Kelly Rowe, Sheriff of Lubbock County, discusses how to recruit and retain the best talent in emergency response. As part of this, he shares tips about mentoring, addressing burnout, appealing to different generations, listening, and learning from mistakes. 


Craig Weaver: Welcome to Response Leadership, brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in response training. This is a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. I’m your host, Craig Weaver. I work here in Marketing and Communications at TEEX. And today, our guest is Sheriff Kelly Rowe, sheriff of Lubbock County. Thank you so much for giving us your time. Glad you’re here.

Kelly Rowe: Absolutely. My pleasure to join you this morning.

Craig Weaver: All right. We had the opportunity to talk, I guess, a couple of weeks ago and kind of go over some things. But big question, right up top, is what seems to be, in your opinion, the most challenging thing law enforcement personnel or agencies are facing these days?

Kelly Rowe: Well, it’s just, it’s quite frankly, a pure shortage of people. You know, things out there have certainly changed. But, you know, when it boils down to, we’re seeing national studies showing, you know, applications for law enforcement down 65%. And so, we’re certainly feeling it here. I know my counterparts across the state, I’ve had very few conversations with some of my peers that they’re fully staffed, and everything’s going. Everybody’s saying the same thing. Finding and keeping, you know, quality people is really our biggest difficulty.

Craig Weaver: Well, you and I had spoken a little bit about that. Why do you think that is? I mean, what do you see the shift in potential applicants? What do you see as the reason for that?

Kelly Rowe: Well, you know, there’s a number of different reasons. And, you know, and even as we’re right in the middle of the budget season, we’ve got some of our commissioners, whatnot, asking questions like, where’s money at that? Well, you know, money has been an issue over the years. But really, more currently, I don’t know that that’s necessarily one of the big driving factors. We’re seeing a lot of individuals that either because they had the opportunity to work from home during the pandemic, get used to that concept or a lot of them want normalized hours Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 kind of things versus a night shift in the jail or out on patrol. By large, I think the just this constant negative narrative that permeates through our media.

And again, you’ve got to if you’re a young 20-something contemplating a career. I mean, I would have to look at it real hard. I mean, I’ve been asked that question, if you were to do it all over again in today’s world, would you do it? I can tell you there’s an immediate hesitation on thinking through an answer on that.

Craig Weaver: Sure. You’ve seen a shift in the generational in terms of people that used to be, this is what I’m going to do. It’s what I’ve always known I want to do, versus people trying out things, or how has that affected your department?

Kelly Rowe: Well, we just, we see it, just like I said, in retention, you know. Bottom line is that the conversations we’ll have if we can keep them, keep somebody for three, three years, we’ve got them. You go back to when we had a mass hiring to prepare to open our new detention center, and that was a significant number of positions that were added. The vast majority of those individuals, and that was 13 years ago when we opened that, those individuals are still with us. It’s the ones in the last few years that are here today, gone tomorrow. And to your point, I don’t care whether we’re talking law enforcement, talking fire prevention, medicine, whatever the case, that that is a calling.

And there’s, sure, that’s always said that way, that there’s something that is driving you as an individual to want to serve your fellow citizens, serve your community, make it a better place, make it a safer place. And if you don’t have that, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to give in some welcome aboard speech that’s going to that’s going to change that. The first time I did a ride-along while I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do, I mean, it was 30 minutes in, and I’m like, I’m done. This is going to be it for me. And the following day, I’m getting an appointment with the sheriff and asking for sponsorship to the Peace Officer Academy. So, that’s the thing we’re not seeing as much as we used to. And again, I think it just leads to why they’re not staying. And again, it’s difficult to boil down into any single thing, but, certainly, the motivators are changing, and we look to do and adapt where we can. But the nature of what we do every day is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And our flexibility to say we’re only going to answer calls Monday through Friday, 8 to 5.

Craig Weaver: So, yeah, not really an option.

Kelly Rowe: No, unfortunately, that it usually is getting lively about 7 p.m., and then that stays that way until 2. We’re still going to have to have somebody that’s doing, and I keep wondering at what point it’s going to be me and some of the command staff that are donning uniforms to go out and file now and again. But again, we’re certainly seeing it. We’re about to employ a system that we were made aware of that seems to be doing really, really good things in terms of calling out and finding quality applicants. Maybe for a follow-up at some point, I’ll tell you how that worked for us. It’s something it’s significant to say, though, that they were able to get Midland County, which was south of us, fully staffed, and they’re in the middle of the oil patch, which has always been a big competing thing because the salaries were so, so much higher. So if this thing works as well as it did for them, we may see some changes, and we may discover we have been approaching the recruiting and hiring aspect maybe or maybe just needing to update for 2023 versus the things the way we’ve done, you know, for years here.

Craig Weaver: Yeah, that was my next question, is what do you do? What does an organization do to think of ideas to get people to come work, and then once they’re there, what have you had to do to keep them there?

Kelly Rowe: That almost as the old elephant analogy, you know, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Because, you know, so many things we can do can exacerbate other problems. And so right off the get-go, when we’re running, when all of our agencies are running so shorthanded, and particularly talk about the detention side of things, you know, there’s minimum numbers have to be on duty. You start requiring people to have to work extra duty on their days off. And there’s a fatigue factor or a burnout factor, you know, that starts hitting in there. And then they start getting to a point where they say, I don’t think this is what I want to do. But back to your question. We have to look at it from all angles. We do have to keep salaries competitive, and we can’t let those get off of our base. You’ve got competent trainers that are in there, the newest ones coming in, and that they’re getting them set on the right path so that they understand what’s required and what they need to be doing.

But, we’ve just we’ve had numerous, numerous conversations. I have even gone as far as to take the command staff off-site to a hotel and get into a board-type room and take their cell phones away from them to keep them focused. And you brought up the generational changes, and we would try to examine how a lot of the younger generations approach things. But the key thing I have always prefaced everything within these types of conversation is, you know, nothing is off the table to discuss. Innovate where we can, don’t violate jail standards or don’t violate our general orders to do so.

But the one thing we don’t bend on is we’re not going to lower standards. I mean this job is too important. The time we’re in now even makes it more so when, like I said, public trust has been rocked quite a bit, and so we’ve got to hammer on the fact that we’ve still got a tough job to do, and it’s got to be done correctly. But again, you’re seeing more and more of a push. You know, you’re seeing a lot of our professional associations that are really jumped into this topic, and trying to change this narrative somewhat, trying to show the positive side of things.

And we need to get those messages out and try to, like I said, regenerate that desire and people to want to get in there and save those lives. And, like I said, to support their communities and protect their fellow citizens from the worst elements that also reside within that community.

Craig Weaver: Yeah, well, you had mentioned earlier about times you’ve maybe taken your staff to a conference room or just off-site somewhere to try to talk. How important in terms of leadership is listening to your staff?

Kelly Rowe: Oh, that’s top of the lot. When we’re talking about communication, the toughest thing to try to convey, particularly to leaders, the new supervisors, the most important part is listening. That is absolutely the most important aspect, not what you’re saying. You know, body language plays a part into it. I know when I get about an hour in the opening of every new supervisor’s course that our academy puts on, and I’ll talk about the fact that you know, granted, these cell phones and all these electronic devices are great, but don’t put yourself in a position where you’re leading through that device. I mean an angry-faced emoji does not convey in a text message or an email does not convey. If you’re sitting here talking face to face with an individual, and it doesn’t have to be necessarily negative, it could be a positive, too. But it is that interaction. But again, you need to hear what’s going on. And I think I talked to you about it earlier. You know that a lot of times, especially in an organization of our size and position, I mean, a lot of times it’s just being in the right place at the right time and walking up on the right conversation.

And you’ll learn a lot that way. And a lot of times, I’ll just stand there and listen to what’s being talked about and may or may not interject, depends on what the topic is or what direction the conversation is going. But again, yes, listening, you’ve got to hear it. It can’t just be your voice and your voice only because, again, the higher you move up, the further you’re moving away from what’s going on.

I promoted a new sergeant yesterday, and I said, I’m here to tell you, you’re in the absolute most favorite position I ever held because that’s the position where you still have the direct contact with all of your people. You’re where the rubber meets the road. You know what’s going on. You know the pulse of things. And you’re in the best position to either fix, correct or address issues at that level in the higher up those changes. That scope is going to change, and you’re going to end up, you know, you’re going to find yourself being further and further away from the heartbeat of what’s happening within your shift, within your service, you know, so on and so forth.

Craig Weaver: Has your leadership style changed much from when you started till today?

Kelly Rowe: I don’t think mine has, but I can appreciate that question. And we’ve certainly seen a shift in how leadership looks today. These newer supervisors are coming into these new roles. A lot of their tone and approaches is different. I’m not in a position where I have to deal with a lot of direct singular incident type stuff or something like that where I’m kind of having those types of conversations and again, whether positive or negative. But you just get the sense of how things, and I use the term, when I began hearing the term mentoring that entered into our vocabulary, that leaders needed to be in there mentoring. Now, I might have been getting mentored 30 years ago, but that’s not all of it. Learning, you know, learning what you’re supposed to be doing, learning how to do it safely. And that was usually where those types of moments came was when somebody that had been doing the job a lot longer, because everything we do has a high degree of danger involved.

Moving on to the mentoring term, trying to look at career advancement, trying to figure out, okay, you’re just getting started out on this. Where do you see yourself, you know, beyond just that hiring board question, where do you see yourself in ten years? And all of that. Literally, sitting down and saying, where do you want to get, and how can we help you get to that? And so we’re also seeing again, with a lot of the younger ones, I’m seeing leaders being promoted much faster than we are used to, and that creates challenges. And I kind of look at things in a simple way, is a person able to do a job? Is a person willing to do the job or some combination thereof? Because depending on what that is, and there’s certainly no lack of willingness, and there is no lack of, what I call the technical side, the book smarts.

But the technical side of things is where we’re finding ourselves really having to push a curve because they’re promoting so fast or, in some cases, not getting an opportunity to really get there. I used to look at things like if you were going to make lieutenant, that was usually a twenty-year milestone. Captain, add five more years or so to it, or maybe even ten. And now I’m seeing folks moving within, you know, three to three to five years with those positions. That’s another one of the big things that we, and myself, in particular, have got to work on is, like I said, being in a position to get these guys through that time period where they’ve got the tactical experience and the confidence to get in there and do the job.

And again, today, it’s, you know, the difference is, like I said, people, you know, the people are highly motivated, really willing to want to do it. It’s just a matter of now trying to coach them into a position where they’re understanding their role, they’re understanding the role right below them, the person above them that hopefully filters through the entire organization, so that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Craig Weaver: What piece of advice would you give to someone who’s stepping into a leadership role for the first time?

Kelly Rowe: Set the example. That’s the one thing I always tell them. Set the example, but keep in mind that is a two-way street. And if you use the wrong example, don’t be surprised when everybody does that. But if you’re setting the right example, right down to your appearance every day, like uniform, breast and shoeshine, and all of that, the rest will fall into place. I mean, talking about leadership, there’s certainly a great deal of complexities to go into that. You could spend three hours talking about it. But then the end of it all, you know, the two major points I will make is, again, you set the right example. Everything else will fall in. The second thing is now you’re a decision-maker for this organization. And I always want them to be very clear to understand that as a decision-maker, your decisions will never be overturned as long as they meet two criteria.

The decision doesn’t violate the law, and it doesn’t violate somebody’s civil rights. But I also caution them that that doesn’t always mean I’ll agree with every decision you make. I may say next time you’re confronted with a similar situation, maybe go left instead of right, because the outcome may be better for the long term. But nonetheless, you want them coming in with confidence, and they should be able to make those decisions. I tell everybody, you learn more from mistakes than from your successes. Just make sure you don’t commit cardinal sins that we can’t get past. But that’s the worst of the worst things. But most anything these guys can do and mistakes they can make, we can deal with, and probably have many times before.

Craig Weaver: Well, the last thing I’ll ask you, what’s the most rewarding thing to you about what you do?

Kelly Rowe: Well, it’s seeing successes, you know, across the board, regardless of assignment. It’s when you see these guys work hard to get something accomplished. You know, half a dozen bad guys go to jail. They’re facing a long prison term, and months of work pays off, and they get that end. Or successfully transitioning into a brand new detention center that was unlike anything the existing staff had ever worked in before. You know, total operational philosophy shift and seeing that come across or that occur and be on just about every metric completely successful, with very few bumps in the road type of thing. It’s seeing these guys do something that they love to do and then solve that big case or make that big arrest.

And when I get to go through it, whether it’s at the annual award or employee of the month, you know, things where I’m hearing the stories of what these individuals did. There’s no greater moment than to see that happen. And just hope for my part that, like I said, I’m still in the position to make sure they’ve got what they need to do that job every day and that for the risk they’re doing, there’s the reward on the backside.

Craig Weaver: That’s great. Sheriff Rowe, thank you so much for your time and answering our questions today. Thank you so much.

Kelly Rowe: Certainly, been my pleasure. And any time, I’m more than happy to sit down with you.

Craig Weaver: Thank you for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. New episodes will be released on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts or visit us at

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