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4 critical elements of professional growth and development in corrections

Preparing for the future is an ongoing process that begins the first day on the job


I regularly receive guidance requests from law enforcement professionals who are transitioning from one phase of their careers to the next. I’m frequently asked the same question: “How do I make myself viable for the next level?” 

Whether the person is vying for a promotion/specialized position, or considering a career after retirement, the answer is generally the same. Simply stated, if you waited until the eleventh hour to prepare, you are way behind the curve. This does not necessarily mean that you will be unsuccessful. This simply means that those who recognized the importance of professional growth and development early on in their careers will have a distinct advantage over those who have not. 

Preparing for the future is an ongoing process that begins the first day on the job, but it’s never too late to start. With this in mind, let us examine the four critical elements for growth and development: Reputation, Education, Networking and Training (RENT).

Developing and maintaining a good professional reputation is paramount to success. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Developing and maintaining a good professional reputation is paramount to success. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

1. Reputation

Developing and maintaining a good professional reputation is paramount to success. High ethical standards, being reliable, trustworthy, dependable and selfless are among the strongest indicators of a positive reputation. This conduct must transcend both professional and personal lives. All too often we see good correctional officers who do a stellar job while on duty, yet their personal lives are a disaster. 

Consistency is essential. Once a reputation is damaged, it is extremely difficult to rebuild. Strive for excellence from day one and maintain it forever. Always make good first impressions and remember that there is never a second opportunity to make a first impression. 

2. Education

Over the years, I worked with many law enforcement professionals who complained about attending school. Some were fortunate enough to have obtained a college degree before entering into the profession, whereby others did not. Going to school while working is not an easy task, however continuing with higher education is often essential to advancement. The excuses and rationale for not attending college during the working years are many.

Once again, the absence of a college degree may not necessarily mean that opportunities will not be available. It does mean that those who have made the commitment and sacrifice for higher education may have strategic advantages. Regardless, higher-level positions often require a minimum of a Bachelor’s Degree to even be considered. There is no substitution for a college degree – you either have a college degree or you don’t. It is very difficult to attend school while maintaining a balance between rotating shifts, family commitments, and other responsibilities but it can be done. Find a mentor who has done it and seek counsel and support. 

3. Networking

In the early stages of an officer’s career, the network of professional colleagues generally does not extend beyond the walls of one’s department. There is, however, a vast universe waiting to be explored beyond the smaller sphere. Recognizing the value of building and maintaining a wide professional network is extremely valuable for growth and development. 

Consider joining professional associations on a regional, statewide of perhaps national level. These associations provide vast opportunities for networking and mentoring. Along the way, you can meet other professionals and expand your outreach. Exchanging business cards has always been the common way of establishing a relationship with somebody, and technology should be used to maximize the encounter. Most often, business card gets placed in your pocket and eventually in the hands of the local dry cleaners. 

Try using a card scanner smart phone app. When the business card is handed to you, scan it into your phone and it’s immediately in your contacts file. Once it’s in your contacts file, send the new contact a follow-up email acknowledging your acquaintance and encouraging a future dialogue. This sets the stage for collaboration with the new contact. It is these types of power-networking habits that separate the good from the great.

4. Training

Anyone can attend the required mandated training, but exceptional candidates recognize the value of specialized courses. It is a good idea to develop expertise in a certain area and pursue training opportunities that will separate your qualifications from others. A word of caution in this regard: don’t become so focused upon one specific area that expertise in other areas becomes dormant. Develop the specialty, but simultaneously be a well-informed generalist. 

Conclusion

In addition to all the aforementioned, here are a few other anecdotal suggestions:

  • Understand, use and embrace technology;
  • Be accessible and return phone messages/emails promptly;
  • Pay it forward;
  • Follow news and current trends;
  • Be a mentor, leader and inspiration to others;
  • Be part of the solution, not the problem;
  • Always strive to be the best at whatever you do.

Reject mediocrity, embrace excellence and know that it’s never too late to pay the RENT.

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