What I Have Learned About Supervision (Mostly the Hard Way): Part III

Being a federal supervisor is a tough job and getting harder. It can also be rewarding. Their behavior and performance are a major factor in an organization’s performance and employees’ decision to stay or leave an agency. Here are comments and suggestions on why the job is difficult and qualities needed to be a success.

In a previous article (Federal Supervisors: Are They Ready, Willing and Able to Manage the Workplace?, July 24, 2007), I quoted extensively from the National Academy of Public Administration’s (NAPA) February 2003 report, “First-Line Supervisors in the Federal Service: Their Selection, Development and Management.” In this article, I will focus on those portions of the NAPA report that dealt with the current skills of supervisors versus the perceived future needs of agencies.

Here is a quote from the initial portion of the report’s Executive Summary and one from the Findings section.
First-line supervisors face issues that had far less impact on earlier generations of leaders: exploding technological capabilities, non-traditional work schedules, diversity management, contractor management, and more. Laws…and programs…have significantly heightened expectations for managerial performance, particularly pertaining to better mastery of “people skills” and workforce performance.

My comment: I think the NAPA report is right on target. I took early retirement more than 11 years ago; during that time, I believe it has become substantially more difficult to be a supervisor than it was when I was doing that work, for all of the reasons that the NAPA report suggests.

First-line supervisors are the federal government’s largest corporate leadership asset in sheer numbers and direct impact. Yet they must be more adequately prepared and supported to perform at the level that current and future needs require. Supervisors function at the point where public policy becomes action, and they directly represent management’s voice to non-supervisory federal employees. As such, their behavior and job performance are a major determinant of organizational performance, workplace morale, and job satisfaction. They also influence employees’ decisions to remain in or leave an organization.

My comment: I also agree with this finding by NAPA.

NAPA came up with the following comparison with the help of a focus group of federal first-line supervisors and managers:

Perceived Environment and Current Skill Base

  • Supervisors lack communications skills, both written and oral
  • Lack of team building skills
  • Have general technical knowledge
  • First-line supervisors are not chosen for their “people skills’
  • Not well trained in supervision
  • Do not know how to deal with people issues and lack sensitivity
  • Lack listening skills
  • No early/pre-selection training for supervisors
  • Minimal and dated supervisory training
  • Lack of resources and time for development

My comment: Based on my experience, all of these observations ring true. The one that really stands out in my mind is “First-line supervisors not chosen for their ‘people skills.'” The NAPA report indicates that in many cases agency managers still select the best technician rather than the person with the best supervisory skills/potential. I call it the “double whammy” effect – an organization simultaneously loses its best technician and gains a supervisor who is mediocre or worse, or has no real desire to supervise others. I don’t fault the applicants – most of us look to advance our careers, or at least to enhance our salaries, and it has traditionally been more lucrative to become a supervisor than to be even the best technical worker in the unit – but I think agencies need to do a better job of selecting candidates with the skills required to be an effective supervisor.

Perceived (Emerging) Requirements

  • Need topnotch, relevant supervisory training on an ongoing basis
  • Plans must include development assignments and cross training
  • Need more “impersonal skills” due to technology and need to accomplish work at an accelerated pace
  • How to manage technology, funding, communication, and quality
  • Need mentoring and coaching skills (as well as opportunities to use those skills)
  • Technical skills training in certain administrative areas (e.g., budget and development management, legislation and regulation writing, and personnel management)
  • Need continuing education to include academic education
  • Training in managing a diverse workforce
  • Need systems to evaluate skills and abilities

My comment: I think all of these perceptions of emerging requirements are based on sound reasoning. For example, I think technology is going to continue to advance rapidly, helping agencies do their work better and faster, but also making it increasingly difficult for supervisors to keep up with those developments while juggling so many other responsibilities. I also see mentoring and coaching skills as being critically important – contrasting a collaborative management style with one that I remember from my early days, in which the supervisor told the employee what to do and the employee did it, period. Agency diversity is surely going to continue to increase, as the Federal government attempts to mirror American society, and I would add knowledge of equal employment opportunity to the list of useful training in administrative areas.

The NAPA report went on to note that:

When someone assumes a new or different leadership role today, he or she has about a 40% chance of demonstrating disappointing performance, voluntarily leaving the position, or being terminated within 12 to 18 months. The authors mention several reasons:

  • 82% fail to build partnerships and teamwork with subordinates and peers;
  • 58% are confused or unclear about what is expected of them.
  • 50% lack the required internal political savvy…

NAPA’s Recommendations

Government-wide priority should be placed on improving supervisor selection, development, and performance management. Today’s extraordinary pace of change and the enormous challenges faced by the federal government make this a vital task at a critical time. Recommendations for doing so are:

Agencies must move quickly to strengthen supervisor performance and apply a level of attention to supervisory resources that is comparable to that for executive resources. Specific recommendations include:

  • Balancing technical competencies with managerial or leadership competencies when selecting and developing supervisors.
  • Identifying potential leaders and developing candidates using practical assessment tools.
  • Integrating supervisory development with other leader development levels.
  • Developing leadership competencies.
  • Holding executives and managers accountable for managing supervisors.
  • Providing modern systems and tools to help supervisors manage human resources.

Concluding thoughts: Much of the NAPA report is focused on the state of first-line supervision in the Federal government and the need for most agencies to take action to shore up this vitally important resource. However, I think supervisors at all levels would very much benefit from reading the report.

As for the series on supervision and supervisors as a whole, the bottom line is that being a supervisor is a very tough job, for all of the reasons listed in the NAPA report, and is getting tougher all the time. Supervision can also be very rewarding, particularly when your team successfully accomplishes a project or when employees you helped develop, and may have selected, blossom into confident and competent professionals, either in your office or elsewhere. (Of course, I resent it when former subordinates eclipse my career path, but I try not to let it show.)

There were days in every agency when I would have gladly relinquished the title of supervisor to anyone who had asked for it but, on balance, I am grateful to have spent so much of my Federal career as a supervisor, and to have had a chance to work with so many talented and dedicated employees.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.