Following Humberside Police’s excellent PEEL performance report, I decided to take the 300+ mile journey up to Hull’s Police HQ and interview Chief Constable Lee Freeman. Generous with his time, Lee spent 45 minutes explaining his approach and how Humberside have turned it around from being the worst to best performing force in England and Wales. But the journey doesn’t stop there…

Humberside: A Turnaround in Performance

Police PEEL scores by Force

Reforms in Humberside Police have resulted in the force being graded outstanding in six out of nine categories by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS). They now stand head and shoulders above other forces, as I show in my Humberside Police PEEL summary video below. The grades reflect inspiring police leadership and the focused commitment and contributions of the force’s nearly 4,000 officers, staff, specials, and volunteers.

In September, I attended the Emergency Services Show at the NEC. I listened to a talk, ‘A Victim Focused Approach to Managing Performance’, delivered by Humberside’s Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) Paul Anderson. In it, he alluded to the force’s intensive preparation for HMICFRS inspection, which had taken place but had not been published. On release of the findings, the hard work across Humberside police has resulted in the highest grades from the policing inspectorate, and with the most ‘Innovative Practice’ identified of any force.

I have alluded previously to leadership and organisational ‘turnarounds’ in my police promotion blogs, podcasts, and reading recommendations; both in the policing environment and military/naval context.

With this in mind, intrigued to find out more about the leadership behind Humberside’s own ‘turnaround’, I drove up from home in Devon to interview the force’s Chief Constable Lee Freeman. In the below video I provide a hot debrief of my reflections on this interview, and thoughts on this journey into the realms of police performance to bring you meaningful leadership CPD materials.

My take-home messages were quite different to what I was expecting after hearing DCC Paul Anderson talking about a ‘brutal’ and ‘uncompromising’ approach to performance management a couple of months earlier. I found Lee Freeman to be a warm, inspiring and down-to-earth individual, with an intelligence-led leadership style that came shining through. He’s evidently very grounded and I’m sure the officers and staff within Humberside Police appreciate his clear and uncomplicated communication style. Listen to the end of my podcast interview with him to find out who and what he personally finds inspiration from.

Read on for more of the highlights and my reflections on how the discussion links to other leadership concepts, particularly relevant for the more strategic ranks of Inspector and Chief Inspector. I’ve strewn this blog with inspiring direct quotes I picked up in the conversation.

Becoming Chief Constable…

CC Lee Freeman was appointed Chief Constable of Humberside Police in 2017 when the force was in special measures, bottom of 43 forces and with morale also at rock bottom. It’s now the best performing of all 43 England & Wales forces according to the most recent HMIC inspection PEEL assessments.

Wanting to buck the trend in Humberside, and to help show that Grimsby and elsewhere in the area could be as good as anywhere else, it was a big decision to apply for Chief Constable. It meant putting himself in that more vulnerable position, with greater profile, responsibilities, and exposure to public and media scrutiny. He asked himself, ‘Can you actually do this?’ However, with the greater level of responsibility came valuable insights… and increased confidence to delegate authority:

“The key moment for me was realising that I don’t need to know all the answers to all the questions.”

Goals and Plan for Humberside Police

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” – (Carl Rogers)

The Goal: Lee’s clear goal was to turn the force around. This reminded me of my recommended reading for leaders, including about turning the ship around.

Both the staff and the public felt disconnected from the force. The initial stage of the fix involved unpicking a complex, ‘whole-force’ matrix model that simply wasn’t working, instead implementing a more straightforward place-based model. This was an essential step in getting the force back on an even keel.

His first actions upon being appointed as Chief Constable involved six weeks of going around the force and actively listening to police officers and staff. “Seek first to understand” is also one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective Leaders.

When he listened, staff identified several things that needed to change. One main thing highlighted was the need for leaders to reconnect with staff. A leadership that valued, supported, and listened to them; especially in relation to change. Meeting personally and discussing issues in depth was a simple yet effective method. I imagine cops in some other forces might also appreciate and benefit from more listening and such a common-sense approach!

Here’s how that Humberside Strategy looks now, five years on, as summarised in my Humberside Police PEEL video:

Humberside police plan and strategy

Leading Change in Policing

“When you do change, can you do it with us? Because we actually do know our jobs”

Listening to and connecting with staff permeates through and determines the success of any change. Not the fake listening (often called ‘consultation’) that occurs perhaps too often in policing, and which in practice is done to manage the fallout of bad ideas. Real listening, whereby it is genuinely integral to the change process and changes are designed by the people who actually do the job. Lee articulates, an example from what his staff were telling him:

“[For example] If I want to change how the force Control Room operates, who do I go and speak to? I don’t ‘act up’ a Temporary Chief Inspector, stick them in a project room and wait for them to come out six months later and go ‘I’ve got a plan’… And the staff go, ‘Where’s that come from?’… How could I possibly know the force Control Room better than the people in there?”

Far too many cops will be familiar with the nightmare scenario and poor practice Lee sought to avoid from his knowledge and experiences gained elsewhere. The ‘pet project cemetery’ even features within my mythical promotion map, part of the ‘Journey to Success’ free police promotion eGuide.

Instead, he takes a much more considered, qualitative, intelligence-led approach; an approach well-known in UK policing operationally, but inexplicably far too lacking in managing its own business. He proposes asking his experienced staff directly:

“If we want you to improve… what are the things that need to change here?”

If you want to learn more on effectively leading change, consider John Kotter’s bestseller, Leading Change.

Building Trust

“One of the first things I said was… judge on our actions, not words. But things are going to change here.”

Staff wanted to be able to trust the senior leadership but were understandably sceptical. Like many police staff and officers, they’ll have ‘heard it all before’. Lee recognised that reassurance isn’t always reassuring.

He argues that building trust in terms of understanding where the real issues and concerns are (rather than the ‘pot pourri’ sometimes fed to office-dwelling senior leaders) comes down to engaging meaningfully with your teams and having conversations:

“You won’t really find out what’s going on unless you ask.”

An important part of trust is empowering people under your command to make decisions. I.e. Effective delegation, something I cover more in my promotion masterclass.

Police promotion masterclass in Birmingham

Culture: Supervision is Super Vital!

Police Sergeant Epaulettes 999

In the podcast Lee makes it clear, culture doesn’t come from Chief Constables, but leaders in the Federated ranks. This is why the cohort of Sergeants and Inspectors were deemed key ranks for interactive, day-long meetings directly with the him as the Chief, to have in-depth discussions about how to improve things.

“What defines your culture, your wellbeing, and your performance is the quality of your first line supervision and management.”

Indeed, Lee shares how it was his own Sergeant, early on in his policing career who put him on the path to applying for accelerated fast track leadership, ultimately leading to his career progression and succession through the senior ranks.

Lee describes the culture of Humberside as a constant ‘work in progress’, always striving to improve since it’s not perfect. He encourages people to raise any issues or concerns on how to provide better policing to their local manager, and believes a critical mass has now been achieved of people with a more positive outlook. Performance indicators for the nebulous concept of ‘culture’, such as morale surveys and sickness rates, have completely turned around in the past five years.

The culture also plays out in Humberside’s recent promotion selection processes for officers. Having just run Sergeant and Inspector promotion boards, the pass rates in Humberside were high, at 75% and 70% respectively. This indicates local leaders have developed themselves and understand what is sought from their prospective leadership responsibilities.

For any leadership role, Lee makes the cultural expectations clear:

“Your primary responsibility is you take care of your staff.”

A non-negotiable mechanism for doing so includes monthly face-to-face conversations with each member of staff. This was music to my ears, as regular readers may recall from my previous blog on how to do PDRs well. Lee outlines the purpose of these meetings as being to understand the pressures, issues, ambitions, and performance of individuals, since performance is inextricably linked to how people feel…

“You can’t possibly performance manage anybody without knowing their story.”

This reminded me of the wisdom and approach of the leadership guru Simon Sinek. Here’s his views on how you must first take care of people in your charge to improve performance, very much aligned to what Lee Freeman describes:

The below comment really emphasises the wide-ranging nature of the importance of your continuous personal and professional development. I often highlight the ‘personal’ or self-care aspect, because this is important to maintaining your own resilience and wellbeing when faced with greater responsibilities. Most people think ‘CPD’ means just the professional aspects…

“If you really care about the people you’re leading, it’s going to take a bit out of you… so you need strategies to look after yourself. How are you going to look after yourself, in order that you can then look after other people?”

Lee argues the most important aspect of people’s wellbeing at work is their relationship with their supervisor. There’s plenty of research out there demonstrating that the main reason people leave organisations is because of their manager (not because of the police degrees!); ask about your own force’s exit survey results for example. Conversely, people talk about the best times of their career as being when they worked in valued teams, supported and motivated by their manager and their legacy or example.

Then, once you’ve built up this positive relationship with your team and your legitimacy as a leader, having ‘difficult conversations’ about poor performance and giving feedback becomes much easier. You will naturally then be delivering, supporting, and inspiring!

Universal Tips on Police Promotion

“The service that you give to the public is not going to improve if you don’t treat your staff properly.”

In addition to the universal principle quoted above, Lee offers some universal tips on promotion for aspiring UK (and beyond!) candidates, which apply regardless of what your local force promotion process looks like:

– Really understand your force’s priorities and what it’s trying to achieve (my PEEL report summaries give you a great head start!). What is your force plan on a page?

– Understand what are the values and behaviours expected of you? My in-depth CVF explainers can help you get your head around CVF behaviours and written descriptions.

– Tune in to your style of leadership? What is it? Be authentic to yourself. This ‘self-awareness’ is a component of being emotionally aware!

– Understand your role and how you will invest in and support your staff to do well, including how you’re going to work with other Sergeants and Inspectors to deliver.

– Demonstrate your care for other people and the service to the public.

What is the police CVF?

“It’s not a race to the top. Soak up enough operational experience, so that you know what to do in certain circumstances.”

Lee is also on the lookout for example evidence that demonstrates the above, including around your decision making, how you support your staff, how you communicate in briefings and debriefings, to name a few. You’ll find loads of detailed examples in my digital PC to Sergeant and Sergeant to Inspector / Chief Inspector evidence toolkits to guide and support you in presenting your own operational evidence.

His views on the myriad of promotion processes used by forces around the UK will be interesting to observers on police promotion. Objectivity is a key factor for why Humberside Police continue to utilise interview boards as part of their process. In an ideal world, a continual assessment of performance and evidence would be an appropriate mechanism and is a long-term goal, though Lee argues UK policing is not yet mature enough for this.

Inspector Police Promotion examples

Intelligence-Led Leadership

“One thing I say to all leaders is, if you’re not solving problems for your staff, what value are you adding?”

‘Intelligence-led policing’ is a concept well-known to operational cops and part of Authorised Professional Practice (APP). Lee clearly demonstrates what I would describe as ‘intelligence-led leadership’. Rather than leading from an office, he’s getting around and having many conversations with individuals and teams (and by the sounds of it nearly the whole force!). 

This approach clearly picks up early on developments, stories and informs an overview for ‘raising the Barr’ on continuous performance improvement. It’s something I relate to when I say that stories can offer more real insight than statistics.

The force’s innovative ‘Right Care, Right Person’ scheme came out of listening to Humberside staff on what needed to change and improve. This has freed up police resources from doing health and social work and was a major example of resolving problems the staff face. Robust yet legally-sound management of demand from local authorities and other force partners was applied in new policies and processes. Listen in for more on the story of how Humberside were able to ethically and legally say ‘no’ to these repeat requests, based around the police’s duty of care, and including an evidence-based approach shared with partners to initiate changes.

Closing Remarks & Thanks

On driving back home to Devon from the force’s HQ in Hull, I reflected on the interview. At my first coffee stop, as I sipped my coffee (unfortunately not a Lavazza!), I wrote down a Carl Rogers quote, which seemed from my perspective to be an apt summary of some of Lee Freeman’s leadership approach in getting the best out of his staff to successfully turn the force around from worst to best over five years:

“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” 

All Chief Constable’s diaries are busy, so I was grateful for the opportunity and time afforded to sharing valuable insights on police leadership, in the context of turning Humberside Police around to being better placed now to face future challenges. I’m sure many at all levels of policing can learn from the leadership approach and ideas discussed.

While policing is operating in a VUCA world, one thing that’s certain is it will always need people to deliver the service. Refocusing on the basics of what works is paradoxically a tried and tested method to achieving excellence. Indeed and as previously reported, Greater Manchester Police under Chief Constable Steven Watson already seem to be on the journey of bringing back a similar ‘back to basics’ approach to improving their performance. While the inevitable critics are already shouting from the side lines, I’m sure GMP will also have positive stories to tell in two years’ time.

I look forward to doing a ‘Part 2’ sometime in Humberside! You can follow Lee Freeman on Twitter at @CCLeeFreeman or find out more about Humberside Police.

I hope you found the podcast interview insightful and the write-up here helpful to your own leadership and career development. If you’d like to get serious with your promotion ambitions, by all means download a toolkit and/or join me on my next police promotion masterclass.

Kind Regards, Steve

Want to go further right now? Hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, and/or my Police Promotion Masterclass. You can also contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a collection of videoseGuidesa podcast.

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