Law Enforcement Leadership July August 2018

Michael Carpenter

Supervisory Success for New Sergeants

Congratulations are in order to the police officer who gets promoted to the rank of sergeant. All of the hard work, study, preparation, and career planning finally paid off!


However, about the time that the last set of chevrons are sewn onto the uniform shirt, most newly promoted sergeants start to feel a little funny. The “funny” feeling is usually a combination of being nervous, happy, worried, and excited…all at the same time. All new sergeants wonder how well they will handle their new role. Do “it” right and being a supervisor can be a very rewarding job, but do “it” wrong and it may become a nightmare.

In addition to carrying three extra stripes on your sleeve, new sergeants face a major transition in their lives. Sergeants are no longer employees – they are supervisors.  They are no longer “grunts” – they are the “boss.” They have more to worry about than themselves. They have to worry about the shift and every employee on the shift. This is a major adjustment for most police officers. Of course, every other sergeant has gone through this same transition, but we want your transition to be successful.

New sergeants have to shift mental gears (this may be the hardest thing to fully understand). They must think differently because they no longer live in the “I” world. The “I” world is where many officers live. “What do I need to do to keep the sergeant off my back?” “Do I really need to write a report for this complaint?” “How can I cover my backside?”

New sergeants have to leave the “I” world because they have to take care of three separate groups of people: their subordinates, their superiors and themselves.

All of these groups are equally important and all demand a certain amount of time and attention. Picture a triangle with three equal sides. Ignore or mistreat any of these three sides and you will immediately start your new supervisory career off-balance. Let’s give you some advice on working with each of these groups.

Working with Subordinates

Your subordinates are your most valuable asset. How well a new sergeant gets along with the shift; how much they respect those new stripes; how much they want to work for the new boss depends on how they are treated as people – not as workers. If a new sergeant lacks people skills, he (or she) better get some quick! Police officers can make a boss look very good or very bad – very quickly.

Communication with subordinates is critical for the success of a new supervisor.  Effective communication is perhaps the quickest and easiest way of showing the officers that their new boss cares about them. The first step is to show them that the boss is receptive and is willing and able to communicate. New sergeants must take the first step…and maybe the second and third step, if necessary, to develop strong relationships.

Sometimes, new stripes inflate egos. New sergeants have been known to carry around “heavy stripes.” They expect people to step aside when they walk into a room, call them “Sergeant” (even around the coffee pot in the patrol room) and treat them “special.”  “I’m never going to be like that when I get promoted…that’ll never happen to me!”

Well, you can avoid this “power trip” with a strong dose of humility. Start by asking questions. You have a LOT to learn, especially if you get transferred to a new shift or a new assignment. By asking questions, new sergeants can find out their own strengths (use them) and their weaknesses (work on them – don’t ignore them). Smart supervisors should also learn enough about their subordinates to find out their strengths and weaknesses, but should not use their weaknesses against them. This will guarantee an enemy for life and no one, especially a new sergeant, can afford that.

If new sergeants use their strengths and their employees’ strengths, they will be successful. If new sergeants recognize their own supervisory weaknesses and take steps to improve their weaknesses and those of their subordinates, they will also be successful.

The number one priority for new sergeants should be to build and maintain strong positive and productive relationships with each employee. Don’t ignore the people you may not like or may not know much about. Put this on top of your list. New supervisors cannot succeed if their employees are not behind them. Police officers will not stand behind a sergeant they don’t respect. Respect cannot be bought – but it can be earned!

Working with Management

New sergeants must also work with management. One of the most important lessons that new sergeants can learn is to be loyal to the boss. There may be disagreements between management and supervisors over a particular policy or a decision, but supervisors must show loyalty when explaining it to their officers. If sergeants show a negative attitude about explaining a new policy, the officers will show a negative attitude when, or if, they carry it out.

Keep in mind that the commanders in an agency need good supervisors as much as good supervisors need good commanders. Management’s job is getting things done and management knows that good supervisors are the key to getting things done. New sergeants must remember to treat their commanders fairly and never embarrass them – either intentionally or accidentally. They need to know what is going on and they don’t like surprises. Keep them informed.

New sergeants have to learn how to satisfy both their boss and their subordinates. As a supervisor, it is important to keep the boss happy. The transition to becoming a successful supervisor will be very difficult without the support of management. However, new sergeants also need to protect their subordinates. You have a difficult task – to satisfy the needs of management – but you also have to make your officers’ jobs easier, not harder. New sergeants should keep negatives to a minimum; expect some mistakes from your subordinates; stand up for your officers if false accusations are made; praise subordinates in front of others, but don’t let the tightrope you’re walking as a new supervisor tip in favor of your subordinates and possibly ruin a good working relationship with management.

Part of being a successful supervisor is becoming a buffer between two very important groups of people. Ignore either and you’re risking failure.

Working with Yourself

New sergeants must learn to help themselves. This begins by learning to work with others. By sharing your time, resources, knowledge, and ideas, new sergeants will become valuable and respected. Good supervisors work with subordinates to improve their skills; they work with management to make the bosses look good; and they work with their fellow supervisors to make things run smoothly. Smart supervisors don’t expect anything back, but, sometime in the future, they will need and get help from these same people.

New supervisors should be realistic about themselves and others. They don’t make excuses about mistakes; they state the facts, accept full responsibility and learn what not to do next time. Bosses expect mistakes, especially from new supervisors. They may not like mistakes or want mistakes, but everyone realizes it is part of learning.

Also, new supervisors should expect mistakes from their subordinates. Police officers who don’t make mistakes don’t do anything! Smart sergeants will take positive corrective action so mistakes are not repeated, but they won’t destroy their relationship with their subordinates by embarrassing them publicly, name-calling, talking trash behind their backs or ignoring a weakness which the employee may have. Intentionally ridiculing or embarrassing a subordinate will create an enemy for life.

New sergeants need to set goals for themselves, both short-term and long-term. How can they get better? Where do they want to be in five or ten years – and what steps do they need to take to get there? A successful career needs constant attention and sometimes new sergeants focus too much on the other groups (management and subordinates) and forget about themselves.

If a police department cannot, or will not, spend the money or time on supervisory training, then smart supervisors will spend and invest their own money because they realize that it is their future. There are many seminars, videos, books, or college courses available to improve the skills of a supervisor. Successful supervisors invest in themselves. If new sergeants do not progress, they will regress.

There isn’t a magic formula for new supervisors to become successful. There isn’t an 800 number to call; there isn’t a DVD to buy to learn supervisory skills in ten days or you get your money back; and there isn’t a “quick-fix” cure over the weekend. Learning to be a good supervisor involves a combination of experience, common sense and a willingness to learn. It is a learning process which must be worked on continually.

New supervisors have been compared to new parents – neither think they are really ready; they are never quite sure what the job is all about; and they’re never sure how good they’re going to be – but, if new sergeants aren’t afraid to ask for help, are flexible and are willing to accept new challenges, they’ll do just fine!

Note: Police Management Services, LLC is pleased to announce to the readers of P&SN that it is offering a new online supervisory training program. Successful completion will give students three Continuing Education Units (CEUs). For more information, please check their Web site at, or you can reach them by E-mail at, or by phone at (518)761-9708. Also, see their ad in this edition of P&SN.