At various points in your career, you’ve no doubt come across terrible managers or supervisors, perhaps even had the misfortune to report to one or two of them. But as horrible as they were, maybe it wasn’t really their fault. Perhaps they started off their supervisory careers not knowing what minefields to watch for. And then, when they made a few mistakes, because they didn’t know any better, they continued with the same lapses and blunders and were just never able to pull out of the quicksand.
Years ago, when I got my first supervisory role, I had my fair share of missteps. Fortunately, I also had a mentor and role model, someone whom I could observe, emulate and go to for advice. And because of his support, I was able to make sure those slip-ups didn’t stick around to haunt me. It wasn’t until later, when I starting working with clients in my leadership development consultancy, that I realized that all my early mistakes and stumbles were actually quite common for novice leaders. Here then, so that you can deliberately avoid them, are the five most unexpected (yet common) lessons I learned as a first-time supervisor.
You are starting a new occupation
The single most essential mental shift I had to make was that I was now in a different job. All the skills that made me successful in the past, before I became supervisor, were now the very skills that would actually cause me to fail as a leader. The biggest change? In the past, when I had no staff reporting to me, I was recognized and rewarded for my track record in getting things done. In my new role with people management responsibilities, my success was now measured by how well I could get other people to meet objectives and deliver results. Which meant that I had to focus less on activities and more on outcomes. I was no longer a “doer,” I was a “leader;" and it was critical that I understood the difference.
You cannot change people
This realization was more of a surprise than it should have been. Turns out all I could change was the workplace atmosphere, which meant that my supervisory focus had to be on creating a positive and productive working environment, within which my staff could choose to act in certain ways or alter existing behaviours. And an unfortunate reality: that despite my best efforts, there would always be a small fraction of my employees who chose not to make positive changes. Those needed to be handled as performance issues.
Your title does not necessarily translate to respect
Just because I had the title of supervisor did not automatically mean that my employees now respected me. Respect is earned, usually over time, based on the relationships built and maintained, actions taken and one’s consistency in thought and behaviour. All my title did was to put me at the start of the journey to build respect, and I discovered that I had to invest effort to travel further down that road.
You cannot be 'best friends’ with your team members
As a supervisor, I wanted my team members to like me and to see me as the “fun boss.” But as a leader, it was my responsibility to lay out expectations, push team members outside their comfort zones and hold them accountable. Often, these two objectives didn’t overlap. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a positive cordial relationship with your employees – quite the contrary. But I am saying that you will often find yourself conflicted. When that happens, professional relationships must eclipse personal.
There is a push-pull reality in leadership
What I definitely didn’t expect when I first became a supervisor was that I would feel like I was caught between two extremes. “Pushed” into tasks that I was not skilled in or entirely comfortable with, such as a discussion with an employee about tardiness. And “pulled” back into activities that I was very comfortably experienced in, such as helping with tasks in my old role. I had to acknowledge and work to offset both the push and the pull.
The good news: If you watch for and avoid these five traps that most novice leaders fall into, you will set yourself up for early supervisory success.
Merge Gupta-Sunderji is a leadership speaker, consultant and the founder of leadership development consultancy Turning Managers Into Leaders.
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