions. Other times it’s the total opposite. In some instances supervisors love the individual and all his/her peers and subordinates have nothing good to say. It is seldom the opposite scenario however.

What I have quite seen often is “trends” in the responses. There may be the odd loyal peer, supervisor or subordinate who sees the candidate as God-like, but the majority feel the opposite. Conversely, sometimes the odd person thinks the candidate is an idiot, but the trend among others is that he/she is very solid. A more accurate picture is painted.

The responses have to be anonymous however, or it is all for naught. Some 360 processes allow the candidate to submit the names of two of each – supervisors, peers and subordinates. I don’t know about you, but in that situation I’m not likely to give the names of anyone that I know I have had a conflict with. It’s more effective to get a list of all their peers, supervisors and direct reports and go randomly from there. I guarantee you that if properly done, it is an effective tool.

“When I studied 82 CEOs who failed, I saw that the most common reason for failure was putting the wrong person in a job and then not dealing with the mismatch. I’ve seen CEOs take staff people who are in the succession pool because of their brilliance, energy, and business acumen, and give them big line jobs to test them. Then the CEOs get busy and lose sight that these inexperienced people are killing the company. In one situation the person put in charge of the largest division took the company into a negative position in less than two years.”

An Interview with Ram Charan by Melinda Merino 

Management teams must be committed to ongoing leadership development and selection strategies, and should do all they can to support those they lead, at the same time united to effectively meeting the goals and objectives of the organization, through good times – and bad.  Anything less can bring failure to the organization.

I watched people – who were totally incapable of leading and powerless to make the simplest of decisions unless it was to make themselves look good – actually get promoted again and again. As a junior officer, I had little to no control in that process, but I certainly raised my concerns when I could. Then sadly, as Commissioner I actually approved some such promotions because that is what the process bore. The path of destruction some of these folks then left is legendary. But, I was told “he is a good guy”, or “but he had a good interview”.

Some employees – albeit the minority, are completely poisonous individuals. It’s challenging enough to manage these people when they aren’t in leadership positions. But when they rise to roles that allow them to broadly influence other employees, it can be a malignancy. They can ruin people’s professional lives, thereby adversely affecting their personal lives and quite frankly destroy employees.

“It can be demoralizing when toxic leaders continue to get promoted to levels of increasing responsibility. "In a recent coaching course for newly promoted police supervisors, a police sergeant stated, “We all know who the bad leaders are, but the police department sticks that person away in a bureau out of sight where the bad leader can spend all his time studying for the next promotion exam. The bad leader scores high on the promotion exam, gets promoted and is released back on the troops to exact revenge. "

Toxic leaders leave in their wake an environment devoid of purpose, motivation, and commitment. In short, toxic police leaders deny police organizations and individual police officers true leadership."

Roy E. Alston, PhD and George E. Reed, PhD

One complicating factor that we sometimes face in policing, and I’m sure in many private and public sector organizations, is that some great performers and natural leaders do not want to be promoted. They cite reasons like:
“It’s not worth the money” and “It’s not a club that I want to be a member of.”

And sadly, many others have tried and failed because of faulty processes in the past, and they became frustrated. They’ve made the conscious effort to not put themselves through it again. We have failed some good folks and ultimately our organizations by allowing that to happen.

So what is the answer? Somehow, someway, we need processes that actually focus on proven leadership skills and ability, as opposed to creating more people who may know policy and manage up well but leave a wake of disengaged and broken employees wherever they go.

Taken in part from “Never Stop on a Hill”, by Chris D. Lewis, Commissioner (Ret.) Ontario Provincial Police, Canada


Landers, Diane, Ph.D.: 12 Steps to Leadership success, March 2012, http://www.cenews.com/article/8750/12-steps-to-leadership-success

Lipman, Victor: 3 Simple Questions To Help Ensure Effective Employee Evaluations, 12 Feb 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/12/02/3-simple-questions-to-help-insure-effective-employee-evaluations/?goback=%2Egde_4501708_member_5814021361563099138#%21

Merino, Melinda:  You Can’t Be a Wimp—Make the Tough Calls : An Interview with Ram Charan, November 2013, http://hbr.org/2013/11/you-cant-be-a-wimp-make-the-tough-calls/ar/1

Alston, Roy E. and Reed, George E.: Toxic Police Leadership, 2013, http://www.lawofficer.com/article/leadership/toxic-police-leadership