Congratulations, You Are a New Supervisor!!

There is a first time for everything, including becoming a supervisor.  Throughout my entire career, I have watched new supervisors struggle with how to effectively lead others. Some are like ducks to water while others better stay out of the deep end.  There isn’t an equation, checklist or “easy button.”  Leading employees is not a series of check-the-box actions.  If it were only so easy.  Being a good supervisor is hard work.  Those who take it seriously and continue to hone their skills, who seek and accept feedback, give praise and feedback, and who model the behaviors the organization values – are in short supply.

I know many supervisors who were promoted because they were good at getting the work done or technically very superior, not because they radiated competence at leading others.  Picking a supervisor should not be a reward for being a high producer or shining with technical brilliance.  In my experience, most new supervisors are elevated into the job with little training or preparation.  It is often an OJT situation.  Attention employees: You have a new boss without training wheels.  Good luck and have a nice day.

Rarely, I believe, are supervisors picked so they can fail. The stakes are too high.  What is more likely is that the big boss just assumes that this high-achiever can just learn to do the job, and with a little balancing here or there, become a duck who can learn to swim.

I have often seen that the new supervisor is picked to direct work processes or count the widgets coming off the assembly line, not to engage and lead employees.  Supervisors are primarily picked to manage work and leading employees is secondary.  Being an effective supervisor takes time, and it cannot be the third or fourth thing on the list to do.  So you ask: how much time does it take?  More than many supervisors tend to give.  Again, it is not a checklist or measured by simply by a number of hours.  And, it is not roaming the office like Lumberg from Office Space with his coffee cup and TPS report lecture. Uh, yeah.

New supervisors do not know all the answers, nor should they be expected to have them.  What they must have is a desire to role up their sleeves and get dirty.  Employees will generally follow the supervisor because of positional authority, at least in the beginning and until they see a reason not to.  I have witnessed too many new supervisors often either approach the job like Gen. Patton or Mr. Rogers.  That is a bit of generalization (no pun intended) but the tendency is to be dictatorial (high command, high control) or to be overly focused on getting respect through wanting to be liked and to pleasing everyone.  Neither extreme is effective but there is a lot of middle ground.  Employees want and need direction, they need praise when earned, and constructive feedback when warranted. Employees also need to feel that someone is at the wheel and that someone has their back.  They also want a supervisor who takes an interest in them and who knows what they are working on.  There are many studies and surveys confirming that employees leave jobs because of a lack of connection with their immediate supervisor. Granted, every employee is different, and the degree of care needed from a supervisor varies, but error on the side of too much attention. You can always dial back a notch, but if that employee believes you do not care, then building an effective relationship is much more difficult or even impossible.

I was a first-time supervisor once and I made all the mistakes in the world.  What I lacked was a good mentor who could point out my errors and reassure me when I was unsure about whether I was on the right track.   What I needed from my own supervisor was to recognize my needs and not be afraid to coach me or kick me in the pants.  My rear would absorb the boot because I had fallen off my bike many times by then.  I’m a much better leader now that I’m not a supervisor.  Maybe the saying, “Those you can do, do, and those who can’t, teach,” is true.  I’m living proof of it.


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