Help me be a decent supervisor, please.
May 7, 2015 11:07 AM   Subscribe

What specific tips do you have for someone who just got their first supervisory position?

I will be managing a program within a non-profit, but it generates revenue and it is not in great shape. I have a small team of 3 coordinators, all of them in different cities managing their own branches of this program. They manage about 20+ people each.

I am really happy and I think I have some of the skills to do this work, but I don't have supervisory experience, except a stint in retail as a shift manager.

If you are a supervisor, what are the most important tips you wish you had known before you started?

If you are not a supervisor, but work under one, what do you wish you could tell them to do differently or to continue doing?

Also, how do you say no to requests, even when deep down you feel your employees are right, but your own supervisor or the budget or whatever have you hand tied? I have seen my own supervisor struggle with this.

A possibly complicating factor: I will be supervising people I used to work with before.

Thank you!
posted by Tarumba to Work & Money (22 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Set clear expectations.
Communicate a lot - regular check-ins, like weekly.
Give people the information they need to do their jobs well.
Don't treat workers like an extension of yourself. Give them responsibility to do things their way. Find their strengths, and focus their work on it.
posted by entropone at 11:16 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Never forget that these people know more than you do. About the minutia, the stress, the specific situations they need to operate under. Focus your problem solving on including them and their knowledge every time.

If you get the chance, hire people that are smarter than you. From all my years in HR, I've learned that supervisors inherently want to make sure they're still the top dog. Hiring folks with a diverse set of experiences and approaches will only make your team better (and push you to be better too).

Specific appreciation (public or private, depending on the person) is a huge motivator.

If you can, put your emphasis on outcomes vs. methods. Share the goal or objective with them and let THEM decide how best to do it. There's always more than one way to get something accomplished.
posted by Twicketface at 11:27 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Don't fiddle too much. I have to restrain myself from changing processes that aren't ideal because people get burned out by that sort of change pretty quickly. If the job is getting done, and done well enough, hold off on tweaking things.

Take notes. I send emails to myself with thoughts, agendas, things to check into, descriptions of exchanges/problems/etc. so that I have a written record. This is super helpful when dealing with politics, because I have a decent account of what I was doing/thinking at the time.

Find out what people's preferred mode of communication is. I'm proactive and ask this of my people as well as let my higher-ups know my preference.

The thing I try to keep in mind is that my job, as a person overseeing others, is to protect them from anything that would prevent them from working effectively. Be an umbrella for them so that they can get their jobs done, and advocate for them across the company.
posted by punchtothehead at 11:35 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My partner starting listening to Manager Tools podcasts when he became a manager of people. It was really beneficial for him.
posted by girlpublisher at 11:43 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Patience - supervision will take MUCH more time than you expect. I supervise four people. I'm guessing that this alone occupies about 30-40% of my time at work.

Refrain from micromanaging. Let your folks find their own way of working, even if it's not your way. As long as they get the job done and meet expectations why interfere?

Give specific feedback frequently. Your team needs to know expectations, goals, and priorities. Also keep them updated on the big picture stuff at whatever level is appropriate.

Bottom line - you need to be credible and trustworthy. They need to know that they can believe what you say and that you will support them however you can.
posted by owls at 12:00 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the keys are: setting clear expectations in terms of what you want and when you want it; being results oriented and giving employees flexibility; checking in and giving feedback, but not micromanaging; giving constructive feedback when things aren't good enough, but giving praise and appreciation when things are done well. Since you are managing remotely, which I now also do, it's important to have a weekly phone check in because there are sometimes things your team members will want to talk about that they may not necessary get into over email and chat.

I made a similar thread asking for tips a while back that has some good advice if you want to check it out.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2015

Since they're not in the same office as you ("3 different cities"), trust is vital. Is there any way you can visit those locations at least once? I know, cost may be prohibitive, but making the effort to come out and see them (bonus points if you pitch in and help with some scutwork) can go a long way to making them feel appreciated.
posted by Mogur at 12:06 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: Lee Cockerell's book "Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney" is a fantastic resource for a positive leadership model.

A few points that have worked well for me:

-Respect them, and they will respect you.

-Make your people your brand, even if your "brand" is just your team within the organization.

-Stay extremely organized, especially with regard to time management.

-Communicate very clearly to every one of your direct reports where their authority begins, and where it ends.

-Feedback, in both directions, is essential. There should be regular, scheduled feedback sessions on employee performance at least once every six months.

-Focus on observable performance, not on attitude. At all times.

-Be open to feedback from your team, and when they offer it, make sure they feel heard. It doesn't mean that you always need to adopt their ideas, but letting them know that their input is valued is critical. If an idea is clearly unworkable, give them a specific reason why it won't work in your operation. This will start a conversation that can frequently lead to new methods for doing business.

-Be the same person with your team that you are with your own managers. If they see a different disposition when you're interacting with people up the chain of command than when you're engaging with them, you'll lack credibility and come off as a phony.

-Most importantly, communicate respect at all times. In day-to-day operations, when coaching, during feedback sessions... many, many challenges can be prevented from even occurring as long as your team feels respected.
posted by stewiethegreat at 12:19 PM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Are you in a new position, to help coordinate these three programs, or are you taking over for someone else who had this position before you? If it's a new position, you have the chance to start something great. Talk to your three direct reports and see what their ideas are for improving their operations as a unit, and as part of the whole. If you're assuming the role from someone else, talk with people who worked with the person before to get feedback on what did and didn't work.

Be reliable and fair with your expectations and applications of rules or guidelines, and follow your own rules. If the rules don't work for you, they might not work for your subordinates.
- And if guidelines and procedures aren't written down, start setting those with your groups, and see if there are ways you can streamline or improve processes.

You're a decider now, but get people to suggest their own solutions to issues. Also, be comfortable backing down from your decisions when you've made a mis-step.
- People under you will look to you for answers. It is likely they already have an idea of what they would do or want to do, so ask them to suggest a solution if they have a question, with input from their groups. Respond with either approving their solution, or suggesting a modification or wholly new solution.
- But if they don't have any suggestions and their groups are drawing a blank, be decisive. I've had bosses who dither over even small decisions, and want to take time or have staff spend time looking into something, when they could be bold and move ahead.
- If you do suggest a direction or action, especially when it differs from the suggestion fro your staff, give some backing to your reason, so you aren't being arbitrary or capricious.
- And if your direction is not optimal, or is actually a bad direction, take the blame within your group, and move on.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:32 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everything everyone has said is great, especially the recurring theme of focusing on your direct reports' strengths and playing to them in terms of how you delegate. Just a couple more things to add:

-Keep your emotions and frustrations to yourself. If you are visibly stressed, and especially if you vent to your direct reports, they will start getting stressed out themselves and they won't be able to perform as well.

-If something goes wrong with a project that one of your direct reports was responsible for, don't go on the attack because that will put them on the defensive. I think a great approach is asking them to explain what happened or what they did before you provide constructive criticism.
posted by capricorn at 12:33 PM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

If someone is not performing up to standards or is somehow not meeting expectations, set them straight right away and repeat any training needed to correct it. Make the expectation clear. Document that you had a discussion with them on this for future reference. Never wait until a mistake or problem becomes a habit, to correct it.

Along the same lines, annual/performance reviews should never contain surprising information. Someone should never find out at a review that they are not meeting expectations, if the above advice has been adhered to.

Create mutual respect.

Seconding punchtothehead's recommendation to find out your direct reports' preferred communication style. Do they prefer email to in-person interaction? Do they prefer direct, to-the-point discussion? Do they prefer a softer approach? This creates rapport and opens up the communication lines.

Meet your own guidelines and expectations. If you say you are going to meet with them at 2 pm Thursday, don't reschedule three times and forget about their needs or issues. They will feel as if you feel your time is more valuable than theirs.

Create a learning atmosphere. Make them feel as if their ideas matter, and even if you aren't 100% on board with their methods, let them show you how/if they work. Be open to learning from them, or learning together the best way to do things. I would have missed out on some great ideas if I told my guys to stick to the status quo.
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:35 PM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Don't be afraid to give constructive feedback (as long as you're right about it). Most employees are 100% receptive to it. For the ones who aren't, don't back down. If you've taken the time to build relationships with your people, constructive feedback will almost be easy.

Don't be afraid to admit when you're wrong, which goes hand in hand with don't get your hackles up when a team member questions you. I ended up managing a five-person team that people said would tear me apart; combined, they had about 40 years more experience at the job than I did, and when I made a decision and they said "that's dumb," I said, "okay, why?" And if they had a good reason, and their suggestions supported the company goals and processes, that's what we did. If their suggestion was going to a throw a wrench into something, I said, "We can't, and here's exactly why." If there was something going on that I couldn't discuss, I wouldn't lie; I would say, "Hey, there's something going on that I can't discuss, but, trust me, this is the best way." After about three months, the team that was supposed to rip me apart would only work for me, and we did things that had previously been thought impossible (without firing the whole team).

Be consistent. Always. It's okay to be predictable.

Do not ignore the bad things. Don't put them off until tomorrow. It's your job to handle issues, so handle them.

You're there to make sure things are getting done correctly, efficently, on time, and in a quality way. Let your people work. When all the chips are falling, and the place is on fire, support them and lead. If they're bleeding, you bleed. If they're sweating, you sweat. If they fail, it's on you. If they succeed, it's on them. If you genuinely embody this, there is nothing your team can't or won't do (for you).

On the flipside of this, the worst manager I ever had was one who would not set expectations or give feedback, unless the place was on fire, and then he would sit in the office and stew about all the problems. He would not leave the office for anything, and his hourly employees never saw him. They didn't know who they were working for. Even worse, he wouldn't hold my team accountable, but he would nod and agree with you all day along about needing to. If you are this kind of manager, you will lose your best people and keep only the ones who know they can walk on you. That manager lost me in a bad way; I decided to screw myself royally, rather than keep working for him (and the awful company). By and large, good employees want structure and accountability; they want feedback and expectations. That is not the same thing as wanting micromanaged or not wanting autonomy.
posted by coast99 at 12:49 PM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Remember that people rarely quit jobs, but often quit managers. Be the manager you'd work for.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:20 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've worked under quite a few different people with varying personalities, approaches, levels of prior experience, and effectiveness. I've had some amazing bosses and some downright terrible ones, but the ones I think of as "the good ones" all had/have these traits in common:

-treating everyone with respect
-asking experienced, competent long-timers about best practices before making sweeping changes to existing processes
-making an effort to really understand what their direct reports actually do in their day-to-day work
-not making promises unless they can follow through
-communicating their expectations clearly
-consistently acknowledging good work
-never ever throwing anyone under the bus
-admitting when they've made a mistake and explaining what they'll do to rectify it
-really listening to what people say
-dealing with difficult situations immediately, rather than letting them fester
-being straightforward and honest and never bullshitting anyone.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:33 PM on May 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: * Always tell people specific things they've done well. Not, "I enjoy working with you," but, "I appreciate it when you sort all the things in the reports."

* Conversely, when someone is doing something that is wrong or creates more work for others, then TELL them. People always want to improve their work. Give them a chance to get better.

* If they want your ear and you're too busy, just tell them that you want to be able to give them the full attention they deserve, but you are busy right now. Ask if you can check with with them in a bit. There's little worse than trying to talk to your manager and they're clearly not listening.

*Never, never NEVER staff split. Do NOT say anything negative about anyone to any other employee. It poisons the office.

* Offer more responsibility often and train people to do more.
posted by kinetic at 2:05 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

The best thing about my current supervisor (who is also the best supervisor I've ever had) is that she's a very strong advocate for us individually and as a team. If we have a difficult situation with a customer or even another department, she will do her best to get it resolved without us dealing with stressors we shouldn't have to. Of course, no workplace is perfect and we don't always get what we want, but her actions make me want to be the best employee I can, to make *her* job easier. Your organizational structure might not warrant that, but I've worked so many places where I didn't feel supported or respected by management and it really makes a big difference in job satisfaction and my respect for the company.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 2:21 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: One soundbite that continues to be useful in all work situations for me: "focus on behaviour, not attitude". In other words, frame everything in terms of objective, observable behaviour rather than imagined or inferred inner state. When the conversation is on observable facts, it's harder for people to disagree, and then your job as supervisor becomes making things like performance goals or duties into observable facts.

how do you say no to requests, even when deep down you feel your employees are right, but your own supervisor or the budget or whatever have you hand tied?

"No. I agree that it would be good, but we don't have the budget." In other words, straightforward is best, and builds trust with your people.
posted by fatbird at 5:25 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: Be incredibly patient with questions, and don't ever refuse to answer them because you think it will somehow help supervisees "grow." The two worst managers I've had were the "I'm sure you can figure it out yourself" sort. They both drove my team crazy because no one wants to look dumb in front of a superior, and we wouldn't ask questions if we didn't really, really need an answer. I get why managers think this is a decent management technique but it's actually condescending and a time waster.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 7:47 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: Be a thoughtful active listener.

Manager Tools (as referenced by girlpublisher above) is quite good. Check out the Manager Tool Basics podcasts as a starting point, because otherwise the decade-long backlog is a tad intimidating.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 8:01 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: I rose through the ranks of my not-for-profit and eventually led the people who had previously been equal colleagues. This book--First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals--really helped. It's all about practice over theory, with tons of insights on team-building, coaching and respecting the professional abilities of people you manage.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:39 AM on May 8, 2015

Best answer: If you came up through the ranks, you should know how the job works. Just keep in mind that some places simply make up a "supervisor" position so they can pile more **** onto you... you're expected to still do your old job AND look over your "minions".

Your job is NOT TO DO THEIR JOB, but to ensure that THEY DO THEIR JOBS.

Your job is NOT tell them HOW TO DO THEIR JOB either. If they can't do their job they shouldn't have been hired in the first place. As long as they are performing to standard, they are fine. You can show them how you do it, but if they have a better approach you should listen.

And keep your "door open"... if they have questions, they should ask, but you should encourage them to make their own decisions... up to a point. You can't be there to watch over their shoulder every waking second, nor should you. You have to explore that "limit" with them. At what point do you want to be informed/ involved?

And always take the blame. Don't throw your subordinate "under the bus", unless they really truly deserve it.
posted by kschang at 7:07 AM on May 8, 2015

Best answer: There is a lot of good advice here.

For reading material, I like the Ask a Manager, Evil HR Lady, and Rands in Repose blogs.

The one piece of advice that I haven't seen here, at least worded like this, is that every employee is different--so they might need different things. I have one employee who actually asked me to go over his work with him in what I would consider to be micro-management level details.

Also...keep a folder for each employee with your notes. It will help at performance review time and also if there ever is, G-d forbid, a problem.

One thing I learned the hard way that's said somewhat above: it's better to be straightforward and immediate with feedback than to couch it. Yes, some people like sandwiching, but others will use that to think that they don't have a problem when they have a serious one. Make it clear how serious the conversation you're having is. Bottom line, give the level of feedback your employees need.

Also: there is no such thing as a minor employee conflict. Those blow up quickly.

Walk around a lot and talk to people. Not for long periods of time, but oftentimes problems will become more evident when you do.

When a low level task needs to be done, don't hesitate to do it just because you're the manager. Try to be involved in training of new subordinates as much as possible and try to do what they're doing, if relevant and possible, at least a couple of times a month--at least, don't lose touch with what they're doing. This isn't so that you can tell them how to do their job better (you'd have to do it every day for that and, even then, different things may be more efficient for different people), but so that you have an idea of how long tasks should take and how to help/improve people.
posted by eleanna at 2:22 PM on May 13, 2015

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