Succession Planning for Continuous Growth: An Interview with Thom Dworak

Every organization does some form of succession planning, even if it is no more than who will fill in for a supervisor when they’re on vacation. The notion of passing on the torch, planning for the next generation of leadership to sustain the future of the organization is a critical process – and one that is all too often fraught with issues for many organizations.

Check out this recorded webinar as Thom Dworak returns to discuss:

  • Why we suck at playing “find the leader”
  • Characteristics to look for and develop
  • Mentoring/Coaching/Training for the next level
  • Pathways for success


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Thom, the phrase “succession planning” can sometimes be used in a variety of different ways. Can you clarify how you’re using this phrase and what you’ll be referring to in the webinar?

Thom Dworak: For clarification, succession planning is preparing those a level below for what’s next.  It’s not cherry picking a “favorite son or daughter.”  There are a two of concepts I’ll be addressing throughout the webinar.  They are centered around professional development and organizational culture.  It’s preparing the patrol officer for Sergeant, Sergeants for Lieutenant, Lieutenant for whatever level is next in the command chain.

All too often, agencies don’t invest enough in personal development in what is classically called soft skills: communication, critical-thinking, self-regulation, and empathy. Additionally, there is a lack of investment in organizational culture.  While I’ll agree that as one progresses up the ladder there is a significant amount of personal responsibility in professional development, it should be in line with the organization’s values and culture.


JCH: Why does succession planning meet with such resistance in some organizations? Is this a concept that has lived past its purpose? Or, given the frequency of change, is it more important than ever? 

Thom: Why does it meet with such resistance? Not knowing how to do it, it’s not a priority or fear.  All which I will address in the webinar.  As for change, those of us in the criminal justice arena hate two things “the way it is and change.”  Laws change, procedures change, tactics change and we adapt and move forward.  Usually with a lot of complaining.

I’ve observed and experienced change, a lot of it during my career.  During the last 4 years of my career, I experienced 2 different re-alignments of command structure and a 3rd was being planned when I retired.  From my point of view, the first wasn’t going to work and the second was a band-aid to get to the third option.

When looking at it from the outside, it left many questioning why and also the decision-making ability of the Chief at the time.  But it had a two-fold purpose, one to develop a successor and to grease the political skids necessary to get the re-organization change desired.

From the political side, this is where it gets messy.  It drives a great deal of movement within our system.  Whether it’s internal or external, politics do matter.  Recently two friends who were police chiefs were replaced due to a change in who was voted in to head their unit of government.

Internally political forces are at work also.  Depending on what specialty unit you’re in, who’s friends with whom, or did you support the latest idea (hairbrained or not) by your boss, these all can impact who gets promoted.



Laws change, procedures change,

tactics change and we adapt and move forward.



JCH: Why does succession planning seem to be so complicated for some organizations?

Thom: It’s not a priority and fear, as in power redistribution are driving forces.  Leadership development at all levels, not just management skills for the newly promoted, should be as important if not more than annual firearms qualifications.

We show proficiency depending on State or individual Agency mandates with Firearms, Control Tactics, and the Law.  Many if not most have yearly mandated training in Use of Force, Pursuits, Laws of Arrest, Search and Seizure, Sexual Harassment and whatever has become the issue du jour.  Organizations struggle just to meet these mandates, so adding more with depleted staffing levels is difficult.

Or is it?  With an on-going leadership development program, organizations develop better decision-making and critical thinking skills. Not only in their supervisors but with the boots on the ground patrol, corrections or probation officers.

Why is this important?  I see it in the form of lawsuits filed against officers and agencies.  As an expert witness, in reviewing these cases, what the Officer(s) did was appropriate and objectively reasonable but often I scratch my head asking “WHY” they did it.  Training in Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Taser or any other force option many times is done to show proficiency.  These are tools, nothing more.  The decision to use them involves the human element.



…Stop thinking about career advancement

and replace it by asking yourself this question,

“What do I want my legacy to be?”



JCH: Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as “indispensable,” (Me included!) but life happens: once-in-a-lifetime job opportunities arise, tragedies happen, family situations crop up, priorities change. Without giving the webinar away, how can leaders of all levels start thinking about succession planning now, before the unexpected happens? What’s your advice?

Thom: Richard Branson said back in 2014, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”  Criminal justice organizations around the country are struggling to fill low staffing levels.  On the law enforcement side, the officers hired under the COPS program in the 90’s are hitting retirement age.  Added to that is the political element.  A large city in the Pacific Northwest is losing officers in droves.  The reason: a complete loss of trust in leadership at both the department and city level.  Many organizations are going to go through a significant generational shift in the next 5 years.

This presents a significant challenge but with it comes opportunity.  By creating a culture of leadership learning it becomes an organizational priority.  Using proven professional development programs like those offered by The Virtus Group Inc.; Uncommon Leadership, The Adaptive FTO and The Adaptive Supervisor provide growth tools from Day 1 of FTO training all the way up to the Chief’s office.  Additionally, we work agencies in developing a values/culture based training program.

On an individual level, stop thinking about career advancement and replace it by asking yourself this question, “What do I want my legacy to be?”  Then work at being that person, officer or leader in that legacy.  Read, it is the best form of personal development.  To start you off, get a copy of Courage: The Backbone of Leadership by Gus Lee.  It is hands down the best leadership book I have come across.  Almost anything from John Maxwell is good. Start With Why by Simon Sinek is a good choice and to go full circle to  Linchpin: Are You Indispensable by Seth Godin.


Click Here to Watch: “Who’s Up Next? Succession Planning for Continuous Organizational Growth.”



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