What Makes a Remarkable Supervisor?

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Most people agree that not everyone has the capability to be a surgeon.  Maybe you don’t have stable enough hands or couldn’t get better than a “D” in anatomy to save your life.  And if you didn’t graduate from medical school and practice your craft under the wing of a seasoned colleague, it’s not going to happen for you.

So, why is it that most people and organizations think that anyone who is good at their job can be a supervisor?

Sure, supervising others typically doesn’t involve life or death situations.  However, I believe that supervisors make or break the work life of the people they support.

Supervisors Save (Work) Lives

Two professional coworkers having a conversation. People Matters HR

I’ve always believed and coached others that no one should work in a job that makes them miserable.  We spend too much time at work every day.

You’re meant to thrive, not simply survive, the workday so you can enjoy 48 short hours on the weekend before the Sunday night anxiety starts to creep back in.

You can work at an organization you love, with people you love, doing work you love, but if you have an abysmal supervisor, your existence from 9-5 every day will require medical intervention to maintain your sanity.

On the other hand, you can work at a fairly dysfunctional company, but if you have an outstanding supervisor, you won’t even notice the craziness on most days!

How many truly outstanding supervisors have you had in your lifetime?  They seem to be as rare as a predictable teenager.

The Vision and the Journey

The good news is that becoming a great supervisor doesn’t take eight years of college and years of residency.  Anyone with the desire to look honestly at their intentions and behaviors can make significant strides towards being a better supervisor.

If you’re a supervisor wanting to improve or a person who leads and coaches supervisors to be their best, the place to start is with a clear picture of an effective supervisor.

There are lots of important skills and behaviors that a supervisor needs to possess.  What are the attributes and behaviors that will make the biggest difference?

Let’s start with two, and we’ll address more in the weeks to come.

People People

Being a people person is a crucial trait of a remarkable supervisor.  It doesn’t mean that they’re outgoing and the life of the party.  Many of the most successful supervisors I’ve met are actually introverts.

What this does mean is that people are more important to them than tasks or things.  They are interested in and make time for interpersonal relationship building.  We all know not everyone is like that.

I once heard the saying, “You can’t be efficient with people.”  This is the mantra of people people.

I’ve always considered myself a people person.  It’s what drew me to the field of human resources.  I also love to get stuff done.  I’m always trying to find the most efficient and effective way to get through work.

Early in my career, I was challenged by colleagues that tended to function more on the long-winded side of conversations.  I spent many years trying to find new ways to politely remove myself from extended conversations so that I could get back to the pile on my desk.

At some point I realized I could not change these people, nor did I want to.  Their verbal expressions were valuable for them and for me; they were just as important as the paperwork on my desk.  So, I decided to focus on the person, in the moment, and deal with my to-do list later.

It didn’t take long before, for the first time in my professional career, someone I worked with began to repeatedly tell me what a great listener I was and how much she appreciated that.  I remember mentally looking around to see who she was talking to.  Who…me?

What she was reacting to was not me just sitting there hearing the words.  It was that I listened very hard for the emotion, the stuff between the lines, and watched her body language.  It became a “task” for me to listen deeply so I could understand her fully and be more helpful to her.

If you struggle with focusing on people, turn it into a task.  Recognize the benefits of the conversation to the other person and to you.  Approach it with the same level of diligence you approach the other tasks and things in your work.

Watch your relationships transform.

Egoless… or at least appear to be

Good supervisors don’t have to be right.  They know they don’t have all the answers and that their employees usually do.

I had a colleague that I greatly admire for his ability to set his ego aside.  We’d be in a leadership meeting debating ideas of how to strategically and tactically move the organization forward.  He’d present his ideas with tons of passion.  If others presented significant problems with his idea, he’d say, “You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that, bad idea.”

Then he’d do something truly amazing… he’d drop it.

Then he’d jump right in to actively discussing other ideas.  Wow!  No hanging on for dear life?  No attitude because others didn’t like your idea?  No bringing it back up later and continuing to push the idea?  Nope.  He heard the concerns, agreed, and dropped his “baby” like a hot cake.

The reason I admire this so much is that it’s pretty rare.  We tend to tie our identity into our ideas.  If someone pokes holes in it or thinks of something we missed, we feel embarrassed or inadequate.  In the face of this psychological challenge to our very existence, we either fight (push our agenda) or flight (cop an attitude).

Professional coworkers walking down the hall having a conversation. People Matters.People gravitate toward those who are passionate about the mission and vision of the company to the point that it allows them to shrug their shoulders and let go of their personal agendas and ideas.

Getting good at this takes practice.  Start with small things.  Look for times when you feel yourself resisting someone’s contrary opinion.  Look honestly at what they are saying.  If you can find something you agree with, say it out loud.  Then resist the urge to say, “Yeah but…”  Simply let it go.

Watch your relationships transform.

Share Your Reaction

Please share your experiences with good and bad supervisors as well as the above supervisor traits in the comment section below.  I look forward to reading your thoughts!

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