Fire All the Supervisors


Some years ago I spoke with a colleague who was sitting alone in the lunch room. He usually ate alone because most of his team members and peers had become frustrated with him. He was failing in almost every aspect of his job which involved dealing with people. His team complained about his constant “micromanaging”, confusing instructions, and his temper tantrums when mistakes were made or deliverables weren’t met. Most of his peers experienced similar encounters with him, and simply stated that he was a “jerk”. He had been counseled several times by HR and his manager, but he couldn’t seem to correct what others were telling him was wrong.

Like most people, I’m sure this guy didn’t get up in the morning thinking “how can I make my team’s life hell today?” As a matter of fact the longer we spoke it became clear that he was blind to most of the flaws others criticized him for, and he also felt that each action he had taken was justified. What really confused him was the fact that another supervisor in his peer group was very popular with staff, peers, and senior management and “I’m five times as smart as that guy” he said.

It turns out that he was about to be transferred to head up a new group, and he wanted some advice that would help him be more successful with this new team. I told him that the answer was simple, “fire yourself”, needless to say he looked at me in bewilderment. I proceeded to explain to him that he was suffering from what many first time supervisors suffer from, relying on the skills which got them this far to propel them further. I explained, “Fire yourself as a supervisor, and recreate yourself as a leader.”

Many times employees are promoted to supervision because of their strong technical abilities as individual contributors, and then often released because they are suddenly faced with a whole new range of responsibilities; many of which have little to do with their technical expertise. . He had gone to supervisory training where he’d received the basics of the company’s policies and procedures, but he was ill prepared to deal with the unpredictability of people. I shared three principles with him:

Principle #1: Ask yourself, “Do I even want to be a leader?”

It is quite unfortunate that some employees are promoted into supervision mainly because they have excelled in their technical abilities, and not because of a desire to be in leadership. When these positions of leadership are offered, many employees feel they have to accept them in order to have the type of success and recognition they desire in their careers. A senior HR professional recently confessed to me that she was working on correcting this in her organization after many years of watching managers and supervisors fail in the areas of people skills. She and her management recognized that they had failed to offer alternative career choices to their technical staff in order to help them succeed in areas they preferred, and added the most value to the organization. Regardless of one`s technical skills as an individual contributor, the desire to be in supervision is a critical element for success. The desire to be in leadership of others is an important attribute, since it is often this desire that encourages a person to seek out and develop the people skills necessary to succeed further.

Principle #2: You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.

Another item that often plagues new supervisors is the belief that they have to continue being the most technically adept person in the group in order to be successful. Being the technical expert in the team may have been a contributing factor to their success thus far, but it won’t be the overriding reason for success from this point on. As a matter of fact in their new role they will be more heavily measured on what they get done through others rather than what they do as an individual contributor. This notion that others in the team may rise to greater technical competence is a huge paradigm shift for many first time supervisors. Not accepting this new paradigm can hamper many things, from personal effectiveness and that of the group, to communication with the team, and the delegation of work assignments.

New supervisors must be taught that allowing others to rise to their highest potential is a testament to their own abilities as a leader. It must be impressed upon them that their new job is to leverage all of the talent in the group, in order to deliver on the strategic objectives of the organization.

Principle #3: Having effective interpersonal skills are now one of your most important assets.

In The NBO Group’s 2003 study on “Why Leaders Fail”, two of the top three categories which led to their failures were related to poor interpersonal skills.

Often supervisors who had been stellar at their technical jobs feel like they have waded into unchartered waters when they assume their new position. Much of what is most important about supervising and managing others is interpersonal, how we deal with others. Being aware of one’s own and others’ interpersonal skills will be critical in helping deal with the job ahead. The types of challenges they faced as an individual contributor or as project leaders are vastly different from the ones they will see now. They also soon realize that the command and control style has a limited shelf life, and if they lack the social intelligence which allows them to communicate, persuade, collaborate and inspire others they won’t get far

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