As a young lieutenant I had the privilege of serving on the operations staff in an Engineering Battalion. It was a great assignment as there were really talented people working really hard to keep the organization running. I learned a tremendous amount in the year I served on staff, and understanding how the higher headquarters ran made me a better leader when I went back down to the line.

One of the guys I got to know on staff was a Captain named John. He was one of those all-around great guys that didn’t hold his rank over us junior officers.  He essentially treated us as equals on staff and was a pleasure to be around.

And then something changed. John was selected to go to a line unit and take command.

We were excited for him and a few of us started thinking about trying to get to his company when it was our turn to go back to the line. After all, who wouldn’t want to work for this great guy?

But soon after the ceremony installing John as the commander, we noticed a change. Suddenly John didn’t have a lot of time to chat with us junior guys anymore. He wasn’t quite as congenial as he used to be. He didn’t joke with us anymore. In meetings, John became increasingly short with us, and soon the relationship between the group of junior officers and John fell apart.

We started checking with the officers in his company. It wasn’t good.  John had transformed overnight into a control freak who no longer valued junior leaders’ opinions. The good-natured, relaxed staff officer had turned into a tyrant. The performance of the company began to deteriorate, and people started trying to find other places to work.

The more things slipped, the harder John tried to make things better. He was personally involved in every aspect of the company, and he worked extremely long hours and weekends trying to reverse the trends.

He never really got there.

John muddled on through his tour, and the great troops in his company accomplished the mission in spite of him.

So what happened? Why did mild-mannered John pull a Jekyll-Hyde act as soon as he was put in charge of a company?

There are a lot of theories as to why some people lose their cool when they get put in charge. Stress, lack of confidence, distrust of subordinates, role playing to be an imagined character, or trying to imitate a leader they respect… all these can contribute to someone forgetting to be themselves when they take on the responsibility of leadership.

A few months ago a good friend commented to me that the hardest job anywhere is the first time you are a supervisor. We thought this was particularly true in government service or large bureaucracies, but I suppose it applies in most places.

I think a few things contribute to this. One reason may be that we sometimes pick the wrong people to be supervisors.  Too often people are selected for supervisory positions based on their technical talent in spite of their lack of leadership skills. This mismatch puts the technically savvy new leader in a very uncomfortable position. With a lack of experience or confidence in a leadership role, they often end up trying too hard, which comes off as fake or tyrannical.

Supervising for the first time also comes with the challenge of establishing oneself as a leader. It’s unlikely that the new boss hired any of the folks in the work unit, so they don’t have any particular loyalty to the new guy. It’s even harder if you replaced a popular leader who left for greener pastures.

Some new supervisors are intimidated when they find out how many policies and procedures they are now responsible for enforcing. Learning these new responsibilities while trying to get the rest of the job done often leaves new leaders with very little spare time on their hands.  This can really heap the stress on the new boss, often leaving them overwhelmed.

But possibly the biggest reason new supervisors struggle is that we often don’t adequately train them for their new role. We assume since they have been in the organization a while that they know what supervisors do and can easily pick up on the new tasks. But most people who aren’t supervisors don’t bother figuring out what supervisors do behind the scenes, or simply don’t have access to that information. Assuming that the new leader is fully equipped is a sure way to set them up for failure. They need to be trained.

But training isn’t enough. Classes that teach how to do the paperwork, how to counsel or evaluate people, how the hiring system works, how budgets function… these are all necessary but not sufficient to keep a new supervisor on track. More than training on the technical stuff, they need coaching and mentoring on both the leader tasks and the soft skills it takes to run the work unit. They need someone they can confide in, someone to tell them when their actions are having ill effects, someone to help them to develop their potential. This someone is preferably a leader who remembers what it was like to be a first-time supervisor.

In short, they need a mentor.

But mentorship programs are a mixed bag at best. Some are too formal, lacking a personal touch and feeling like a checklist-driven relationship. Some are too casual, amounting to little more than a series of polite conversations where little more than small talk takes place.

I frequently hear leaders tout that they mentor all their subordinates. We probably have a disagreement about what mentorship really is. To me, a mentor is someone you can confide in, someone you can open up about your shortcomings and mistakes. Your boss most likely isn’t as open-minded about your screw-ups as a mentor should be.

I guess if I were in a position to help John way back then, I would have offered him two pieces of advice:

  1. Be yourself. You can lead and be a real human being at the same time. It’s ok. Relax.
  2. Find a mentor. Someone outside your reporting chain who remembers what it is like to be in your shoes.

I think most new supervisors eventually figure it out, but I am not sure how many people they drive off, or what damage they do to their reputation and relationships before they do.

Senior leaders can step in and help. First-time supervisor is a tough job, and we owe them a fighting chance. But we need to do more than sign up to be a mentor: we need to show up. We need to have enough structure in the early stages of the program to discern our protege’s weaknesses and developmental needs. We need to monitor their progress outside of our meeting times, and provide candid — and I mean REALLY CANDID — feedback to them so they develop to their full potential. Leaders take care of people, and sometimes the best thing we can do for them is to be straight with them when they are failing.

So if you’re new to the leadership game, welcome aboard… be yourself, relax, hang in there because it will get better, and it can be extremely rewarding. If you’ve been here a while, remember back to your first leadership role, and then ask yourself what are you doing to help guys like John out?

One thought on “Accepting the Leadership Challenge: the First-Time Supervisor

  1. Many of the natural leaders I have known in my life and career have not been the supervisors in the organization. I enjoyed reading your blog. I am getting ready to start LDP, and I am reading what I can find on leadership. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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