August 15, 2020

A New Way of Looking at Mentoring


Dear PERF members, 

These days, it’s hard to look at the news and not see a story about a police chief resigning, or being forced to leave.  Never in my time have I seen such dramatic change at the top of the policing profession.

Something about this hit me this week when I was doing an interview with Vanessa Wilson, the new chief in Aurora, Colorado.  Vanessa said she had a rather indirect route to becoming a police officer, so I asked whether she had any thoughts of becoming a chief when she first became an officer.

And she said that yes, she absolutely did think about becoming a chief from the very start. Why? Because she wanted to make a difference, and knew she would need to become a chief to have the power to make changes.

Vanessa mentioned that her career really began to take off when Dan Oates, then Chief in Aurora, asked her to take charge of dealing with the homelessness problem in Aurora.  “Dan knew I had a passion for the issue of homeless persons and that I wanted to try to make it better,” Vanessa told me.

Later, after Vanessa helped to create a model homeless outreach team in Aurora, she would be put in charge of internal affairs, patrol, investigations, and other major areas. Dan also sent her to SMIP and the FBI National Academy.

This is a long way of saying that fortunately, Vanessa is well-prepared as she takes on one of the toughest policing jobs in the country right now.

And it got me thinking about mentoring, and how Dan Oates clearly recognized Vanessa’s talents and saw a bright future for her in Aurora.  But it wasn’t just a matter of Dan mentoring Vanessa.  Rather, they worked together and helped each other to succeed.

It reminds me of something that former San Diego Chief Bill Lansdowne has told our students at SMIP. “Many people kind of attach themselves to a commander, hoping they’ll be dragged along if that person rises,” Bill says. “But I think you’re better off focusing on making yourself the go-to person. If there’s a problem, you want to be the person who the chief comes to, to fix it. The people who get promoted are the ones who are willing to put the time in and make things happen.”

It’s like what my favorite coach, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, says (I just lost half the PERF audience with that statement). When a player gets injured or becomes a problem, Belichick just says, “Next man up.” And someone who no one has ever heard of runs onto the field and does really well – because Belichick has prepared them to do well.

So much of the success of good police departments is about chiefs recognizing talent, being great mentors, and getting great help from the people they are mentoring, which helps the chief to succeed.

Look at what Chuck Ramsey did when he was in Washington in the 1990s. He met a little-known lieutenant and asked her where she wanted to be in 5 years. The lieutenant said she didn’t have a clue, that she was a single mom without a college degree, but she did have a GED. Ramsey saw something in her, and told her he understood that it’s probably harder to get a GED then to get a high school degree. Ramsey took an interest in her career, supported her going to Johns Hopkins to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, sent her to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and gave her a series of progressively challenging assignments in Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. 

This woman, whose name is Cathy Lanier, went on to be a very successful chief of that department for 10 years. Now she is Senior Vice President for Security at the National Football League. (Watch for my interview of Cathy on Monday, in our Critical Issues Daily Reports.)

Or look at one of the most successful leaders in policing – Kathy O’Toole.  Very early in her career, Kathy worked for a young man named Bill Bratton, who was just starting out himself as chief of Boston’s Metropolitan District Commission Police. Kathy credits Bill with being a great mentor, but said it wasn’t all glamorous.

 “The first job Bill offered me was Deputy for Administration,” Kathy said. “I respectfully explained that I had no desire to spend my career behind a desk. So Bill said, ‘If you succeed at implementing good budget systems and HR and technology, I’ll appoint you Deputy for Patrol Operations.’ Bill did me a huge favor. The management experience I gained in that first command position served me well later.”

Kathy would go on to a tremendous career, including terms as head of the Boston and Seattle police departments.

Or take Steve Anderson, who just stepped down after 45 years in the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, including 10 years as chief. His legacy is not only his significant accomplishments in Nashville, but also the way in which he nurtured countless deputy chiefs and captains. Steve is known for sending more of his people than any other chief to SMIP – including up-and-coming civilian leaders.  Steve’s successor is Interim Chief John Drake, and here’s an interesting bit of information that tells you a lot about Steve. For years, PERF’s Executive Search Consultant, Charlotte Lansinger, encouraged John to apply for chiefs’ jobs outside of Nashville, saying she could recommend him highly. But John always declined, saying he preferred to work for and learn from Steve Anderson.

Indulge me as I skip through the years, looking back on who mentored whom.  In particular,  remember a class at SMIP in 2004, and there sat two captains from the LAPD  -- Charlie Beck and Mike Moore.  Another example of Bill Bratton recognizing talent, because Charlie and Mike both went on to lead the LAPD after Bill went back to New York.  

Also in that class was an ATF special agent from Detroit named Tom Brandon, who would go on to become head of ATF.

And in that same 2004 class I remember a young lieutenant from Dallas named David Brown, who had been sent to SMIP by his chief, David Kunkle.  David Brown went on to serve as chief in Dallas, and now, as Superintendent of Police in Chicago.

David Kunkle once gave us his views about mentoring, saying, “If I can do anything for people who want to be police chiefs, it’s to give them the largest breadth of knowledge I can, because as officers move up through the ranks, they need to be able to see the big picture and understand how very complicated worlds operate.”

As I talk to police chiefs when they’re retiring, they often tell me that one of their proudest achievements is how they advanced the careers of people in their departments – and how many of their “mentees” have gone on to become excellent chiefs.

Indeed, I think that chiefs have a responsibility to think about who will follow them.  This is an important part of the job of chief – seeking out the future leaders early in their careers, and developing them.

And I’ve also noticed a phenomenon in which a chief takes over a troubled department, reforms it thoroughly, and years later, we find that many successful chiefs emerged from that process of reform. When troubled departments are fixed, they seem to become feeder departments for talent.

As the late John Timoney used to say, “Don’t underestimate the attraction of being on a winning team.”

Here’s a good way of thinking about mentoring: It’s a two-way street.  It’s not just about chiefs looking for good candidates for mentoring.  It’s about all of the ambitious young people in the department “self-actualizing” – stepping up and becoming the “go-to person” whenever there is a problem that needs fixing. That’s how you get the attention of a chief who is looking for people to mentor.

Finally, I want to mention my early role model and mentor: Bob Wasserman, who has been at the heart of many innovations in American policing. In the 1970s, Bob was a top advisor to the late Boston Police Commissioner Robert diGrazia.  Wasserman saw something in Bill Bratton, who then was a young sergeant in the field, and me, a civilian intern from MIT, and had both of us transferred to the Commissioner’s office, where Bratton and I shared an office and a desk! 

Watching Wasserman take on an entrenched bureaucracy was so important to my career, and I have no doubt to Bill Bratton’s as well. Bob would continue to be a lifelong mentor and friend to both of us. I’m sure Bill would agree that Wasserman changed the trajectories of both of our lives.  

Have a great weekend.