In many companies, selecting individual contributors to
become supervisors is a crapshoot. That’s more than simply gambling, it borders
on criminal negligence.
Your people are your most important asset. They’re the only source of
sustainable competitive advantage. And, as China Gorman points out in her
excellent post, “Managers Are the Key Players in Engaging Workers.”
It just makes sense to provide people with the best bosses you can. Start by
understanding two basic facts.
You learn to be a supervisor on the job. Your company can
provide training and mentoring and support, but most of the learning will happen
in real time as new supervisors try things and learn from the results. You can’t
train this out of the process.
Some people will be good at the job and others won’t. This
is true of any kind of work, but it’s very important when you choose new
supervisors because they rarely have the opportunity to return to individual
contributor status. Make a bad choice and you wind up with a bad supervisor for
a long, long time.
That’s how it is. Use the first fact to your advantage by giving
people opportunities to try out a leadership role that’s not permanent.
They can lead a project team or task force. That gives you two advantages.
The big one is that many people who try on the role learn that they
don’t like it. Being a supervisor is not a harder kind of work than
being an individual contributor, but it is a different kind of work. Some people
will take to it and others won’t.
The ones that don’t will often remove “supervisor” from their career plans.
If they become supervisors, they will have to work very hard to do a good job.
Temporary assignments also give you something meaningful to
evaluate when you choose new supervisors. Here are four
questions to ask when you evaluate your supervisor candidates.
Are they willing to set direction and standards for their
team? It’s a leadership function that some people are comfortable with
and others aren’t. Remember, a good supervisor defines standards and direction
for his or her team.
Are they willing to confront team members about poor performance or
unacceptable behavior? Great supervisors do this as soon as they spot
an issue. Bad supervisors put off the important conversations. They drop hints
and hope the problem solves itself. That almost never happens.
Are they willing to make decisions? A surprising number of
people put off decisions or pass them up the chain to their boss. You don’t want
those people as supervisors.
I’ve trained new supervisors for more than a quarter century. I can teach a
person how to improve the odds that a discussion of poor performance will come
out well. I can teach that person how to make better decisions. But if the new
supervisor won’t confront people about poor performance or won’t make decisions,
all that training is a waste of time.
Here’s the most important question to ask about a possible
new supervisor. Does he or she enjoy helping others succeed?
Great supervisors do. Bad supervisors are more concerned about how they look.
Picking new supervisors doesn’t have to be a crapshoot. Let people try on the
supervisory role, then ask the important questions that will help you make wise
In her post, China Gorman refers to a recent BlessingWhite publication titled
“Employee Engagement Research Update.” Follow the link to
download a PDF of the update.
Note: The original version of this post was published on the Human
Capital Institute blog.