Critical Link in the Chain of Command

Published September 2009

Depending on the size of your organization, multiple layers of management may exist or employees may report directly to the owner who wears several hats, one of which is “Supervisor.” Regardless of the situation, the role of the front line supervisor is critical to the success of your organization.

This is where the rubber meets the road, where the visions, values, strategies and goals of the organization are brought to life … or evaporate into the great expanse between senior leadership and those employees that literally or metaphorically shake hands with customers every day via the products or services they provide. Indeed, the greatest plans are useless if not effectively implemented by those actually performing the work.

Unfortunately, many organizations overlook the importance of the front line supervisor. Considering that the quality of supervision is a primary factor in the performance of subordinates, they do so at their own peril. Common errors include

  • Not understanding required skills when filling a supervisory position. This may lead to choosing an ill-equipped relative in the case of a family business or by tapping the top performer in the role to be supervised. Unfortunately, the skills required of a good carpenter, engineer, or salesperson differ vastly from those needed to successfully manage those positions.
  • Providing little training to develop and practice newly required skills. This often leads the new supervisor to drift back to their previous job where they were confident and successful.
  • Not clearly articulating the expectations for the new supervisor. With each subsequent rung on the management ladder, the percent of discretionary time increases. It’s therefore not surprising that many new supervisors struggle with how to fill their newfound “free” time.

A common path for new supervisors is to simply emulate their previous boss. This isn’t exactly a recipe for success since chances are, their supervisor may also have been ill-chosen, not trained, or lacking a clear understanding of expectations. Many new supervisors quickly become consumed with administrative tasks and subordinate the most important aspect of their job – spending time with their people.

Fortunately, this futile cycle can be broken. To do so, however, requires that top management understand the key skills required for a high performance supervisor. Once identified, better hiring and promotion decisions can be made, valuable training provided, and proper role expectations clearly articulated.

So what are these key skills?

  • Accountability – Successful supervisors must be able to effectively deal with the situation when an employee’s performance or actions are unacceptable.
  • Coaching – Winning supervisors have a way of continually nudging their team to higher levels of performance.
  • Effective decision making – Great bosses understand which decisions should be made only by them and which should be delegated to or involve their workers, thus increasing their engagement.
  • Facilitation – Effective managers know how to plan and run a productive meeting.
  • Effective use of metrics – As the saying goes, “You get what you measure.” Successful bosses measure the right things and ensure their teams always know the score.
  • Project management – High performing supervisors are never satisfied with the status quo in their area of responsibility; they manage improvement projects rather than just react to problems.
  • Problem solving – Yes, even the best supervisors experience problems in their areas. What differentiates them, however, is their ability to uncover the root cause and resolve the situation permanently.
  • Standard work – Competent managers understand that critical tasks should be performed by everyone using the currently best known and documented method to ensure safety, quality and efficiency.
  • Teamwork – Winning supervisors consistently put the success of the organization ahead of their individual area.

That may seem like a tall order, and it is. But when one considers that a strong supervisor raises the performance of each of their reports, it’s an investment well worth making.

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