The initial experiences of first-level supervisors can have a major effect on career progression. Many leaders consider such early job challenges to be pivotal in terms of learning how to be more sensitive to others and leading by persuasion.
The need for a positive transition to supervisor, however, goes beyond the personal impact on an individual's career trajectory as a leader. Research about employee engagement from Gallup and other firms provides evidence that frontline supervisors play a crucial role in the discretionary efforts of their employees. Given the current economic pressures and the need for departments to do more with less, forward-thinking organizations are paying critical attention to this transition to avoid the deleterious effects on productivity and morale that ineffective supervisors can cause.
Representing the largest pool of management talent in most companies, supervisors prove critical for an organization's success. Companies that develop superior leaders can execute more effectively than their rivals, and in tough economic times, this key transition becomes even more important.
The transition to a frontline supervisor role (usually the first step in a leadership career) must be managed so that the experience is a positive one for the individual, direct reports, and the organization.
Typically promoted based on technical competence, new supervisors often default to past areas of strength. When not well-prepared, supervisors might form bad habits based on a lack of understanding of the necessary, major shifts from an individual contributor role. These habits can be retained over the course of an entire leadership career, with increasingly severe consequences.
Here are a few examples of the problems that poorly prepared supervisors often exhibit:
- demotivating direct reports
- acting as a bottleneck in the workflow
- decreasing productivity
- failing to develop employees to their full potential.
When undeveloped supervisors are in charge of frontline employees with customer contact, the impact on customer relationships can be devastating. A chain of cause-and-effect, from employee behavior, to customer interactions, to profits, was demonstrated at Sears and published in the Harvard Business Review more than a decade ago. This link has been confirmed in several subsequent studies. Based on negative interactions with supervisors, frontline employees may exhibit negative attitudes, resolve problems incorrectly, or take other actions that damage goodwill and brand.
Learning solutions that help new supervisors make an effective transition, both before and after promotion, can address these common problems.
Careful selection of individuals to assume a supervisory role is a given. Companies have to determine whether the individual has the interest and capability to do well in his new role. The Pepsi Bottling Group (PBG) is one company that invests in making the right decisions about supervisory talent.
"We want to make our selection process for promotion to supervisor more transparent and equitable, and one of the ways we do this is through our Frontline Career Development program - a comprehensive approach that includes identifying, preboarding, selecting, and developing of talent," says Sean Helsel, human resources director at PBG.
PBG's approach is designed to avoid costly mistakes by providing a window into the candidate's suitability for this role. "We invite our employees to self-nominate if they are interested in moving to a supervisory role - motivation to be a supervisor is important to success," says Helsel.
A self-assessment tool - one approach used at PBG - enables potential candidates "to compare their individual work preferences, talents, and interests with the job characteristics of the supervisory role they are interested in, and then have a discussion with HR or their manager to see if this is a good fit. For example, we want to know if they prefer a set work schedule. If having to work more unpredictable hours is very unattractive to them, then the supervisor role will not meet their needs.
"This tool is not used to screen out individuals; instead, we use it as a starting point for self-exploration and discussions with others about what they are looking for in the longer-term," says Helsel. This approach allows candidates to opt out if they determine that making the transition to supervisor from individual contributor is not the right fit at that time.
Fostering meaningful conversations about different roles is also an area of focus for BASF. "We're taking more action to promote meaningful discussions about career development and professional interests," says Charles F. Walter, senior learning and development specialist.
Organizations are well served to make good choices when placing individuals in a supervisor role. As Helsel says, "We want to make an investment in our future leaders and ensure that decisions are made on the basis of the right competencies."
Training in specific supervisory skills should be considered essential to this key transition. In addition to training, the new supervisor should be obtaining feedback from her manager about the shift from individual contributor to supervisor. The supervisor's manager needs to reinforce any formal training as well.
"It's really critical to have the manager's manager involved; we need that leadership support at the next level to transfer learning back on the job. We've learned that we need to move away from the "one-offs" and continuously fine-tune the curriculum, in recognition that the transition to becoming a leader is a long process, and not an inoculation," Walter says.
A systematic approach to preparing new supervisors should include three components: organizational, analytical, and interpersonal focus. Too often, the learning investment is made only in the last area, developing supervisory skills in terms of one-to-one interactions, which is only one part of the required skill set for success.
From the macro organizational focus, to the micro focus at the interpersonal level, learning needs to focus on all three of these components.
Organizational focus. The frontline supervisor acts as a conduit to organizational goals and when successful, creates alignment to these objectives. Learning for new supervisors, therefore, must include an organizational focus. The supervisor must take a proactive role in understanding how the tasks in her work unit fit into the big picture. A key discriminating factor that separates highly productive workplaces from the rest is the ability of the managers to engage employees on four emotional levels (from Human Sigma, a new book from Gallup):
- What do I get?
- What do I give?
- Do I belong?
- How can I grow?
To gain buy-in to organizational goals, the supervisor needs to create a sense of ownership and belonging to a larger purpose to obtain the best efforts of the individuals one supervises. Learning programs can make this focus explicit.
At PBG, supervisors have a large span of control, and they "have to execute our strategy on the front lines," says Helsel. With more than 50 percent of current leaders coming from the frontline ranks, PBG devotes several innovative approaches to managing such transitions effectively, recognizing that the downside of failure is significant.
"When you have a poor fit in the supervisory role, the consequences are multifaceted and compounding." Among these consequences, Helsel says that "a bad choice reflects poorly on the organization and it calls into question our selection criteria." Lost productivity is another consequence. "When you have poor leadership, employees lose focus on key objectives."
Supervisors can also contribute to that elusive, but powerful, phenomenon known as "leadership brand." A recent article in CLO Magazine, "Building Leadership Brand Equity," suggests that there is a strong correlation between corporate performance and a recognized leadership brand, which is even more important in a difficult economy. Leadership brand is described as, "specific leadership traits that can help a company execute its strategy [and] the implicit or explicit promise that leaders make to all of a company's stakeholders." As the building block for the leadership brand, frontline supervisors are a critical link.
Moreover, individuals who do not make leadership turns successfully (starting with the frontline supervisor level) often get stuck using past approaches that are no longer appropriate in subsequent leadership transitions, and at each promotion, the costs to the organization become magnified. As the fundamental work of first line supervisors shifts from producing to getting work produced by others, leaders who fail to learn this lesson early on will tend to instill the wrong values in managers that report to them, holding them accountable for their technical work, rather than their ability to lead others, as discussed in the book, The Leadership Pipeline.
Analytical focus. Frontline managers need help understanding how their roles have changed, from being a fellow employee to being the boss. There are key analytical decisions to make on a number of business issues, including
- delegating work
- managing a workflow
- handling poor performers
- assessing employees' skill strengths
- establishing standards of performance
- determining appropriate corrective actions
- using problem solving to determine root causes of issues.
Supervisors determine allocation of resources and how work gets done and by whom - all of which requires the ability to assess and analyze the current situation, including the goals and gaps in achieving desired results.
Supervisors must be able to make an accurate diagnosis of the causes of nonperformance in their direct reports or inappropriate risk taking. For example, supervisors must be able to determine if problems in performance are due to lack of feedback, lack of skill, low motivation, inadequate resources to get the job done, and conflicting priorities.
Sometimes, the reason for an employee's poor performance is a fundamental lack of ability. In such cases, ongoing discussions about what needs to be improved are likely to be a wasted effort on the supervisor's part because the job is a poor fit for the individual. Under such circumstances, the employee should be counseled to find other employment that is a better match for the skill set or be transferred, if possible.
Interpersonal focus. New supervisors should get skills practice in coaching, providing feedback, and handling different types of work discussions. One of the areas that can be most problematic for new supervisors is thinking through what kind of communications they need to have with an employee. If the purpose of a discussion is unclear, then an intended message - that improvement must be demonstrated within a defined period or some corrective action must be initiated - may easily but inadvertently shift to a negotiation about changing the requirements of the employee's job. The supervisor is left wondering how the conversation ended there, rather than what was intended.
Learning professionals should provide training and job aids about the kinds of work discussions supervisors will have with different employees over the course of their tenure, so these conversations end up producing the intended result.
The skills of communicating clearly, listening, knowing when to be directive or supportive, and when to ask questions, need emphasis. These interpersonal skills should be fostered by the learning professional so supervisors can learn how to be effective communicators who coach, direct, and motivate employees, often during times of stress and change. Effective supervisors need to be able to give positive recognition, help employees to grow and learn from mistakes, and be tough when needed to deliver messages about required change.
To serve as coaches, newly transitioned supervisors need training in how to assess their employees and encourage them to perform to their full potential.
As effective supervision requires a degree of emotional intelligence, self-reflection is also desired. Self-awareness, a keystone of emotional intelligence, enables supervisors to view emotions as information sources to be managed. Learning professionals can help new supervisors to be more aware of the choices they make, using emotional intelligence to help people harmonize and harness their efforts to achieve goals, as well as to deal with unexpected obstacles. As Helsel says, "Making that transition from peer to supervisor is often a reflection of that individual's maturity." Assessment tools can be an effective resource, combined with access to learning solutions, whether these are delivered via formal learning, self-study, or other methods.
To help first-level supervisors make this transition successfully, learning professionals should deliver resources and tools before and after promotion to this first rung of the leadership ladder.
Leader-led training, for supervisory development delivered via classroom instruction, offers particularly compelling evidence of organizational commitment to supervisor development.
Payoff of a positive transition
Learning investments for the transition to supervisor that encompass analytical, interpersonal, and organizational spheres will build the leadership pipeline from the first turn. "The impact of each leader is multiplied in terms of his impact on others, so we want to make this investment work. We plan to make sure that our approaches are paying dividends and growing careers at PBG," says Helsel.
By helping new supervisors navigate a positive transition, learning professionals chart a course for organizational success. T+D