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4 steps to a successful career in correctional leadership

Building strong professional relationships will help you achieve your career goals

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In any large department, a number of factors affect your approach to achieving your career goals.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

Have you heard the adage, Be careful who you step on on the way up, because you just might run into them on your way back down?

As someone who has stepped on his fair share of toes in corrections, I’m here to tell you this is true. Working in harmony with as many folks as possible during your correctional career will only be to your benefit.

However, the reality is that this isn’t always possible. In order for new correctional leaders – with new ideas – to advance, conflict is almost inevitable. Aspiring leaders can’t expect to always be everyone’s friend, but they also can’t expect to achieve their goals by being stubborn and disrespectful. You must have both the discipline to follow the rules and the guts to break them.

The key, in my opinion, lies in recognizing that only through many years of commitment, sacrifice, accountability and building strong relationships can you know how and when to lead and how and when to listen. And it is the last of these three elements – building strong relationships – I want to focus on here.

1. Know Your Lines of Communication

In any large department, a number of factors affect your approach to achieving your career goals. Among the largest are the professional relationships you build along the way.

Whether you’re trying to introduce big changes to department operations or simply trying to get someone to notice how hard you’re working, sometimes your words will seem to fall on deaf ears.

The truth, however, is that your superiors do hear you, only sometimes you’re delivering the wrong message to the right ears, or you’re speaking to the wrong ears altogether.

This is where building professional relationships comes in: Knowing who the key players are and knowing what message they need to hear – as well as how they need to hear it – is critical to getting things accomplished in a large department.

No matter what your position is within an organization, your relationship-building skills can either work to your advantage or against it. Unfortunately, many good officers have failed to move up the ranks due to their inability to foster solid bonds with their peers.

2. Understand the Impact of Behavior

One rule of thumb – what I like to call a “correctional jewel of wisdom” – that was passed on to me is, “Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.”

Now, I want to be clear: This can be a very dangerous motto – you must learn how and when to apply this concept – but in the right situations, it has proven to assist me in my efforts.

I’ve also had a Captain tell me once, “You do what you think your career can withstand.” In other words, if you feel that doing a thing may be a detriment to your career, well then, don’t do it. I have been able to apply this tactic in more than one instance that aided me in many an endeavor.

Sometimes you have to strike while the iron is hot, but sometimes it’s a good idea to hold off for a while, take in all possibilities and learn who all the players are; knowing the political climate and other issues surrounding your goals may allow you to approach whatever it is in a manner that helps you verses hindering you in the end.

3. Build and Maintain Relationships

Developing a relationship with someone can be a simple thing to do. Maintaining a good relationship with them throughout your career, however, can prove to be a difficult task.

This being said, it’s worth the effort. When those situations arise where we disagree and sometimes anger one another, we must make an effort to resolve those situations so that later on down the road you will have an ally and not an enemy beside you.

One thing to always remember is that many of the folks you work with in this profession will be around for quite some time and they are going to be helping to shape the future of your department. They will be the leaders standing alongside you.

Having the ability to maintain and foster harmonious relationships can prove to be vital to your success, just as it could also prove to be disastrous to you efforts for promotion (or something as simple as a change in operations) if you are unable to have those positive relationships.

Respect comes in this business only through many years of commitment, sacrifice and accountability. Being able to save and repair fractured professional relationships is a yardstick by which that respect will be measured by many of your peers.

You’re going to anger folks from time to time and you’re going to screw it up from time to time, but knowing and understanding those errors, owning up to them and making sure everyone knows that you are being responsible and willing to resolve those problems or at least make a concerted effort to do so will speak volumes about what sort of leader you may make someday.

4. Rise Above the BS

Sometimes, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. What I mean by this is that, when you begin to develop relationships within your organization, you can rest assured that there will be those who will make those efforts appear to be other than they really are. You know, “She’s just kissing up to the Chief” or “He’s going to go far but not because of her training or education, but because she’ll do whatever it takes, good and bad to get it.” You are going to hear these types of rumors – and probably already have – either about someone or maybe even yourself.

Here’s the secret: let it go.

The only people who truly matter in the end are those who appreciate your contributions and your commitment to those relationships. Just as some people will begrudge you for taking on leadership roles, others will recognize this attribute in you and tend to gravitate toward you as someone they can depend on. In this business, that means a lot.

Good luck!

This article, originally published March 2010, has been updated.

Cpl. Warren E. Price is the Perimeter Security Team supervisor (Specialty Unit) with the Orange County Corrections Department.

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