The Key to Engagement

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In many companies, selecting individual contributors to become supervisors is a crapshoot. That's more than simply gambling, it borders on criminal negligence.

Your people are your most important asset. They're the only source of sustainable competitive advantage. And, as China Gorman points out in her excellent post, "Managers Are the Key Players in Engaging Workers."

It just makes sense to provide people with the best bosses you can. Start by understanding two basic facts.

You learn to be a supervisor on the job. Your company can provide training and mentoring and support, but most of the learning will happen in real time as new supervisors try things and learn from the results. You can't train this out of the process.

Some people will be good at the job and others won't. This is true of any kind of work, but it's very important when you choose new supervisors because they rarely have the opportunity to return to individual contributor status. Make a bad choice and you wind up with a bad supervisor for a long, long time.

That's how it is. Use the first fact to your advantage by giving people opportunities to try out a leadership role that's not permanent. They can lead a project team or task force. That gives you two advantages.

The big one is that many people who try on the role learn that they don't like it. Being a supervisor is not a harder kind of work than being an individual contributor, but it is a different kind of work. Some people will take to it and others won't.

The ones that don't will often remove "supervisor" from their career plans. If they become supervisors, they will have to work very hard to do a good job.

Temporary assignments also give you something meaningful to evaluate when you choose new supervisors. Here are four questions to ask when you evaluate your supervisor candidates.

Are they willing to set direction and standards for their team? It's a leadership function that some people are comfortable with and others aren't. Remember, a good supervisor defines standards and direction for his or her team.

Are they willing to confront team members about poor performance or unacceptable behavior? Great supervisors do this as soon as they spot an issue. Bad supervisors put off the important conversations. They drop hints and hope the problem solves itself. That almost never happens.

Are they willing to make decisions? A surprising number of people put off decisions or pass them up the chain to their boss. You don't want those people as supervisors.

I've trained new supervisors for more than a quarter century. I can teach a person how to improve the odds that a discussion of poor performance will come out well. I can teach that person how to make better decisions. But if the new supervisor won't confront people about poor performance or won't make decisions, all that training is a waste of time.

Here's the most important question to ask about a possible new supervisor. Does he or she enjoy helping others succeed? Great supervisors do. Bad supervisors are more concerned about how they look.

Picking new supervisors doesn't have to be a crapshoot. Let people try on the supervisory role, then ask the important questions that will help you make wise choices.

Additional Resource

In her post, China Gorman refers to a recent BlessingWhite publication titled "Employee Engagement Research Update." Follow the link to download a PDF of the update.

Note: The original version of this post was published on the Human Capital Institute blog.

Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 4/3/2013 10:52 PM John Hunter wrote:
    Temporary assignments and projects are a great tool. Access skills and abilities needed in the new job - don't just base decisions on success in the old job.

    Coaching is key, in my opinion. Are they able to help people improve?
    Reply to this
    1. 4/4/2013 7:11 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Coaching is one key. So is teaching people to take control of their own growth and development. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Reply to this
  • 6/12/2013 10:13 PM Tony wrote:
    Great post. I recommend to everyone I mentor to start doing the job they want. I've looked at it from a getting hire tool but you're right, it gives someone the opportunity to make sure this is something they want.
    Reply to this
    1. 6/13/2013 8:34 AM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thanks, Tony

      Reply to this
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