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Top cop covets leaders who solve problems — not make widgets

Kristen Ziman’s zest for being a good leader, from rushing toward gunfire at a mass shooting to overcoming bouts of self-doubt, translates well to any field.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 p.m. November 3, 2022
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman, who retired and moved to Naples last year, has written a book, “Reimaging Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership and a New Way Forward in Policing.” (Photo by Reagan Rule)
Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman, who retired and moved to Naples last year, has written a book, “Reimaging Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership and a New Way Forward in Policing.” (Photo by Reagan Rule)
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The tears flowed like a gusher when Kristen Ziman least expected it. The longtime police officer and chief of a 310-officer department, Ziman was in her closet, taking off her uniform at the usual end of watch. That’s when she noticed a missed phone call from her son, Jacob. 

Then chief of the Aurora, Illinois Police Department, Ziman went to call back Jacob, a 21-year-old college student. But first she thought of another young man: Trevor Wehner. A Northern Illinois University student, Wehner died a week earlier, when a gunman killed five people at the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora. Five Aurora police officers were shot and wounded in the Feb. 15, 2019 shootout, before officers killed the perpetrator. 

Ziman looked down at her phone that day, a week after the shooting. Seeing the missed call from Jacob made her think of Wehner’s mom. The day of the shooting was Wehner’s first day as a human resources intern at Henry Pratt, a valve-manufacturing factory. Standing in her closet, Ziman whispered out loud: “His mother will never miss a call from him again.” 

Ziman next collapsed onto the floor in tears, she recalls. She then frantically called Jacob, just to say hello, calling repeatedly before he picked up.  

Ziman, who left the APD after 30 years in August 2021 and moved to Naples — “I chased the sunshine two days after I retired,” she says — retold that story when asked what kind of leadership lessons she learned from handling a mass shooting response in real time, like in February 2019. 

“I did one thing really right,” Ziman says over a Zoom call, “and one thing really wrong.” 


Key thoughts

The right thing, Ziman says, was taking care of the APD officers, especially the five who were wounded, their families and more. She poured herself into leading a healing process at the department and in the community, she says. 

But Ziman constantly waved off anyone asking how she was doing. 

“I was so concerned about taking care of my people that I didn’t stop to breathe,” Ziman says. “People would knock on my door in my office and say ‘are you OK? and I would say ‘yes.’ And in my mind, I thought I was OK. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping.”

Ziman soon got counseling, and began to heal herself. In the year since she retired, Ziman has focused on a second career in leadership and police consulting. In addition to relocating to Southwest Florida with her partner, also a former Aurora police officer, Ziman has written a book, “Reimaging Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership and a New Way Forward in Policing.” 

With the book as a backdrop, Ziman has given 37 keynote speeches in the past year, focusing on her career and thoughts on police reform. She also talks about women empowerment, the power of positive psychology, and, given her 2019 experience, mass shooting prevention.   

Ziman has turned down several offers of full-time chief roles in other departments, but has taken on one high-profile law enforcement task: She’s been appointed to a U.S. Department of Justice team investigating the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde Texas and the police response.  

I recently spoke with Ziman on a Zoom call, when she was back in Aurora for a presentation. Her humility and candor belies an impressive career of firsts: She was the APD’s first woman lieutenant in 2008; the department’s first woman commander in 2010; and in 2016 she was named the first-ever woman APD chief.

For her career, Ziman followed her father, who was also an APD police officer. (Father-daughter diverged in one big way: her dad, Ziman writes in her book, was an alcoholic; she isn’t.) “I never wanted to do anything else but be a police officer in this city,” she says. Not seeing any role models in the upper ranks of the department, becoming chief wasn’t an aspiration — at least not at first. “If you told me I was going to be police chief someday,” she says, “I would’ve laughed in your face.”


See the good  

Several leadership lessons and moments stand out among many in Ziman’s career. Highlights include: 


Others first

Ziman worked for several condescending leaders, who considered supervisory roles ego-boosters and power trips. “I saw leaders who borrowed power from their position,” she says. “I started to realize that that’s just an empty suit. The great leaders realize they can tap into the potential of others, even those who outrank them.” It was those observations — what not to do —that led Ziman to promise herself “I was going to be the boss I wish I had.”


Bright lights

One lesson Ziman learned from some of her better leaders and mentors was to consistently look for rising stars. Several APD leaders did that with her, encouraging her to take the sergeant’s exam and the lieutenant’s exam. “Great leaders can see things in others,” she says. “They see the good in people and draw that out.”


Why not?

When an APD leader suggested Ziman take the lieutenant’s exam, her first thoughts were self-doubt, mixed in with some imposter syndrome. She soon changed her thinking to ‘why not me’ — ultimately earning the highest score on the test. “That was one of my proudest moments,” she says. 

Ziman expands on that theory in her book, in writing about the next promotion up the chain, to commander. “I psyched myself out, reminding myself why I probably wouldn’t get the job,” Ziman writes. “I was younger than my colleagues and had only been at the lieutenant's rank for two years. Maybe it was true that I needed to be in SWAT gear to be taken seriously. Did I really think I had a shot at this position? The inner voice was worse than the outside noise because my inner voice was privy to all my insecurities.”

“Whenever this happens to me I usually snap out of it, but sometimes, my insecure inner self delivers perissent and sabotaging messages,” Ziman adds. “That little naysayer can brainwash you if you aren’t careful, and you might begin to believe all the (BS) you tell yourself about not being good enough. That voice is powerful and influential, and you believe everything you think, so change the way you think.”  


Right and wrong 

Get ready

Ziman says a key reason the APD officers acted so heroically during the Henry Pratt shooting is the officers themselves were best-in-class. “Successful leaders,” she says, “get great people and then just get out of their way, which is, of course, trite and cliché but it’s absolutely true.”

But even the best officers, or team of employees, require the right preparation, and training. That’s why Ziman says when she was promoted to chief she asked the SWAT leaders and bureau commanders about their worst-case scenarios: “When the bogeyman shows up at the door, are we ready? They looked at me and said ‘we’re not.’” 

“They didn’t have the right training,” Ziman says she discovered. “They didn’t have materials. They didn’t have the right tools, such as shields.”

Getting all those units updated and upgraded was a behind-the-scenes leadership tactic, Ziman says, that paid off at the Henry Pratt factory. 


Outsized outcomes

A big win for Ziman early in her leadership career came as a lieutenant on the midnight shift. Looking at reams of data it was clear to her that, while arrests and traffic citations were up, crime wasn't going down. “So we decided we’re going to start solving the problem by looking at outcomes,” she says. 

In practice that meant letting police officers “just do what they are good at.” They focused on crime prevention techniques and split into small teams. One unit, for example, walked neighborhoods looking for unlocked cars and left crime-prevention (lock your doors) pamphlets on dashboards as a friendly reminder.. Teams were given autonomy, staying within the rules of the department. That was especially important. “The only thing we didn’t let them do was nothing,” Ziman says. 

What started as more of an act of defiance, a bit of ask-for-forgiveness-not- permission streak, ended up as a go-to example of how proactive community policing worked on the streets. “When I first suggested this,” Ziman says, “people looked at me like I had three eyes.”

Yet soon the APD chief was asking Ziman what she and her team were doing on the midnight shift that led to such successful outcomes. She became the star of the department’s prove-yourself CompStat crime data meetings. “I told him ‘I’m letting people solve problems, not make widgets,’” she says. “I tossed out the (old) point-counting system so I could go do problem-solving.”

(This story was updated to reflect the correct number of police officers at the Aurora Police Department.)



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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