The Opportunity to Supervise

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By on October 3, 2011 in Current Events, Leadership with 23 Comments

Kathryn M. Johnson

Kathryn M. Johnson has been a supervisor for over 30 years, 20 of which she spent in the federal government. Currently, she is the Executive Director of the Leadership & Management Division at Management Concepts, a training and performance improvement company that focuses on serving the federal government.

Making good things happen on a scale bigger than yourself is what supervision is all about.

As a government supervisor, you are the critical link between government directives and action. You have the greatest influence on the values, perspectives, work activities, engagement, and organizational alignment of others. You have the opportunity to implement the decisions of the President and Congress through the services your government organization provides to the American people.

Whether you are serving at the first level, middle level, or top level of your organization and you have others from within the organization reporting directly to you, your work is about accomplishing things through others. This direct reporting or supervisory relationship naturally creates variation and ambiguity because you are engaging with others to help make their work more efficient and effective. Balancing the tensions between the people aspects and the work aspects as you organize, guide, and support the work of others is what enables you to make good things happen and to ensure accountability for results.

You may be thinking: “I understand what supervision is, but how can I possibly be successful as a supervisor amid all the challenges I face in the government environment today? I have to deal with budget cuts; cumbersome processes for recruiting, workforce development, and knowledge sharing; resistance to change; poor performance; and low engagement and trust among individuals and groups.”

Numerous studies conducted by government and nonprofit organizations over the past three decades have acknowledged these challenges as realities for government supervisors—and they are not going away anytime soon. Yet there is a lot that you can personally do to influence how you show up and perform as a supervisor every day to elicit the best work from others.


Is Supervising Right for You?

To know if supervision is right for you, it is important to understand your motivations. I initially wanted to supervise others because I believed it was the only way to advance in my career. I assumed my career would follow a natural progression from individual contributor to supervisor. Making more money—which is typically the case as one advances into supervisory positions— didn’t hurt either. Very quickly, though, I realized that these were the wrong reasons to want to be a supervisor. In my first supervisory position, I had to hire employees, fire employees, deal with performance issues, and work with a peer who had applied (but not been selected) for my position. After this experience, the next two positions I moved into were intentionally not supervisory positions.

Since that time, I have moved back into a supervisory position. This time, my motivations were entirely different. I truly wanted to lead others. I was ready and willing, and I even cherished the relationship building, the ups and downs of individuals’ performance, the added responsibilities, and the pressure of having all eyes on me for guidance, support, leadership, and team performance. With a change in my motivations, I’ve taken a fresh look at my role as a supervisor, what others need and expect of me, and how I can be of service to them. Supervising is a different way of contributing. I still do “real” work, but first and foremost, my priority is to enable the success of others.

The only way to know if you want to be a supervisor is to try it out. Fortunately, you don’t need to be promoted into a supervisory position to do so. Instead, look for opportunities to lead and to engage others in a variety of situations. Learn from each of these situations by taking the time to reflect on them before, during, and after the experience. Consider experimenting with supervising by: 

  • Encouraging others. Whether it is during a team project or in the most mundane of activities, give someone words of encouragement. How exciting is it for you to provide others a little wind in their sails?
  • Openly discussing performance. With another individual, try to discuss the strengths of his or her performance as well as ways in which the individual could improve. If you are not currently a supervisor, consider talking openly with colleagues on project teams or peers. Provide direct, honest, helpful feedback, either positive or developmental.
  • Building trust. Select a work relationship that may be strained and intentionally try to build trust. Work toward a mutual, win-win situation where you both feel better about the relationship.
  • Recognizing others for their contributions. The act of having to think about someone else’s performance and intentionally recognize a contribution is vital as a supervisor. Provide positive feedback or a small token of recognition; perhaps nominate someone for an award.

Regardless of which activities you engage in as you try to support others and create “experimental” supervisory situations, take the time to reflect on your experience. These situations will shed light on your interests and motivations to supervise others. The insights gained from this intentional experimentation and subsequent reflection will help you determine if you are excited by the idea of supervising—or if you’re not.


Questions to Ask Before Saying Yes to a New Supervisory Opportunity

Any new venture or relationship involves surprises—some pleasant, others not. While it is never possible to predict the future, you can take a great deal of uncertainty out of the equation by asking some simple yet powerful questions before you agree to a new supervisory opportunity.

Over the years, I have gathered a list of questions that I use to help me decide if a supervisory opportunity I am considering is right for me. (Sometimes aspiring supervisors hesitate to ask these questions for fear of what the answers will reveal.) I have found that the best sources for answers are both formal and informal connections with people in the organization or the specific work unit I am considering.

The next time you are considering a new supervisory opportunity, seek out answers to these questions to help you make the right decision:

  • What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in the work unit you would be supervising?
  • What is the history, the story, of this (part of the) organization?
  • How are goals set? Do they meet the standard of SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely)?
  • How is the organization changing and how might that affect the work unit you would be supervising?
  • What is the current culture in the work unit? What adjectives would you use to describe it, both positive and negative?
  • What is the turnover rate in the work unit? Why?
  • What was the story with the last supervisor? How long was he or she in the position?
  • What are your immediate supervisor’s biggest opportunities or challenges?

Challenge yourself to get better with each new supervisor opportunity. Apply the lessons from the past, but always keep in mind that each work unit is unique.

Visit Supervisor Readiness Assessment to complete a seven-step, 38-item Supervisor Readiness Assessment that will provide insights into how ready you are – and how you can enhance your readiness – to supervise.

Excerpted with permission from “The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees,” Kathryn M. Johnson, editor. © 2011 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved.

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