Excelling as a Manager or Supervisor
As we move forward in our careers it's important to develop leadership and management skills. Advancing up most career ladders requires you to supervise others at some point. Even if you're not supervising others and have no desire to, building better relationship and interpersonal skills can help smoothly navigate the political landscape at any office.
As part of my journey in my career, I took a seminar put on by Skillpath in the fall of 2018, called "Excelling as a Manager or Supervisor.” I'll share some of the insights and lessons learned from the seminar here, as well as my impressions and reactions.
Skillpath provided a workbook and presented a full day of activities and lectures. My main takeaways from the day were these two insights: first, that strong people skills are essential to excelling as a manager or supervisor, and second, that you must engage in regular self-care – in particular, care for your mental and emotional health - to succeed.
The day long classroom experience consisted of a mix of entertaining exercises, like how to identify your work “style,” how to make a management plan to develop your areas of weakness. We also held discussions, including sharing scenarios and problem solving with other students, and listened to a variety of stories and anecdotes from the teacher – mixed in with a lot of lessons from the workbook and course material.
The Skillpath workbook and seminar both started off with a discussion of why we need good “leaders,” and not just managers or supervisors in the workplace, and the types of skills that good leaders exhibit. Having just read and reviewed Pfeffer’s Leadership B.S., I’m skeptical that the heavy focus on people skills and the ability to inspire alone does justice to the concept of “good management.” That being said, I found the following tips and insights to be appealing, though I question whether they present the full picture of how to excel as a manager or supervisor.
According to the Skillpath folks, we get things done through others. Don’t do yourself what you can delegate, right? Signs of a successful leader include:
Outstanding people skills; the ability to get along with everybody
Able to communicate effectively
Motivate others and themselves to achieve further
Problem-solving: turning problems into solutions
Leadership is also described as having influence – i.e., followers.
To me, the above reads as a description of someone who is really sociable and engaging, but it doesn’t seem to tell the entire picture of what it takes to be a good leader. Under this definition perhaps Charles Manson was a good leader. But what about organization skills? Strategy? Appropriate goal-setting and vision sharing? Decision-making? Ability to deliver timely? Budgeting and financial savvy? Expertise? The ability to “multi-task and deliver high performance results in a fast-paced and high-pressure environment” – oh-so-sought after skills we see listed in practically every job description?! I’m just not sure you can boil down leadership qualities into 4 or 5 bullets.
Good leaders often exhibit certain recognizable character traits, such as: being passionate, engaging, a story-teller, inspiring respect, empathy, solution driven, positive, listener, leads by example/practices what they preach (a model), supportive, charismatic, honest and authentic, value contributions of employees and see their potential, motivates and encourages, challenges but also enables, clear about expectations, kind, and cultivating trust. Characteristics of bad leaders include the opposite traits of those previous listed, as well as micro-managers, absent bosses, those who manage with policies and procedures only, punishing, hoarding power, and passive aggressive or aggressive behavior.
The seminar was useful in providing strategies to manage relationships with coworkers and subordinates, including how and where to draw line on social relationships in different work scenarios. These included instances where you’re newly promoted over team-mates. Some of these strategies include:
Start off each day with check-in with staff
Start your new position with a meeting with all staff to set the stage
Set workplace norms or community agreements. Tell people up front what kind of workplace environment you want to have, and how you can all work together to build it
Avoid perceptions of favoritism – treat everyone fairly
The number one complaint of workers everywhere is not being treated fairly.
Watch for manipulation by former work friends
Be careful with social media
Facebook connections with those you manage can be tricky – consider not having one, or having a separate work account for your job only
Have a policy BEFORE you become a manager, implement it for everyone and be comfortable explaining your choices (a script)
Be careful with social interactions like parties
Party invites, weddings, funerals – all could present difficulties with coworkers or subordinates. As with social media: implement a policy, stick with it, communicate it
For example: arrive early, don’t drink alcohol, leave early. This allows folks time without their boss present
Have an open door policy. Express that if staff have issues, they can come to you first and you’ll help troubleshoot
Express willingness to hear any suggestions or criticism
Don’t ever speak negatively about your org
Start a resource library for yourself for your job
The advice seemed helpful not just for for new or aspiring leaders to understand, but also for every employee at all levels. Sometimes, colleagues cross lines. Establishing and communicating clear protocols and standards of behavior can be essential to avoid conflicts before they arise.
Dilbert, by Scott Adams (copyright in image)
Everything Else - General Job Skills Smorgasbord:
The following sections quickly bullet out skills discussed without diving too deeply into them. Some of these are pretty basic or common sense skills, but other areas are ones that we might continue to work on and improve throughout our entire lives.
1. Dealing with Performance Issues: Getting to the root causes of poor performance is important, as is learning how to deal with corrective action compassionately. There are four major reasons why an employees performance may start slipping.
Employee doesn‘t know what’s expected of them or what to do
Mismatch between skills and job requirements
Employee not getting any feedback
Employee has family, health or drug abuse problems
Most of these can be addressed through better communication - both up front during interviews and while on the job.
2. Building Communication Skills: To avoid performance issues, conflicts, or employee dissatisfaction from arising in the first place, you can develop and exercise strong communication skills in the office. To do so:
Always use the simplest words available
Avoid indefinite words
Isolate your most important ideas into separate statements
Follow grammar rules
Be aware of your non-verbal communication
Check understanding with receiver periodically and engage in active listening.
Active listening entails the following:
Be polite and if possible, kind
Another great tip is to think about the individuals, or types of conversations, that you find difficult to speak to or have. You may see a trend in the types of communication or personalities that you find difficult to deal with. By identifying these trends, you can work on strategies to deal more effectively with those individuals or topics.
3. Learning to Delegate: Delegation can be an effective way to gain time and optimize performance. Delegating can help you:
Develop your team
Clear your plate to focus on more meaningful, higher level tasks
Coach others, not quarterback
Spur creativity and growth
Train employees (and so is mutually beneficial)
Failure to delegate prevents employees from shining – showcasing skills or building skills – and is a misuse of your time
At some workplaces, I have experienced bosses who are afraid to delegate because they 1. Feel they’re the only one with the expertise or skills necessary to do the job, 2. Distrust that their employee will complete the task or complete it correctly, or 3. Don’t want to let the task go because of personal attachment to it. The inability to delegate or drop less meaningful tasks can be crippling to effective leadership. Delegating and optimizing are critical to excelling as a manager or supervisor – or CEO – these are skills that Tim Ferriss covers deeply and frequently in his books and podcasts.
4. Holding Successful Meetings: The top 2 lifesavers that will help you keep on track and have an effective meeting are:
Create and share an agenda in advance of the meeting
Ensure you have a timekeeper – don’t be your own timekeeper! (and change roles from mtg to mtg) – and have that timekeeper keep you to your agenda.
I’ve implemented a calendar creation protocol for my meetings where I spell out the meeting leader, the agenda topics, and the goals or desired outcomes for the meeting. In Outlook, you can attach relevant files to the calendar invite to ensure the materials are all in one place and don’t get lost in someone’s email inbox. By including the materials and desired outcomes with the agenda and calendar invite, participants are aware of the goal of the meeting up front and can work with you to ensure the meeting is productive. It’s important to send the meeting invites in advance, and if you’re sending them far in advance, to give reminders. If you’re setting a meeting just to information share or ask questions, consider cancelling the meeting and sending an email!
5. Dealing with Interruptions Successfully:
It is critical to value your time. If you don’t value your time, no one else will
Learn to set boundaries
Prioritize: The 4 T’s to beating procrastination or distraction are:
Top priority: Is it due Today?
2ndary priority: Tomorrow?
Is it related to the True reason for the job’s existence?
Is it Time independent? (last/lowest priority)
Personally, at work I use headphones and/or earplugs, and a headset phone instead of a handheld cord phone, to better indicate to colleagues when I’m unavailable to chat. Earplugs and headphones playing soft, meditative music help block out distracting background sounds and create a contemplative and relaxed state where I can better focus.
Working in a cubicle means I can be interrupted at any time – and often unintentionally – by folks with questions or even folks just walking by conversing with others. Not having a door means you have to take other measures to “close the door” – like putting up a sign on my cubicle wall that says “I’m On A Phone Call “. These types of actions are a way of constructively and politely setting boundaries by indicating to others when its not a good time for a random chat about their weekend plans.
6. Self-Care: Maintaining a Work/Life Balance:
I appreciated hearing about this topic because I don’t know that it’s generally covered in most courses, trainings, or talks about leadership, management, or job skills development. Self-care. It sounds kind of like feel-good mumbo-jumbo to those who’ve never been in therapy or picked up a self-help book. But I strongly believe that the ability to care for yourself, to treat yourself with empathy, love, and respect, and to give yourself down time, builds emotional resilience and is critical to your personal growth and development. How can we be great leaders – a job that entails taking care of and inspiring others – when we can’t take care of ourselves, and don’t feel inspired?
Despite the essential role of self-care to our well-being, many folks I’ve come across in D.C. and Maryland, Miami, and Seattle – all places I’ve spent a significant amount of time living in as an adult - seem to struggle with these concepts. Not everybody takes the time to nourish their brains, emotions and souls by engaging in self-care. I appreciate that Skillpath took the time to talk about things like meditation and maintaining a work-life balance. That’s why my blog covers topics on motivation, psychology and mental well-being in addition to finance and career development: self-care is a critical piece of the picture in all of our lives.
We fill our plates – but what are we filling them with? Is it activities that are healthy for us and bring us joy? As leaders, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. Everyone – not just leaders – should give serious consideration to these two questions:
What brings you joy?, and
How can you fit more of those things into your life?
Picture from: https://www.wayfinderscollective.com/practice/2017/9/18/twenty-things-that-bring-me-joy
You can learn more about this Skillpath course or register at: https://skillpath.com/seminar/excelling-as-a-manager-or-supervisor. I’m not getting paid to advertise this class, and am not an affiliate, nor in any other way engaged in a business relationship with Skillpath.