The Critical Role of the Sergeant in Policing Leadership

The Critical Role of the Sergeant @wecops

With thanks to Caroline Hay and Dan Reynolds

 

The Critical Leader: The role of Sergeants

This is the most recent @WeCops blog. It covers the Sergeant discussion that was led by Caroline Hay and Dan Reynolds. The aim of the discussion was to explore the role of the Sergeant in modern policing. It is mainly based on what was gleaned from the discussion on Twitter and we want to reflect the debate in the right way.
Three questions were posed and the following narrative pulls out some of the key messages gleaned from the conversation that resulted (with some extra observations from the @wecops team)
Q1. What is the role of a Sergeant – define it?
Q2. Have expectations of Sergeants changed over time?
Q3. What would make more effective Sergeants?
The Sergeant role includes the continuous appraisal of subordinates. To do this effectively the supervisor must build trust with their teams and an understanding of human resources and wellbeing. It has often been said that Sergeant is the most demanding and important rank within policing and given the expectations of the role issues of leadership style / skills are key. Police Sergeants have always been seen as a key point of contact for operational police and staff engaged in the day to day delivery of service. They are often the key decision makers, leading from the front and acting as the point of contact between staff and command. The question was raised – “Is this still the case and has the role of a Sergeant changed in step with that imposed by financial cuts, changes in public expectation and that of modern society? It also prompted thoughts around what, if the Sergeants role is so important, does ‘good’ look like and what does it take to be a really effective and successful Sergeant.
To sum up the number of tweets and contributions in one word about the role of a Police Sergeant – it is WIDE! A summary of all the responsibilities, attributes and characteristics that were thrown in include:
Guide, coach, ability to challenge, welfare of staff, staff development, consistent (x3), passionate, manager, briefings, admin, change, discipline, decision maker, ethical, knowledgeable, dedicated, sets standards, personable, fair, helpful, constructive, supportive, encourage cajole, negotiate, set expectations, motivate, care, protector, teacher, leader, engaged, authentic and a cop (occasionally).
Perceptions were consistently centred on how the Sergeants role was seen as the crucial link between the staff at the sharp end – the ‘Doers’ and that of the leadership / command above. It was described as translating the WHY (strategic) to the HOW (tactical). Interestingly then considering these mentioned attributes above they are often those associated with a ‘good’ leader. This is perhaps the part of this vital role that is often missed.
All of these contributions could be pulled into three main ‘themes’ and described as business acumen, technical skills and ‘soft’ (people) skills. It was the latter that generated the most discussion and was also often cited as the most important. Indeed, this links strongly with other @wecops discussions on well-being, indicating that for constables it is this level that is considered critical in recognising certain triggers in their staff. This is key if we consider it against the historic culture of policing which has tended to be focused towards a more command and control orientated management style. Whether this is indicative of a desire for culture change and a more engaging management style is not clear. BUT whatever the case it is apparent that in order to fulfil the role that others see a sergeant should have there is a vital need to provide them with the skills they need to deliver it. Therefore considering continuous professional development going forward, this is vital at this rank. Leadership happens at all levels of the organisation.
Many of the Tweet responses were concentrated on internal issues with few comments on expectations and service delivery to the public or by the public. This could be indicative of many sergeants expressing that they now spend most of their time supporting, training, leading and dealing with their officers, rather than concentrating on delivering outcomes to the public at an operational level. Whilst it is unclear as to whether this is nationally accurate it seems to be a definite perception of the role changing over time.
What was encouraging was that there was little mention of a focus on ‘performance targets’ but more on the importance of empowering and ‘growing’ our staff to become as successful. The reality check to this was that in order to be able to do these things with their teams, sergeants need quality time with staff and this was consistently seen as something difficult to achieve. It raises the question of ‘are we truly doing the best by our people if the welfare and ‘soft skill’ stuff gets done from grabbed quick chats here and there? Indeed this links back to another debate held recently on well-being staff welfare. This neatly illustrates the rub between leadership and the day to day management and was described as the balance of doing the right thing and also getting things done right. The pressures of the day job have already been identified as a factor that can often determine the behaviour of a leader and sergeants are no different. Even the best can be affected by stress and pressure.
What was clear throughout is that teams judge their Sergeants on their approach. Consistency was cited as most important in being seen as a fair leader. It was commented that Sergeants could have the ‘difficult conversations’ with staff if they were delivered with decency – focussing on the problem and not the person. The failure or apparent lack of action on poor performance has always been a sore point within policing and it is part of the role of the Sergeant to have the courage to take people to task and not avoid this. Not always easy when you are the newly promoted sergeant thrown in at the deep end with perhaps little training on this aspect of the role.
Sergeants being able to manage both upwards as well as downwards was commented as a key skill. This fits with them translating the vision from the top into the tangible actions at the bottom and managing the expectations of both. Does this mean that Sergeants need to see the biggest picture possible to understand how it all fits together? Shared experiences would indicate that this is not the case and often Sergeants feel disconnected from the organisation and ‘the last to know’ – this indicates a gap between perceptions of what sergeants should be and what they feel they actually are.
What is clear is that the role has always been a busy one and continues to be so. However there is a sense that as we become ‘flatter’ as an organisation the responsibilities placed upon sergeants have increased in step. Small yet additional duties such as administration and HR tasks were perceived to be hampering the delivery of the key parts of the role. This was commonly cited as something that took them away from the front line which likely accounts for the many tweets with an internal focus on staff, welfare and development rather than of public expectations, delivery of service and performance. It was commented that the ability to lead was crucial and a standout comment was ‘leading and understanding leadership are not the same thing’. Is this an area that requires a focus of continual professional development? The ‘Police Now’ project would suggest so.
Professor Simon Holdaway added ‘we know next to nothing about sergeants and their role… the CoP [College of Policing] are looking at it… It’s all speculation at the min!’ and this is true – there is little specific research available. If leadership is the capacity to translate a vision into reality whilst being able to unlock people’s potential to become better, then it sure sounds like what was described as the role of a sergeant. Perhaps there is space here for the academic community to explore and indeed review the type of leadership training provision accessible to this critical role.
It should not be ignored that there are some ineffective sergeants within policing. These may be simply those that are jaded, tired or disillusioned. Some may simply be in the wrong role. What was commented on clearly was the untold damage that these sergeants can do as they act as ‘mood hoovers’ and destroy morale, enthusiasm and drive. There may be many factors leading to people feeling like this and some are completely valid. What is not acceptable is how this betrays the very people that depend on them for leadership.
The work and demand has altered as public expectations have changed. The people side of the job (welfare / wellbeing) has also changed with greater expectations internally from staff upon their employer and leaders to take care of them and their personal wellbeing. This will likely increase with the rise of ‘millennials’ as they enter the workplace. See this excellent blog about this at https://thinkingblueline.com/2016/02/
In the past there was less of a need to have the ‘soft skills’ of people management and a more transactional approach was the norm. This is slowly shifting towards meeting the expectations of a modern workforce but not everyone is equipped, or comfortable with these new expectations of transformational leadership. Equally the need to manage and lead hasn’t really changed however the complexity of what we are faced with and the availability of resources has. Couple this with greater than ever public scrutiny and we may be facing the perfect storm if sergeants are not equipped to deal with all of this.
The entire debate was mainly extremely positive and at times inspiring. Tweets such as ‘Be the person you would want to work for’ and ‘be infectiously excited’, really resonated and it’s perhaps something we should all strive for in their working life, but how many achieve it?
With the constant pressures on Sergeants, especially those leading what seems to be a more and more inexperienced work force, times can be hard and this enthusiastic approach is proving difficult for some. We already see statistics about the rise in officers suffering with stress. Are we supporting Sergeants and indeed all officers sufficiently? One tweet stated ‘skippers are only as good as the attitude of those above them.’ Are Senior Leadership teams sending the right messages to their staff? Sergeants are expected to engage in the HR system and do so for their PC’s but if Inspectors become stretched beyond their means, are Sergeants just expected to ‘get on with it?’
It was suggested in the main that Sergeants are not supported sufficiently, but there were no references to line management issues. More in fact alluded to the lack of training and how Sergeants are selected for the role. It was suggested that ‘Sgts would benefit from mentoring’ and from another ‘Sgts are not selected for their leadership and then to compound issues, they are not trained. Supporting this theme ‘Sgts are promoted from the front line without giving them the skills to manage and lead.’ The example which will no doubt resonate in every force is that of someone promoted from a role that they were completely competent in as a PC. However, have then been given a week’s training course and is then asked to become a Sergeant in a totally different role, often in the neighbourhood or response team of which they are picking up anew. It seems outrageous but this is often the experience for newly promoted Sergeants and the subsequent teams that they then lead. Can you be an effective leader if you are unsure of what your role entails, never mind leading a whole team? Is throwing someone in the deep end in a sink or swim situation the best way we have of growing effective leaders of teams? Is this fair on anyone when you consider the list of attributes that were described as essential at the beginning?
Have we got our approach wrong? Commander John Sutherland recently commented ‘we should not see training as a cost, we should see it as an investment’ and how true this is to policing and many other industries. John F Kennedy said ‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other’ and it has also been said that ‘people join an employer but leave a manager’.
What is clear is that the Sergeants role is still as crucial today in inspiring, shaping and driving the future of policing.
This chat gave officers a chance to reflect on their leadership, whether that be current or looking back throughout a long career. How often do we have the time and platform to do this? The contributions from all of those that participated gave us pause for thought and reflection. Perhaps it is time to consider where leadership development within the police needs to be focused. Given the discussion it seems that the characteristics associated with being a good leader are clearly associated with this level of the organisation as well as above.

David Marquets on Leadership
This is also currently a topic area that the College of Policing is looking at as part of the NPPF (National Police promotion framework) as well as their work on defining and assessing competence. This blog doesn’t comment on this work but further information can be found at http://www.college.police.uk/What-we-do/Development/Promotion/Pages/nppf.aspx

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