Kathryn M. Johnson (Edited by)
Publication date: 09/01/2011
The Insider’s Guide
KATHRYN M. JOHNSON
ABOUT THE EDITOR
The idea for this book about supervising in government organizations was conceived by Kathryn M. Johnson. Kathryn has been a supervisor for over 30 years, 20 of which she spent in the federal government. Her intent was to create a book that offers government supervisors a way to think about and prepare for their important role of guiding others—in service of the public interest. She developed the framework and selected the areas of focus for The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees based on their importance and relevance to effective supervisory performance. Through stories, she gives supervisors an easy way to connect with a broad range of supervisory experiences; the stories open up a wide variety of opportunities for government supervisors to add new learning and ideas quickly to support their own supervisory situations.
Currently, Kathryn 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. Her daily work involves creating learning and development experiences that help individuals at any level of an organization reach new levels of performance.
Previously, Kathryn gained her leadership and supervisory experience as an Air Force Officer in the United States Air Force and the Department of Defense. The depth and breadth of her responsibilities and exposure to many new and varied organizational environments, along with her insights into human development and the practice of leadership, have contributed to Kathryn’s insider understanding of what it means to be an effective government supervisor.
Kathryn holds a BS from North Dakota State University, an MS from the Air Force Institute of Technology, and a Certificate in Leadership Coaching from Georgetown University. She is a Certified Acquisition Professional/Level III.
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.
This first chapter is about creating a context for you to think about being a government supervisor. You will find stories written by or about supervisors who have learned through their experiences the importance of deciding whether supervision is right for them. You will also find guidance and ideas to ensure that you are ready to take on new and different supervisory challenges with both feet on the ground and a plan in hand, including a supervisor readiness self-assessment. Our hope is that the stories and self-assessment will enhance your understanding of what it means to be ready and to feel good about the work you accomplish through others.
More to Think About and Try
One thing we know for certain about effective supervisors is that they must have a healthy, good sense of others vis à vis their own selves. Yet, we do not have a word to capture this quality. Perhaps we could call it “otherish.” How otherish are 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.
Ask yourself if you are more excited by helping others do the work or by doing the work yourself. If you like the work you are doing, what would you gain by changing your position?
Careers evolve. Being a supervisor at one point in your career does not mean you’ll choose to be a supervisor for the rest of your career. Conversely, turning down a supervisory opportunity at one point in your career doesn’t mean you can’t be a supervisor at another point in your career.
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 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?
THE FIRST THINGS YOU DO AS A SUPERVISOR SEND BIG MESSAGES
The first steps you take as a supervisor are important and highly visible. The first things you say and do send big messages that set expectations and may remain in the memories of others far longer than you might like. Choose your first steps wisely.
“I still remember the first gathering you had when you took over the division.” These were the words I shared with my former supervisor when we crossed paths some years later. As I look back, I recall hoping that I would be as effective as he was when I took my first steps as a supervisor.
Some things I learned from my supervisor’s first steps that I find useful when taking on new supervisory responsibilities include:
Resist the temptation to tell people “Here’s how it’s going to be around here from now on.” Such messages elicit an instant negative reaction and will make your job as a supervisor harder.
Decide on a few key messages . Consistency and clarity will help everyone as they start to compare notes. It is good to address what will be happening as you settle in, what the organization is going through and how that relates to your group’s work, some guiding principles you hold, and above all, an indication that you would like to hear directly from them how they think things are going. This message sows important seeds for your transition period (which generally lasts about 90 days).
Let them know your roles and responsibilities . It is not really about you; it is about your roles and responsibilities as a supervisor of the work unit. They want to hear it from you.
Show them what a great listener you are becoming . Ask questions and then let employees do the talking. This sends a key message that you care about their ideas and that you are going to be someone they can work with.
Outline the near-term future . Let everyone know what they can expect in terms of future communication and interaction.
When thinking about your first steps as a new supervisor, always take time to plan and prepare for your first important exposure.
After the first week, reflect on how you performed as you took over your new supervisory challenge; be critical in assessing how well you connected with your work unit.
Get feedback from others to ensure that you have an accurate sense of how your employees are feeling.
Continue to 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.
SUPERVISING WELL TAKES TIME
Most people would readily agree that doing anything complicated—and doing it well—takes time. Those who study human performance take this as a given. You simply don’t become an athlete overnight or master software coding in one sitting.
So why do so many supervisors say they don’t have the time to do their jobs right?
“I don’t have the time to listen to everybody.”
“I don’t have the time to explain this to the team.”
“I don’t have the time to conduct high-quality performance evaluations.”
“It’s faster if I just do it myself.”
The clock ticks at the same rate for everyone, but we each choose how to spend our time differently.
As anyone who has ever written down all dollars spent (or calories consumed) for a month knows, our perception is not always 100 percent consistent with reality. A starting point for supervisors who don’t think they have the time to supervise well is to get clear on how they are really spending their time. You may be surprised to find you are wasting time that could be spent actively supervising your employees.
Let’s say you discover you have 15 minutes a day to devote to supervision. The real reason you’re not taking advantage of that time may be that you’re not exactly sure what to do next. Or supervising may make you uncomfortable.
With this insight and self-awareness, you can take some proactive steps in your available time to learn the basics of supervision: communication, goal-setting, and feedback, for starters. Most organizations simply throw supervisors into their new role, with no real preparation or learning. If this is the case, the ball is in your court.
In my first role as a supervisor, I was given zero training; as a result, I started off with the notion that my main job was to tell people what to do. Painful experience and a supervisor who encouraged me to use this approach only as a last resort jump-started my own learning as a supervisor.
The best way to learn is to continually experiment and notice clearly your results. Don’t expect perfection right away. Supervising well takes time and experience. Feeling like you should already be proficient as a supervisor can cause helplessness and can sidetrack you from engaging in the steps you need to take to improve.
In honing your supervisory skills, it is important not only to focus on immediate goals but also to think about growth—of people, processes, teams, and organizational maturity. Don’t make everything about right now; make a conscious effort to think about the future. Continuing to take steps in the right direction, over a sustained period of time, builds surprisingly powerful capability.
Also, be on the alert for a tendency to spend time in the weeds as a technical, solo performer. This is a predictable retreat for supervisors who are uncomfortable with the complexity, messiness, and social skills needed to supervise well. Overwhelmed by this all-new reality, it is easy to drop back to what you do well individually. If you let yourself slip into this comfort zone, you’re not acting as a supervisor; instead, you’re an individual contributor with a supervisor title.
More to Think About and Try
Be aware of how you are really spending your time.
Use time as an ally in developing your skills and be intentional about creating a plan for learning.
Be honest with yourself about whether you really enjoy the work of being a supervisor. Making the right decision will benefit everyone.
CONNECTING WITH NEW SURROUNDINGS
Change in the workplace is a common story these days. Any new environment can be as scary as it is exciting. You don’t know the people and you don’t know the organization. More to the point, you don’t know how you’re going to be treated or how successful you will be in your new role. If you think this seems daunting, know that this period of uncertainty won’t last forever. Just like your first day of school, you’ll soon learn how to navigate the new landscape easily.
For five years, Monica supervised a support team in a successful department of her organization. The roles and responsibilities of her team members were well-established and work routines were just that—routine. There were five team members who worked well together and knew exactly how to accomplish their work. The team ran like a well-oiled engine.
Monica was informed that some organizational changes were being made. She was placed in a similar supervisory role in a new department of the organization that she knew little about. The rest of her department was dispersed to other new organizations, with two moving to Monica’s new department. Monica and these two employees now joined with others from across the company to form a team. This new team was focused on delivering a different type of service than her previous group, and the expectations were not entirely clear at the outset. She was now supervising a smaller team, leaving her and other team members to take on additional work responsibilities.
Monica was unsure of the new department’s mission, and she wasn’t familiar with the people or the projects being performed. Her first step was to assess the situation. She asked for clarity about her role and her supervisor’s expectations. Armed with this perspective, she set out to get familiar with the work. Monica read project plans and reviewed any contract documentation she was able to get her hands on. She scheduled meetings with colleagues in the organization to learn more about their roles and active projects. Since her team was responsible for supporting the organization, she made sure to ask specifically about how she could help them conduct their work or manage their projects. She also provided them with information about her team and their experience, offering help wherever needed.
Communicating with others in the organization soon provided Monica with the information she needed to build a roadmap for success for herself and for her team. Being flexible to the new environment and engaging in open dialogue with others, she was able to chart a clear path to how her new department could best support the organization.
More to Think About and Try
Just as you are grappling with and adjusting to new surroundings, so is your team. Some may be new to the group and others may just be dealing with the uncertainty of having a new supervisor. It’s important to devote some time to learning about your team: Who are they? What kind of experience do they bring? What are their expectations of you?
You set the vision and expectations for your team. Employees need to know where they’re going and what their contribution will be. Provide stability to the team however you can—by establishing clear boundaries, creating a roles/responsibilities matrix, and formalizing processes, for example. This minimizes anxiety and helps reinforce each employee’s contribution to the organization.
Communication is vital for a team to feel a sense of belonging. Giving employees insight into the organization as well as opportunities to ask questions or make suggestions will go a long way toward making them feel valued. Check in with the members of your team regularly.
Remember what was important for you in connecting with your new surroundings—that’s what each member of your team also needs to feel a sense of security and stability for the future.
How often have you tried to apply an approach or technique you are very familiar with, only to find you have created all sorts of confusion for others? As you seek new and different experiences with individuals and groups in your organization, you will be tempted to use what has worked for you as a supervisor in the past. I learned the hard way that one size does not fit all.
For five years I supervised a group of eight individuals whose duties were to create intellectual properties for the organization. Each project had its own purpose and each of the individuals led his or her project in a highly individual fashion. Recognizing that each project had unique requirements, we accommodated great latitude in work styles. One project demanded hours of research offsite. Another project dealt with time-sensitive testing, so the team’s office hours varied widely from day to day. Each of the professionals worked independently and communicated regularly to report on progress or challenges. No one person’s work depended on the advancement or success of another’s. No one had to approve or disapprove anyone else’s work.
Each group member was highly motivated by the nature of the work. Each was a senior person who was aware that good work on his or her individual project could bring recognition in the organization and in the field.
My main duties were to obtain and allocate the resources necessary for each person in the group to achieve individual goals within the constraints of the organization, create and maintain the structure to keep communication flowing within and outside the group, and provide an environment that would foster the highest level of success. As a supervisor, I was more of a facilitator. I was often called in to act as a sounding board or to assist in moving some element of a project forward—but never to establish day-to-day tasks or roles for the individuals. The less structure I imposed on each individual and the group as a whole, the better the group worked and the greater their accomplishments.
One of the projects was deemed successful enough to become a new practice for the organization. I left my group to lead the task force that was charged with implementing this new practice. My elation in spearheading the new endeavor was soon deflated by the problems I created when I tried to use the same supervisory techniques I had used with my last group—which had been so successful for me—with this new group.
The new group comprised 20 members, some salaried and some hourly, and included administrative staff, technicians, and personnel pulled from various departments throughout the organization. None had worked together before.
I made my first mistake at the initial meeting of the new group. I planned to use the meeting to set the general schedule, and I assumed that each group member would offer suggestions for how to accomplish the mission within the required time and costs. I had spoken to each person individually prior to the meeting and believed each knew his or her role. What I had not addressed before the meeting was how each of these folks would act within the group when they came together for the first time.
Many of the individual tasks were interdependent and I had not thought to create a matrix showing how each person was responsible for his or her portion of the complex tasks we had to accomplish as a group. My shortcomings quickly became apparent when one member—and then many others—asked, “So how is this going to work, exactly?”
For five years I had enjoyed success as a supervisor by keeping structure to a minimum. I tried to use what had worked for me in the past in this very different environment—and got off to a rocky start. This group needed structure. They had no history of working together, and they had no background with the new practice we were to implement.
Each new group, each new environment, and each new task requires a supervisor to consider the specific skills and techniques that will make the endeavor successful. Always try to keep in mind that one size does not fit all.
More to Think About and Try
With any change in resources, tasks, or the environment in which you work, you should reevaluate your role as a supervisor. Communicate any change in your role to others (above and below you) to ensure that they too understand that the current situation necessitates different actions.
Chart how each member of your group contributes to the accomplishment of the task. The chart should clearly show the responsibilities and should be communicated to the group.
ARE YOU READY TO SUPERVISE?
Whether you are thinking about becoming a supervisor for the first time or are taking on a supervisory role in a new group or a new organization, one of the most important steps is to honestly assess your readiness to be a supervisor. Taking the time to assess your readiness will enable you to determine if this type of work—or specific situation—is right for you.
How ready am I to supervise?
How can I enhance my readiness to supervise?
Step 1: Assess Your Readiness to Supervise
For each item, circle the option that most closely represents your view. Think about a variety of past situations, events, and circumstances as you make your choices.
Once you have answered all the questions in a section, total your responses in each column of that section.
Then, use those numbers to add up your section subscore and record it in the space provided to the left of the subscores.
Transfer your subscores for each section to the spaces provided below.
Step 3. Compile Your Results
Use your subscores for each dimension to shade Your Results. Here’s an example of a shaded chart
Step 4: Interpret Your Subscores
Check off the subscore that matches your response for each of the five sections and read the corresponding text to interpret your responses. In Step 6 you will learn about some specific things you can do to enhance your readiness to supervise for each of the five dimensions of the readiness self-assessment.
Understanding Yourself as a Supervisor
Understanding Supervisor Roles
|If your subscore was …||Then read this text to interpret your responses:|
|10 – 16||You may have limited exposure or tend to avoid taking on some supervisory roles. You would benefit from learning more about each role to increase your effectiveness as a supervisor.|
|17 – 23||Your work responsibilities may have led to your awareness and comfort with many of the supervisory roles, but you may want to learn more about each specific role.|
|24 – 30||Your work exposure and comfort with the many roles of a supervisor give you a solid understanding of supervison. You could benefit from a more in-depth understanding of each supervisor role to enable you to make deliberate choices about appropriate roles in any supervisory situation.|
Getting the Best Work from Others
Making Good Things Happen
|If your subscore was …||Then read this text to interpret your responses:|
|8 – 13||You may not be clear about how to make good things happen when supervising others. You would benefit from more exposure to this aspect of supervision.|
|14 – 18||You have a good idea of how to make good things happen when supervising others, but could improve your results through additional learning.|
|19 – 24||You have a strong sense of what it takes to make good things happen through others. You would benefit from new experiences to enhance your performance in this area.|
Supervising in a Changing Work Landscape
Step 5: Prepare to Enhance Your Readiness to Supervise
Look at the subscores you checked above. Your next step is to decide how you want to enhance your readiness to supervise. In the space provided below, write down your top three priorities. You will use these priorities to create an action plan for enhancing your readiness to supervise.
My Top Three Priorities
There are many different ways to enhance your readiness to supervise. Take a few minutes to read through the suggestions for each supervisor readiness dimension. Choose the suggestions that will help you meet your top three priorities and record them in your action plan in Step 7. You may have some ideas of your own that you would like to try as well.
Understanding Yourself as a Supervisor
|Knowledge||Read Chapters 1 and 2 of The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees. Ask others how supervision has worked for them. Check out the supervisory and leadership training opportunities at www.managementconcepts.com|
|Observation||Identify one or more supervisory situations to learn how personal values affect a supervisor’s performance.|
|Practice||Record one or more interactions with others; analyze how you sound (e.g., tone, clarity, speed). Try using stories to help you get your point across to others. Practice supervising yourself, focusing on how you get work done.|
|Reflection||Keep notes on your thoughts about supervision, what you have to offer as a supervisor, and your areas of discomfort.
Think of someone who is an effective supervisor. How are you similar to or different from this person?
Understanding Supervisor Roles
|Knowledge||Read Chapter 3 of The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees.|
|Observation||Learn from your supervisor by identifying the specific roles he or she used in one or more situations. Identify what worked and what didn’t work.|
|Practice||Choose a supervisor role; find a seasoned supervisor to give you feedback after observing you practice the role.|
|Reflection||Identify experiences where you have performed some supervisory roles and reflect on what you learned about yourself. Imagine performing a specific supervisory role and record your thoughts.|
Getting the Best Work from Others
|Knowledge||Read Chapter 4 of The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees. Seek out best practices from seasoned supervisors.|
|Observation||Identify one or more supervisory situations to see if you can identify the specific behaviors and techniques that brought out the best in other people.|
|Practice||Practice basic skills of listening, asking questions, and giving constructive feedback. Practice giving praise, saying thank you, and acknowledging great work.|
|Reflection||Note how your supervisors have gotten the best work out of you. Keep a journal of ideas you want to test.|
Making Good Things Happen
|Knowledge||Read Chapter 5 of The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees. Seek best practices that other supervisors have used to break down barriers to getting work done.|
|Observation||Identify one or more supervisory situations to check your understanding of planning, leading, and coordinating specific work tasks.|
|Practice||Plan and facilitate a meeting that begins and ends on time. Visually and mentally rehearse something you want to try. Practice telling a person what you need from them and asking how they would approach the situation.|
|Reflection||Jot down notes on how you approach solving problems and making decisions. Think of a time when you felt good about supporting others to achieve a specific result.|
Supervising in a Changing Work Landscape
|Knowledge||Read Chapter 6 of The Insider’s Guide to Supervising Government Employees. Check out articles, books, and presentations posted on the web about the changing work environment.|
|Observation||Identify one or more supervisory situations where you can experience working with remote workers or multiple generations.|
|Practice||Create a continuous learning plan that includes specific areas you want to learn more about as they relate to the changing work landscape.|
|Reflection||Create a list of all the things that are currently changing the work environment and think about how those factors will affect you as a supervisor.|
Step 7: Develop Your Supervisor Readiness Action Plan
Record each activity you want to pursue from Step 6 in the first column of your readiness action plan. Then set a timeframe for completing each activity and record it in column 2. Use column 3 to note the specific people who can support you in completing the activity. Remember to review your action plan periodically to check your progress, add any new activities, or close out any completed activities.
|Actions I Plan to Take||By When?||How Others Can Support Me|
|For example: Find at least five opportunities to practice asking questions so I get more comfortable considering the perspectives of others.||60 days from now||One person I will seek out is a colleague I have had a difficult time connecting with.|
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