On how to be the type of supervisor that doesn't drive people crazy
June 4, 2013 7:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be supervising people for the first time this summer. How can I do it well?

I'm going to be coordinating a day camp (the kind with kids) this summer, which means among other things supervising five 20-something staff and a weekly revolving cast of 3-4 high school 'staff' throughout the summer. Four of the five older staff are returning from last year so they kind of know how things go.

So it's a fairly fun and informal atmosphere, but also one where things will be pretty crazy with small children everywhere and not a ton of room for error (trying not to lose any children!). Keeping this type of thing in mind, I want to keep the work environment as fun as possible-- the kids will have more fun if the staff is having fun, and honestly it's not a super well paid job so I want staff to at least have a good time.

The overarching organization is pretty defunct in a lot of ways which is going to drive me crazy but is not really in my control so whatevs, I will deal with it as best I can and try to keep things as functional and bs-free as possible within my realm.

I've thought a lot about what I've liked in past supervisors (or, well, actually mostly what I DON'T like), things like:

-Being on the ball with their end, making sure I have what I need to do my job
-Being specific about what they want me to do, writing things down for me if directions are finicky or not common-sense, having written procedures I can refer back to
-Being funny and upbeat
-Respecting my time-- not asking me to stay late unless there's a very good reason, not unnecessarily taking up my time if I have things I need to do during the workday, being succinct during meetings
-Appreciating me-- letting me know if I've done a good job, bringing in treats if it's a particularly stressful week
-Admitting it when they made mistakes rather than trying to cover them up in unconvincing ways

What are some good/bad supervising practices that you can think of, trying to keep in mind the context of a summer camp and young-ish staff? What have you learned about supervising people you wish you would have known when you started? There are similar ask mefi questions but they tend to be more geared toward a corporate environment or people with more work experience.
posted by geegollygosh to Work & Money (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Don't micromanage. I hire a lot of young students in their twenties. i am not much older. I am in my mid-30s. Some of them need more attention and direction, others will work real hard for you, just like any other age group. I find it important that you find different ways to communicate with people. Some people are more visual, so written documents and directives work well. Others prefer a more hands on directive approach. While still others like informal conversation. Just try to have a good time, but develop boundaries and rules early and often. if they are broken, disregarded have a conversation, make it a learning experience. If it persists ask if it is something they are not understanding and continue to try to work with them with it. Ask them if they don't care, or just don't know. Explain that there is a big difference, because in a lot of situations 20 somethings will not see the difference unless it is pointed out. I have also found that if you are fun and also set the example that you want to get things done, and done well, then most everyone will respect that or at least will be scared/impressed by it. Keep the bar high, but not too high, for many of them it is a first job. Let them know it is okay to make mistakes if they do and they feel bad about it. I let my 20 somethings know that it is good to make mistakes early so they can get some experience of what that feels like. Be approachable so they will come to you with answers. and finally have a sense of humor and don't be afraid to use it. They will enjoy it and you will need it on and off the job.
posted by Jewel98 at 8:18 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Prepare and hand out schedules every day. Don't be all "It's 2:01, Geoffrey, where is the 2:00 snack?" but people will know what the next thing is.

Schedule one meeting a week. That's it. No more. That is the Everything Meeting. If you don't need it, you can cancel it, but have it scheduled in case.
Related: Start just a little stricter than you feel comfortable with. It's way easier to lighten up than to tighten up, and people will remember you better that way than the other.
Also related: Explain more than you think you need to. When they get annoyed, say, "I'm not saying you don't know this, Donnie. I'm sort of talking it out for myself too," or "I'm pretty sure you know this already, but we're talking about kids, so I have to be certain." And then ramp it back a bit.

Don't pass crap down from the overarching organization onto your employees. But don't lie to them, either. But but you don't need to tell them everything.
"Hey, I heard this rumor about the bigwigs..."
"I can't really talk about that, Stu."
"So that means it's true."
"Stu... seriously, dude. Can't talk about it."
Related: Don't complain to them. About anything. At worst, if the sky is absolutely falling, you can kind of roll your eyes or grimace, and then go in the bathroom and silently thrash around for a few seconds.
posted by Etrigan at 8:21 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

1. General to being a good supervisor: If you become aware of an issue that will/could have an impact on them or their jobs, let your staff know right away and continue to keep them in the loop. People do not like surprises when it comes to their jobs and work environment. Be as open, upfront and honest as you can in order to discourage wild speculation and rumour-mongering. (Obviously this doesn't apply if you are required to keep something private.)

[On preview: This looks like it's meant to be a reply to Etrigan's comment, but it isn't, though it is related!]

2. Specific to daycamps: Have a communal notebook for the staff to write notes about incidents or concerns regarding individual kids, or about camp systems. This allows you to track concerns and see if they develop from mild to urgent. Scan through it before your staff meetings to see if there's anything you need to address with the group.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:37 PM on June 4, 2013

Be as fair and even in doling both praise and reprimands as you can.

Make sure you're always available, or there's always a way to reach you, but be clear about when people should handle things on their own, and when they should turn to you (or if there's someone they could ask before asking you).

Sometimes people will turn to you for answers, even when you're pretty sure they already know the answer. Ask "What would you do?" unless they are clearly flustered or clueless. If they are, you can try working them through your logic, one step at a time, to see if they can make a leap to the answer.

Figure out your place between boss and friend, and remember that you are always their boss, even when you don't want to be friendly. If you're not fitting in as a friend at all, then so be it - don't try to force friendships with your staff.

Start out meetings with something fun or silly, unless there's already enough of that in the camp. In an office environment, it's nice to have a joke to start a meeting, then get to business.

Don't worry about meetings keeping to a firm timeline for your agenda, unless things get sidetracked or go tangential. A bit of diversion isn't bad, but turning a 30 minute meeting into an hour-long meeting because someone gets going is wasting everyone's time.

A co-worker told me that his greatest boss was a guy who found something in every employee that was worth building and fostered that trait. You can probably find a way to nudge these young folks along, even if you only oversee them for a short while.

Make sure you follow your the rules, unless you have a good reason not to.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:54 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Approach everything as a teachable moment. You may be frustrated beyond belief, but don't take it out on the employee.

You might want to say, "Ingrid, I told you a thousand times, we can't do peanuts because of Ebony's allergies. We have to use the cream cheese for the snack."

Instead say, "Ingrid, Ebony's peanut allergy is severe, and it seems like you have an issue with remembering that when preparing the snacks. What's a good way for us to provide you with a reminder so we don't put her health in jeopardy?"

Praise like crazy, when you're working with kids you often feel taken for granted, so an 'atta boy' really means something. "I notice that you were doing great in not killing Schyler when he was being an ass. I appreciate that."

Don't ask anyone to do anything you wouldn't do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:00 AM on June 5, 2013

nthing don't micromanage. Communicate to them with respect - if you don't understand why they chose to do something or chose to respond in a certain way, ask questions to understand why. People have different means for accomplishing their ends, it might not be the way "you" would do it, but let them do it their way. Once you understand their thinking and their methods, then you can guide them differently if need be.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:04 AM on June 5, 2013

Oh, one thing I forgot: Find out what motivates your people. Some people want a promotion. Some people want to do what they're doing forever. Some people want to do their job and get their paycheck and go home and do something else, and that's fine, because you can use that too.

I think I've told this story before: I worked for a guy whose primary motivation in life was to spend time with his wife (seriously, they were disgustingly in love). So I resolved to help get him out of the office as soon as I could -- if it wasn't urgent, I never put anything on his desk after 3; I never caught him on the way out of the office and said, "Oh, just one more thing...". He loved me, and he never even knew why (and then, when I did need something from him after hours, he would do it for me anyway).
posted by Etrigan at 7:17 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The best supervisor I ever had approached everything with a sense of humor. Well, specifically, he approached mistakes with a sense of humor. "Hey, that didn't really work the way we thought it would!" with a laugh. And then he would gently offer what he might do differently next time. Or would ask what the staff thought we could do differently.

My current supervisor is great at treating the staff like adults - we are given our projects, and then he gets out of our way. He checks in from time to time "Hey, how's everything going? How's your workload?". He does not micromanage. We have full autonomy and responsibility to get our projects done on time and correctly, and we only go to him if we have questions. (By way of contrast I will offer this story - I once worked for a manager where I sat directly outside his office. He would send me an email regarding a project, and then would get out of his chair, come to my desk and say "I just sent you and email about X project." And then would stand over me while I read it. Don't be that guy.)

In general, stay organized, and keep people informed, as others have said above. Make any process or task as easy and streamlined as possible. If the staff need to clock in when they arrive and see you in person, try to make sure you are near where they clock in - don't make them walk from one end of the compound to the other before they can even start work. What I'm saying is, don't make them jump through extra, unnecessary hoops.

I also think it's the supervisor's job to weed out bad apples and protect the overall morale of the staff/workplace. If you've got someone on staff who's a complainer and who sucks the rest of the staff into his gripes, get rid of them sooner rather than later. Nothing sucks worse than going to a job where the morale is bad.
posted by vignettist at 7:42 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

geegollygosh: "What are some good/bad supervising practices that you can think of"

One thing that can be super corrosive to the workplace culture and morale is being too lenient. Don't think the other employees aren't aware when your sketchiest employee shirks work without consequence. They're far more aware than you likely are of who's contributing the most and least. When someone's not pulling their weight you may need to call them out on it somewhat publicly on occasion, just so everyone else feels they're working in a just workplace.

The other thing I like to do is hold the team, not individuals, accountable for results. For example, I don't set quotas on how many tickets student employees should close every week, but rather track the overall ticket queue size. It helps eliminate some of the ugly gamesmanship of stealing tickets, closing unfinished tickets, ignoring struggling coworkers, etc.

geegollygosh: "What have you learned about supervising people you wish you would have known when you started?"

Pull the trigger. Empirically the least productive employee I had, with a terrible attendance record (even for our ultra laid back IT office) and little to show for the time he did put in, turned out to have a side business of hawking drugs to coworkers. I can laugh about it now, but looking back there were all kinds of warning flags the management team chose to ignore in the spirit of being flexible and accommodating.
posted by pwnguin at 1:11 AM on June 6, 2013

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