How the Great Supervisors Do It

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When I was starting out as a manager and struggling to figure out how to do well, a wise and experienced friend gave me the following good advice. “Find the great ones,” he said, “Then figure out what they do. Do the same things and you’ll be a great one, too.”

That became my life’s work. Over the last thirty plus years I’ve identified great supervisors. I’ve spent time with them, watching what they do. Then I’ve helped hundreds of other supervisors learn to do the same things.

Great supervisors consistently lead teams with high productivity and high morale. People want to work with them and for them. Their bosses count on them and rave about them.

I’ve found that something Leo Tolstoy said about families is also true of supervisors. Great supervisors are all alike; every bad supervisor is bad in his or her own way.

There are thousands of ways to do a bad job as a supervisor. But great supervisors do the same things in pretty much the same way. And if you learn to do them, you can get the results they get. Here’s a list.

Great supervisors understand that they always have two jobs. One job is to accomplish your mission through the group. The other job is to care for your people. Great supervisors help people succeed as individuals and as a team.

Great supervisors understand the strengths and limits of their position. When you become a boss, you have less power than you did before because your performance is measured by the performance of your team. But you have far more influence.

Great supervisors use what they can control, what they say and do, to influence the behavior and performance of the members of their team. They know that they won’t succeed all the time, but that if they play the odds and do the right things, they will consistently have successful teams.

Great supervisors are constantly learning about their people and adjusting their behavior to each, individual situation. They are constantly working to improve their communication skills and their knowledge of their people. Most of the ones I’ve studied have a system for both.

Great supervisors set clear and reasonable expectations, and then check for understanding. They know the five to seven key assignments that any team member must be able to handle, how good each team member is at each one and how each one plays to the team member’s strengths.

Great supervisors have different ways to assign work based on the ability and willingness of a subordinate to do a specific job. It’s not only different strokes for different folks. It’s different strokes for the same folks in different situations.

Great supervisors follow up to see if understanding turns into behavior and performance. Great supervisors touch base a lot, adjusting that behavior for individual team member situation and preference.

Great supervisors use every contact with a subordinate as an opportunity to coach, counsel, correct and encourage.  They work hard to catch problems when they’re small and correct them early.

Great supervisors do most of their work outside the formal documentation system. Because they have lots of influence and catch problems when they’re small, informal counseling works most of the time.

When it doesn’t great supervisors make a clear transition from informal coaching to formal documentation. They know that this is often perceived as a fairness issue by team members.

Great supervisors do the hard work necessary to get rid of people who can’t or won’t perform. They know that non-performers, especially the grumblers, complainers, and malcontents, poison group performance and morale.

Great supervisors work hard to make sure that consequences match up with performance. They rarely talk about “motivation” or “attitude.” They manage the things they can see and measure.

Great supervisors get and give lots of feedback. They praise a lot to encourage behavior they value. They also solicit feedback from others on their performance and critique it rigorously themselves.

That’s what the great ones do. I’ve studied hundreds of supervisors over decades and they all do the same things. Pick any great supervisor you know and the odds are that he or she does them, too.

Now it’s up to you. Learn how to do what the great supervisors do. Learn to do them yourself. Then you will be a great supervisor, too.

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