Are your Supervisors Straw Bosses, Clerks, or Leaders?

Alan Robinson Posted by Alan Robinson.

Alan Robinson has authored or coauthored seven books and more than sixty articles. His book Corporate Creativity, coauthored with Sam Stern, was a finalist for the Financial Times/Booz Allen & Hamilton Global Best Business Book Award, and it was named “Book of the Year” by the Academy of Human Resource Management.

Are your Supervisors Straw Bosses, Clerks, or Leaders?

Supervisors are the people directly responsible for coordinating how work gets done, how a company’s goals and strategies are achieved through daily actions, and how routine improvements are accomplished. For most employees, their supervisor is the primary representative of their company – he or she is the most immediate human manifestation of their employer. Consequently,  Are they being supported and empowered to do their jobs in the most effective and efficient ways, or are they required to follow detailed instructions that really don’t work well? Are they encouraged to find ways to improve the way work is done and empowered to act on ideas, or must they hide the “work-arounds” they need to employ just to get their jobs done in a satisfactory manner? The answer to these questions are often determined directly by the behavior of their supervisors.

Despite the pivotal role supervisors play, many companies fail to fully consider the skills and characteristics that are needed in supervisors if their roles are to help meet key strategic objects and reinforce desired cultural norms. People might be promoted to supervisor because they are the best at their jobs – so they can solve problems and show others how their jobs should be done; because they can be trusted to do what they are told by management; or perhaps because of their seniority. As a result, we don’t always get the type of supervisors we want, and because of that we don’t get the behavior we are looking for from our front-line employees.

One way of looking at the different types of supervisors and the roles they play is to divide them into three categories: straw bosses, clerks, and leaders. The “straw boss supervisor” assigns and oversees work, but otherwise has limited authority. He or she enforces the rules, directives and decisions of those higher in the organization, but has little real discretionary power. The “clerk supervisor” spends much of his or her time scheduling and coordinating work, and monitoring and recording outcomes. Most of this type of supervisor’s time is consumed with what are essentially clerical tasks. The “leader supervisor” focuses on empowering and developing people. He or she is directly involved in taking the direction the organization wants to move and working to develop people and processes that are needed to get it there.

In reality, most supervisory positions have elements of each of these three types of boss. Without proper thought, however, this can create significant problems and underperformance. For one thing, the immediacy of the clerical and straw boss responsibilities easily drives out the more strategically vital leadership responsibilities. One of the places we often see this is in the trouble so many companies have getting their front-line supervisors do a good job on their people’s regular performance reviews. Such reviews are often viewed by supervisors as nice things to do, but they get in the way of more immediate and tangible responsibilities. And once the reviews are completed, too often they are not even thought about until the next one is due, so employee development opportunities are missed.

I recently visited a company that has put quite a bit of thought and deliberation into the role and development of supervisors in the context of its long-term objectives – Pyromation, a medium sized Fort Wayne, Indiana based maker of industrial temperature sensing equipment. Nine years ago, Pete Wilson, the company’s president, launched a high performance front-line idea system in an effort to get more traction from Pyromation’s lean initiative. Ever since, the company has averaged between thirty and fifty implemented ideas per employee per year. The result has been remarkable and ongoing improvements in many dimensions of performance. Shipment time on custom manufactured thermocouples, for example, has gone from about two weeks to two days. If a customer is really in a rush, custom sensors can be designed, dispatched to the shop, manufactured, and shipped in the same day without much disruption to normal work.

Every time I visit Pryomation, major improvements have been made to the physical plant, the idea system, production processes, and the way the company is managed. A few weeks ago, I found that the leadership team had recently redesigned the role and responsibility of its front-line supervisors. They recognized that the straw boss and clerical roles of their front-line supervisors were displacing the people development focus the leadership team identified as more important.

After some careful study and experimentation, the shop floor was reorganized with supervisors having the responsibility for perhaps a half a dozen semi-autonomous work cells and roughly fifteen employees. To assure that the supervisors were able to spend most of their time on coaching, developing people, and more strategic tasks, they were given an assistant to take care of the clerical responsibilities.

In the process of moving to this new leadership-focused supervisor model, several of the existing supervisors requested transfers into other roles, and the leadership team took the opportunity to put a great deal of thought into the type of people they were promoting to supervisor, and the type of training and development effort they were given.

Clearly, there is no “one best way” to set up the role of supervisor, and to determine who to hire and how they should be developed, but given the important role supervisors play in every company, it is worth careful thought and attention. Pete Wilson’s values are to have a company that is directed from the top, but driven by the ideas, creativity and engagement of a highly empowered front-line workforce. To achieve this, he needed supervisors who are leaders and not straw bosses or clerks. This points to the critical question: what are your company’s long-term strategic objectives, and are you promoting and developing the right type of supervisors to get there?