Executive Master of Leadership Blog

My Leadership Journey: Jennifer Grasso, LAPD SWAT

[fa icon="calendar'] Aug 2, 2018 8:23:00 AM / by John Schiavone

USC Executive Master of Leadership Development Program Alumni Jennifer Grasso, LAPD, SWAT

Carol Geffner, Director of USC's Executive Master of Leadership Program: I'm very happy to say that I have a soon to be alum with us today, Jennifer Grasso. Jen, why don't you tell us a little bit about your position.

Grasso: I'm Jennifer Grasso. I'm a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. I've been with the department a little over 22 years, and I'm currently assigned to the Special Weapons and Tactics Team also known as SWAT.


Not Your Average Career

Geffner: You’re a celebrity in your own right, which I know you hate the notion. You personify humility, a characteristic found among all great leaders, but take us back. How did you get into this type of career?

Grasso: During my undergrad, I was a pre-med major, and when I realized that was going to take me longer than the four years of the soccer scholarship that I had I started looking for a different major that I could complete in four years. I stumbled upon a degree in Sociology with a concentration in Criminology, and that's where I began to learn about law enforcement and the possibility of that as a career.

Shortly after completing my undergrad, I began applying with local police departments, and within a year I was hired by the LAPD.

Geffner: Why don't you tell us a little bit about some of the milestones in your leadership journey. What has shaped you?

Grasso: Well I've had a lot of very good experiences in just over 22 years, and I've had some not so good experiences. Great supervisors in my field assignments throughout the last 22 1/2 years have shaped my leadership journey, and their leadership has inspired me.

They put themselves secondary to those that they supervise. Great supervisors are always looking out for your best interest, mentoring you, trying to expose you to opportunities to become better at your craft, sending you to school so you can learn, and creating opportunities for you.

That is the kind of leadership I want to exhibit. I want to have that kind of impact on the officers that I supervise.


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Developing Leadership Skills

Geffner: What are some of the leadership skills you work on or have worked on in the past so that you keep growing and become a better leader? What's important to you? What kind of leadership traits?


Grasso: I think what's most important to me is the ability of a leader to be empathic. The LAPD is a quasi-military organization, and so there was a time when if the boss told you to do something, you didn't question it. You just did what you were told. There's a time and a place for that, but I think this is a new generation of workers. We're smarter; we come to the job with more experience, more insight, and a broader perspective.

I've always valued a leader that took the time to ask, when it was appropriate, what you thought or what ideas you had. It allows you to become the problem solver, not a drone. As a leader, that's the kind of leadership I hope to foster with future police officers that may work for me.

Geffner: Let's talk about how law enforcement is changing, and also the bigger context. I imagine there are a lot of transformations underway as law enforcement has been under the spotlight for some time. Can you talk about the more global perspective?

Grasso: When I was hired in 1995, not too many people had cell phones, so there were not a lot of video cameras out there. Law enforcement officers conducted themselves in a certain way, and there was not as much accountability.

Now fast forward to the advent of cell phones with cameras and closed circuit televisions located throughout the city. Officers that make mistakes are now being held accountable in a way that they never were before. Our initial response as law enforcement was to be defensive and try to defend our position rather than admitting in some instances that we made a mistake.

In 2018, we need to be transparent and recognize that we as officers made mistakes in the past, and we need to own them. We need to ask ourselves and the community “what could we do better,” ”how can we better partner with you to do this very difficult job?”

I embrace the idea and have nothing to hide. I'm going to do my job well, I'm going to do it professionally, and if I make a mistake I'm going to own it. That's the only way we advance and get better. With social media, if we make a mistake, the whole world knows about it within minutes.


Transparency and Rebuilding Trust


Geffner: You’ve talked about the transparency that the organization and individuals need so you can help rebuild trust, build trust, and sustain trust. How do you, on a daily basis, show others how to be transparent?

Grasso: Bringing the human component. Empathy goes a long way with the community, and it helps undo some of the damage that we've done over the years. I try to lead by example by doing those things. Again, if I make a mistake, I apologize. I ask for feedback. I want to know what I can do better next time whether it's a citizen or a partner or a supervisor and then hope to be better for it the next time.

It’s important to demonstrate the willingness to show that you understand what a family is going through during an incident of domestic violence. Putting your hand on somebody's shoulder and telling them you're there to help. It pays dividends for the entire profession of law enforcement when you have that kind of impact on a family.

Personally, I just show up to every contact, every traffic stop, every SWAT callout and I think how would I want to be treated in the same situation if that were my son or daughter inside that residence. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It's not my job to be judge or jury.

Geffner: What do you see that is changing in the workforce? With millennial generations in the workforce comes a new set of values. How is it changing law enforcement or what do you see that might be different from some of our generations?

Grasso: I have 22 years on the job, I work with people that have 35 years on the job, and I work with people that have five years on the job. It's a huge spectrum of experience, age, and exposure. We can learn a lot from this newer generation if we don’t dismiss them.

Although they don't have the life experience, they know more than I'll probably ever know about technology, how to harness it, and use it as a powerful tool to do our job better than we ever could have imagined.

I mean I've tasked young police officers on a scene where I'm negotiating to look and see if the suspect is on social media. I don't even have social media, but these young officers are quick. They punch in the suspect's name and, "Oh yeah, he's posting right now.” “He's live streaming.” “Oh, he's armed with a gun."

Young people have so much to offer. There seems to be a new emphasis in law enforcement towards a value of higher education, which I think is wonderful. You only need a High School diploma or GED to come onto the Los Angeles Police Department, but we have a young man that has a double Masters, and my SWAT Team has a Ph.D. on it. I'm excited that we now value those things. I think it's only going to make us better.


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What is leadership?


Geffner: People often confuse authority with leadership. This is a common mistake. We think that if you're a manager, you're a leader. I believe that we're all leaders. So why don't you tell us what you believe? What is leadership?

Grasso: What I can tell you about leadership is that I don't look at it as a noun. I look at it as a verb. It's action. Anybody can say that they're a leader. They can point to their badge or the stripes on their sleeve or the bars on their collar. To me, that does not make a leader. A leader is somebody who walks the walk. You can tell me all you want that you're a leader. Show me you're a leader and I'll follow you anywhere.

I’ve learned that leadership is not a place or a position. It's something that you demonstrate every day when you show up to work. For me, that's the kind of leader that I will follow with respect. I will be forever loyal to the person that leads by example.

Geffner: Regarding your leadership what are you working on in terms of learning to let go? And what do you want to learn over the next ten plus years as you continue to grow into yourself? What are you trying to let go of and what are you trying to learn?

Grasso: Having been a police officer for a little over 22 years my career has been focused on me. However, I recognize that when I promote into that official leadership role as a Sergeant, I'm a frontline supervisor.

Young officers will come to me for advice, mentorship, and direction. I hope that once I assume that official role of Sergeant, that I'm able to recognize that it's no longer about me. I want to make sure that I'm no longer selfish and that I put them first and their interests above mine and that everything I do is motivated by what I can do for them.

Being able to let go of this career that I've spent serving myself. Although I feel like I've been more than that in reality by not promoting, I've only ever been responsible for myself, and my biggest fear is that I won't do these young officers justice. I never want to let them down.

Geffner: What are some mistakes you've seen that may have impacted the way you think about leadership now and going forward?

Grasso: I think you need to be an empathic leader and have a true sense of what the officers that you're leading are feeling. Get a sense of what their normal, everyday body language is or their tone, attitude, and demeanor.

Officers will express themselves to you, and they will come to you for advice for leadership and mentorship. "Hey Sarge, what should I do in this situation? Hey, can I talk to you about something? I had this incident, and this is how I handled it. How would you have handled it?“

We have many interactions on a daily basis in law enforcement. Maybe 20, 30 calls for service and patrol. There are a lot of opportunities to interact with the officers, and I will know that I've been successful if I have those officers coming to me and asking my opinion, asking me for feedback, and asking if I offer feedback.

I trust that they will be willing to listen, accept it, and then take that feedback and turn it into action the next time they handle a similar situation.


Women in Law Enforcement

Geffner: Talk about being a woman in a field that is heavily dominated by men. What is it like to become a leader, to learn to listen to their voice, and to use their voice in organizations that have not been as supportive of that?



Grasso: I had never seen a woman in that capacity. I grew up in San Diego, and on various occasions, we'd see the police and I never remember seeing a female police officer. Subconsciously I didn't realize it was an option for me, but when I came to the LAPD I started seeing other women around me, and we started sharing our stories.

So I've been fortunate. My organization is somewhere over 22% women, which is pretty high. I want to say that we're leading the nation in the gender diversity, but it's a male-dominated profession no doubt. When you consider the number of women that are working the field, say graveyard shift, at 2:00 in the morning, and then the number kind of begins to shrink.

You have to be able to hold your own. You can't be too sensitive. My drives home have been emotional, but I would never, ever reveal that in mixed company. You have to be strong. You have to be tough. I think I've evolved into somebody that's not afraid stand up for myself or others that I feel are being mistreated or abused. I'm currently the first and only LAPD SWAT officer, so that's like a whole different animal.

Working with a Female Officer


Geffner: How so?

Grasso: Many of the men that I work with have never worked with a female officer. They had never had a partner that was a female. They had never worked a watch or a specialized assignment with a female. So they had lots of preconceived notions about what I could and couldn't do.

I looked at it as an opportunity for me to prove them wrong and it wasn't something that happened overnight. I worked hard every day and volunteered for the worst jobs you could imagine. Almost ten years later although I am the only woman SWAT, I'm just one of 60 officers that are assigned to this specialized unit.

I hope that there are other women out there who see me as an example. In my leadership journey, I have begun to mentor young women, reach out to women that are qualified who might need a little encouragement. I feel like it's my responsibility.


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Geffner: How have you managed your stress? What have you done to allow yourself to be whole and also learn some of those attributes that we all need to learn as we rise in organizations?

I, my entire life, have been my own worst critic. So, if I make a mistake, I really beat myself up worse than anybody else could imagine. I've learned to let that go a little bit and recognize that I am fallible just like everybody else. Sometimes it's difficult as the only woman in my job. I stand out, so if I make a mistake everybody knows, but if one of my male counterparts makes a mistake, there's some anonymity in that.

It was difficult at first, but as I grew into my role I became more confident, and I began to let that go. I'm not saying I have mastered that, but it has been helpful owning my mistakes and moving on. It's liberating not to have to be perfect every time because it's never going to happen.

Also, I've always been physically fit, and it has been an outlet or a channel where I can think and recap or plan my day. I find it super cleansing. If I have had a really hard day, you can guarantee I'll be throwing some heavy weight around to get it all out.


Leadership Advice

Geffner: What advice would you give to anyone reading who is somewhere in a mid-level management role somewhere, that wants to advance their career, and wants to learn from people who have been there? What would you tell them?


Grasso: Don't be afraid to try. In one of my many EML readings, I came upon a quote saying, "There is no success without failures. And there's no learning without mistake." So if we don't put ourselves in positions to try new things, we're never going to achieve those things.

You have to be willing to get back on the horse. I was afraid of making mistakes, and such a perfectionist. I held myself to such a high and unachievable standard that I passed up opportunities early in my career because I was leery of what would happen if I did not achieve them.

So my advice would try it, and if you don't get it, at least you can reflect and think, "Gosh, what could I have done better,” "How can I prepare for the next opportunity?" So yeah, just do it.



Topics: Leadership Journey, Women Leadership

John Schiavone

Written by John Schiavone

John C. Schiavone is a writer and technology professional specializing in leadership development.

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