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How To Be A Successful First-Time Supervisor

first-time supervisors supervisory skillsAs a manager, especially a first-time supervisor, your employees’ success is your success. To be a top-performing supervisor with a top-performing team, you will need to:

  1. Learn and practice basic supervisory skills.
  2. Avoid common mistakes and pitfalls that trip up most new supervisors.
  3. Understand the differences between your previous role as a frontline contributor and your new management role.
  4. Adopt the behaviors of exemplary leadership that are proven to drive real results.
  5. Constantly continue learning and adapting as a manager.

Here’s why it matters. Extraordinary leaders have been shown to post twice as much in company profits as their peers who are less proficient in leading and supervising. In one Folkman study of bank branch managers, the bottom 10% averaged a net loss of $1.2 million while the top 10% posted a profit of $4.5 million per branch. The difference? Primarily, it was linked to the effectiveness of the leader.

You can get a strong start on these five essentials to boost your performance in your first six months on the job as a new supervisor. If you’ve been supervising longer, never fear! Although you’ll have some habits to break, it’s never too late to make these shifts and become more successful.

Keep reading to learn more about all five areas that will help you grow and thrive as a supervisor.

1.  What Basic First-Time Supervisory Skills Do I Need?

There are five categories of supervisory skills to focus on in order to accelerate your success as a supervisor. They are:

  1. People skills ("soft" skills)  
  2. Setting expectations, managing performance
  3. Communication
  4. People development
  5. Technical skills

Many new supervisors focus far too much time and energy on the technical skills of their job function and business unit. After all, this expertise and background is what got them promoted in the first place. Being the “best” at whatever you used to do might be what got you here. But it’s not enough to get you “there…” wherever your next success will be. In fact, over-relying on your functional expertise is a surefire way to stall out in your career.

The better focus for supervisors is on the “soft” skills related to communicating with, coaching, and developing people. Remember: you cannot be successful if the people on your team are not successful. That means you need to invest in their success.

Don’t make the mistake of focusing short-term on getting today’s work done today. That’s not enough. Managers are expected to get today’s work done through other people AND to build the capacity of the team for the long-term, too.

Think of your dual role as managing work and leading people.

Supervisors who put too much energy and time into the technical or functional skills related to their job find themselves experiencing low levels of employee engagement and high rates of employee turnover. That’s because employees won’t invest themselves in managers or companies or work that doesn’t seem like something more than work.

Leading people and investing in them (as people, not as hired hands!), includes giving candid feedback plus encouragement along the way to a goal. It requires active listening and inviting diverse points of view. Leading people involves setting expectations and coaching people so they develop the skills and abilities to perform at their best. To lead people, you’ll need to develop leadership skills. And, by the way, leadership skills are not the same as management skills. You need both to succeed as a supervisor.  


2.  How to Avoid Common Mistakes New Supervisors Make

New supervisors are prone to several common mistakes, most stemming from a desire to be liked.

Coming from the front lines and empathizing with employees causes many new managers to respond ineffectively. This exacerbates problems instead of fixing them. Despite their intentions to help, these supervisors find themselves with disgruntled employees and workloads they cannot handle.

Take a look at these seven classic examples that illustrate how well-intentioned supervisors try to save themselves time and/or try to make things easier on others. In each example, there’s a better way – one that builds confidence, competence and capacity of the team.   




Employees complain about workload and exhibit burnout

Take a little of the work off their plates because you can do it

Avoid upward delegation that encroaches on your time

Two employees have a heated and disruptive conflict

Interview each and determine the best resolution

Set expectations for them to work out their differences

A well-liked employee is underperforming on key duties

Focus on the positives and hope for a different outcome

Provide candid feedback to help the employee improve

It’s time to prepare for the weekly team meeting

Prepare a series of updates that you want to communicate

Prepare a list of questions that invite input and generate ideas

A new hire has just started and needs to be onboarded

Rely on HR, team members, and time for the ramp up

Conduct planned check-ins and learning opportunities daily

You’re hiring a new employee and conducting interviews

Go with your gut and select the person who works like you do

Set clear criteria and objectively evaluate each candidate

Your boss needs information and analysis on KPIs

Spend more time alone to prepare the best possible report

Spend time with employees and prepare an acceptable report


There are other examples. To avoid pitfalls like these, make it your top priority to consider the development needs of each team member. Avoid quick fix, self-sacrificing, short-term solutions. Instead, choose the solutions that include leading people vs. simply managing work. 

3.  How to Transition from a Contributor Role to a Management Role

To develop the skills needed for leading people and managing work, you’ll first need to step away from the work you used to do. Now that you’re a supervisor, what you used to do is not what you need to be doing any more. This is a shock to many new managers who are unsure how to demonstrate their value in a new way. Becoming a manager may be the reward for being a superstar contributor, but being effective in management means those superstar contributions are now someone else’s to make. You’ve got other places to focus.

In “The Leadership Pipeline,” author Ram Charan describes three ways that all new supervisors must adjust. Similarly, there are passages associated with each next-level job. The three areas of passages are the skills you develop and exhibit, how you spend your time, and what is valued in your work. Not making appropriate passages will tank your career and derail your team.

Here’s an example of a new manager who failed to make these passages. Mary, a new sales manager, focused her efforts on boosting sales. She took over some of the selling work. She told her team members how to sell like she did. She accompanied them on sales calls and often took over to ensure that the sale would close. Here’s why Mary failed as a sales manager:

Mary relied on selling skills instead of managing skills.

Rather than developing people to do the work of selling, she stepped in as the super seller. She signaled a lack of confidence in others’ abilities, positioning herself as the superior seller. Since Mary is only one person, this approach was not scalable or sustainable. She couldn’t be on every sales call. And now she had sellers who didn’t believe they could do the job without her.

Mary spent her time selling.

She didn’t spend it on coaching sellers to work more confidently and competently in their own jobs. She didn’t spend time on setting expectations and managing performance. She didn’t communicate with her team because she was too busy doing the work her team should have been doing.

Mary didn’t understand that what’s valued from a manager is different than what’s valued from a frontline contributor.

She kept selling because she did not know other ways to deliver the desired results. What’s expected from and valued in supervisors is their ability to get work done through other people.

It’s impossible to get work done through other people if you try to do the work for them. Transitioning to a management role means stepping back from the day-to-day work you used to do. You have to let go.

The strongest managers are the ones with the strongest teams. That’s not an accident of hiring or a lucky stroke. It’s deliberate. Strong teams are the result of building people so they can build the business. To build people, effective managers delegate work and coach from the sidelines.

Step back from the work so you can step into a true management role.   


4.  Beyond the Basics, What Do the Most Successful Supervisors Do Differently?

The key difference between most supervisors and the most successful supervisors is that they take a people first approach to their work.

Putting people first changes the way you work. It may seem counterintuitive to put people above profits, processes, programs, policies, and daily deliverables. But none of those things are possible without people. Those things all come from confident, competent people who can solve problems and drive results.

To put people first, the most successful supervisors invest time and energy in three key areas.

Coaching for Development

To coach means to extract what’s already known and to invite self-discovery. Coaching builds on what people can do and gives them opportunities to decide for themselves how to leverage their own strengths and set goals for their own development. It’s not mentoring (which means to tell or show people what you already know).  

Employee Engagement

Strong supervisors understand that highly committed employees will apply more discretionary effort to the work they do. These supervisors challenge employees and invest in their success. They maintain high levels of engagement by ennobling individuals and maintaining emotional connections. Employee engagement is linked to every type of business success, from improved retention of top talent, to increased productivity and customer satisfaction levels, and even to double-digit growth in profit margins.

Leadership Development

Since the secret ingredient in supervisor success is the part about leading people (not just managing work), the most successful managers develop themselves as leaders. They learn what it means to be a leader. They practice the behaviors that are proven to inspire others. They allocate time to leading and to growing in their own leadership. What’s more, they build other leaders around them.

5.  How Can I Become a More Effective Supervisor Long-Term?

You CAN become more effective as a supervisor. It’s about making the right commitments and avoiding the ones that will take you off course. This is simply a matter of choice. Your choice. To be an effective supervisor:

  1. Stop doing what you used to do as an individual contributor. Your technical or functional expertise is now important for context and teaching, not for your daily work.

  2. Master the basics of supervision. Learn how to set expectations, give candid feedback, communicate about change and other matters, manage for performance, and coach for development. Be sure you also learn how to delegate effectively because that’s what will liberate your time for the leadership work that’s so important to getting long-term outcomes. One tool you can use is this self-paced eLearning course that’s designed to build all these skills for supervisors like you.

  3. Work on daily measures that increase employee engagement. Simple changes can make a big difference. With modest increases in engagement levels, you can see dramatic changes in performance, output, and results. This daily checklist for new supervisors will help you get started.

  4. Make sure you don't have a "blindspot" when it comes to your soft skills or style. Take the free, self-paced course called The Essentials of Personal Effectiveness to build transferable skills and improve the quality of workplace interactions.

  5. Get coaching if you are struggling (before it's too late!). There’s no shame in asking for help. In fact, showing your own openness to seek and accept help models an important mindset to your team. Wouldn’t you like them to be equally open and receptive to the help you can offer them?

Don’t make your transition harder than it has to be. Don’t make these mistakes that so many other new supervisors have made. Give yourself a strong start by heeding these tips and taking these actions. Your future self – and your entire team – will thank you! 
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