Leadership Lessons from Jeri Williams
An Insight from the 2019 Public Safety Summit
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Key Takeaways

  1. Take an Outside Perspective: After leaving to become Police Chief for Oxnard, CA, Williams returned with a new perspective and a willingness to address longstanding problems in Phoenix.
  2. Walk the Walk: Williams makes frequent public appearances to communicate her commitment to her team and community as she leads the Phoenix Police Department through difficult changes.
  3. Leave No One Behind: Williams has collaborates with her leadership team to develop a unified vision for the future of the Department.

Jeri Williams knows how it feels to be treated like an outsider in her own city. Williams is a born-and-raised Phoenician, and she served with the Phoenix Police Department for 22 years before leaving to become Police Chief of Oxnard, California, but when she returned to become Phoenix’s first female Police Chief in 2016, some were concerned that she might try to transform the department the way one outsider before her had attempted. Part of Williams was offended at the thought, but she also saw where the fear was coming from: The Department was $4 million over budget every month, severely understaffed, and over 50% of the staff it did have was eligible to leave. In short, the Department needed change and everyone knew it. The problem was too few were willing to take the first step.

For Williams, the first step was to restore institutional pride. As she understood it, part of her job as Chief was to communicate that pride to as many people as possible, and it is for that reason that she attended over 500 community events during her first year. In doing so, she hoped to demonstrate to the officers of the Phoenix Police Department that she was invested in cultural change, and not just talking about it. “It’s walking the walk,” she said. “I can’t say that we’re going to connect with the community if I’m not out there connecting with the community.”

It’s walking the walk. I can’t say that we’re going to connect with the community if I’m not out there connecting with the community.


Jeri Williams
Police Chief, Phoenix Police Department
 

By walking the walk, Williams intended to close the gap between her and the Department she was transforming; she wanted to make it clear that it was a team effort, and not a hostile takeover. Still, many of the changes she made were unpopular: In her first four months, she began holding commanders accountable to their budgets, pushed for her SWAT team to start wearing helmet cameras, and moved officers from specialty assignments back to patrol. Despite an the initial backlash in each case, she’s found that many are slowly warming to these adjustments.

But if there was one thing she wanted to tell the attendants of this year’s Public Safety Summit, it was this: “Stop saying the chief’s policies, the chief’s mission, and starting saying that it’s ours.” Although she is proud of what she has accomplished so far, Williams is forthright about one mistake she regrets, which was failing to get her executive team to buy into the changes she was trying to make. As a result, some felt they weren’t valued, and their lack of commitment sent a mixed message to officers. To ameliorate the situation, Williams brought in outside consultants, who helped her to collaborate with her team to develop a shared vision for the Department. One exercise that proved particularly effective was gathering together to discuss and agree on a set of desirable characteristics for future commanders. According to Williams, “it’s proven to be really effective because we’ve gotten a lot better product.”

Although it presented some challenges, Williams was grateful for the chance to leave Phoenix, because she returned with a new perspective on her home city. “Sometimes you need to leave home to come back home to be the boss,” she said. “It definitely worked out for me.”

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