New Supervisors In Small Companies Need a Guide

It’s tough to be the boss, especially for new supervisors.

This first step into management is loaded with responsibility. It may or may not come with much authority. And usually there’s little, if any, training.

The new supervisor got the job because she was an outstanding performer. Congratulations, we’re promoting you to supervisor. Because you are such a rock star, we know you’ll do great. Let me know if you need anything. I’ve got another meeting, gotta run.

Change Management for restructuring

To say new supervisors don’t feel confident on day one is a shocking understatement. They are clueless, scared, and don’t want to let their managers know they need help.

If you want to help your small company thrive, invest in your newest leaders.

Pizza Hut days

I remember my first job out of college, Assistant Manager at Pizza Hut. Part of the training process involved piling into a van with about eight local new managers and driving to Kansas City for a week of training.

I have vague recollections about a massive three-ringed binder and mind-numbing lectures about foodborne illness. What I don’t remember was any instructions about how to handle the day-to-day challenges I had back in the restaurant:

  • PizzaHut-logo-1967The flight attendant who waited tables on the weekend, but refused to take her turn to clean the restroom.
  • The teenager who lied to me about being sick so he could go to a party (His friends outed him).
  • The waitress who was afraid to go back into the dining room because we were short-staffed, and the hungry and now angry diners were preparing to riot.
  • The team that needed my good example when I felt overworked and underpaid.
  • The artist who made menu-worthy pizzas, but took way too long doing it.

Harder than learning to ride a bike

When I watch neighborhood children learn to ride a bike, there’s always a parent helping, guiding, coaching, and cheering. A second parent is usually on camera duty. The kid is well-supported.

Taking up the supervisor’s role is harder than learning to ride a bike, and yet in most cases, there is no help at all. The new supervisor is on her own to figure out how to do the job.

ARTICLE BONUS: In the event you have a kid that wants to learn, you should check out this video.

Support your new leaders

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can make sure your new supervisors have the support they need.

In larger organizations there are always plenty of new supervisors at any given moment. For them, you create a cohort and offer them a development program that helps build the skills they need for their new role. Over the years I’ve built these programs and have led thousands of leadership development workshops.

But what about small organizations in which at any given time you only have one or two new managers? You could send the person off to some open enrollment courses offered at a local university or by a training company. These experiences tend to be expensive, especially when it involves travel. Plus, the learning doesn’t stick. It’s the old drink from a fire hose problem. There’s too much info coming at you and little of it seems directly applicable.

Provide a Guide

A better way, and one that in recent years I’ve started to provide, is to offer the new manager one-on-one support. It’s an approach Facebook as begun to use with its many new managers. So I guess this solution isn’t only for small companies after all.

This personal guide serves as a coach, mentor, adviser, sounding board, and collaborative problem-solver. Here’s how it can work:

  • Assign a new manager a guide for a set duration. Three months to a year is the usual range, depending on goals.
  • The manager and guide meet (either face-to-face or by phone) at regular intervals.
  • Between sessions the guide sends the new manager applicable information and encouragement.
  • The new manager is given homework to complete between sessions that aligns with real-life work goals.
  • The guide is available for quick check-in email or phone calls, should a pressing need arise.

Don’t use an insider

The guide could be another employee. For small companies that want to use this development strategy, the new supervisor’s manager may seem like the obvious choice, but there are four reasons you should consider another option:

1. Bad ideas

The manager many not be skilled, so has little to offer, and in the worst case scenario, actually offers bad advice.

2. Poor guide

The manager doesn’t know how to act in the role of effective guide. He may want to tell a few war stories and think that does the trick.

3. No time

The manager doesn’t have the time. This process takes some time and attention that the boss isn’t able to afford (although I’d argue it would be a good investment to make).

4. Low trust

The new supervisor wants to appear competent and confident to the boss. It’s pretty hard to solve problems and address concerns if the new manager doesn’t bring them up.

Another options would be to use a specialized, internal development person; usually found somewhere within the HR team, to serve as guide. That might be well and fine in a big company that has people in those roles, but they don’t exist in small companies. And even if they did, the new supervisor may still hesitate to be candid with someone from HR.

The case for an outside guide

Goal Plan Success

An outsider is neutral. He or she isn’t wrapped up in the politics of the organization. This person also doesn’t need to have a long-term relationship with the new supervisor, so isn’t as concerned about offering candid observations.

Because professional guides do this kind of work on a regular basis, they have the skills and knowledge needed to do the job well. Finally, the outsider can provide this service in confidence, which makes the new manager a lot more comfortable about participating.

An outsider is affordable, especially when compared to public seminar offerings. Take for example the AMA workshop, Making the Transition from Staff Member to Supervisor. It’s two days and costs $1,995. Add in a $700 plane ticket and three days of travel expenses, and you’ve spent nearly $3,500 for the fire hose method.

For a similar investment, your new manager gets:

  • A process customized to his/her needs.
  • The guide’s full attention.
  • Help solving real problems.
  • Support that sticks around until the person has built the confidence he or she needs.

Don’t make them learn to ride on their own

Hard knocks

How long would it take for a kid to figure out how to ride a bike without a little help from a guiding parent?

The employees you promoted to supervisor may have been terrific at their previous jobs, but that doesn’t mean they know the first thing about being an effective manager.

If you send them to the school of hard knocks, they may eventually figure it out and even become successful leaders. They might also develop some bad habits that will haunt you for as long as they stick around, or they may feel like failures and move on to another company, one that helps them learn the role and reaps the benefits of their newly developed skills.

Leverage within your organization is greatest with your frontline supervisors. Each one helps or hurts many employees. You need them up to speed as quickly as possible. A personal guide is the way to do it.

Ready to try?

Could this work for one of your employees? There’s one way to find out. Contact me to discuss how to set your newest managers up for success.

By Tom LaForce

Tom LaForce helps companies change by creating stronger teams, more effective leaders, and better processes. To discuss a challenge you're facing, use this link to schedule a free discovery call.