As supervisor, you need to develop new skills

An employee is often selected for a supervisory position because of his or her outstanding performance as a specialist. The skills required to develop technical expertise, however, are quite different from the skills needed to manage people.

In fact, the very skills that won the new supervisor acclaim as a subordinate can be a stone around the neck as a supervisor. Performance is measured by getting results through others, not in how one performs individual tasks one's self. This transition can be difficult, and the shift in thinking takes time and development.

In addition, the new supervisor often lacks an immediate peer group. Former peers no longer see the manager as one of "us." Other supervisors may be hesitant to accept their new colleague until the individual has demonstrated the ability to think and act like one of them.

Dear Joan:
At the time I was asked to assume supervision of a unit (five persons), I was employed as a secretary to a vice president. Consequently, I followed instructions, didn't have a great deal of responsibility and had little or no authority.

Then came the "critical shift" and I found myself asking, "What do I do now?" My subordinates know a great deal more than I do about the technical side of the unit's responsibilities, and this puts me at a disadvantage.

I have been told by my supervisor that it isn't necessary for me to be a "technical genius" to manage the unit. However, I would feel a great deal more comfortable if my people could come to me to answer all their technical questions. Right now, I am putting together a procedures and policy manual for the unit, and that is very satisfying.

In any case, I find I have difficulty taking control, and often feel that I allow others to make decisions for me. I get along very well with my people and I'm sure I have their respect. Nevertheless, I also have some difficulty turning down requests that might disrupt the activities of the unit.
I enjoy this new role, however, and want to succeed in it. But there are periods of self-doubt and floundering. My supervisor is very supportive and thinks I'm doing very well, so I must be doing something right!

I will look forward to perhaps reading some of your insights on this subject.

One key asset you have is the willingness to assume a learning attitude. Coupled with the fact that you have a supportive boss and the respect of your subordinates, I'd say you are off to a good start. The insecurities you feel are shared by most new supervisors and will subside as you grow into your new role.

Perhaps some of the following tips will help you during this transition:

You aren't expected to know all the answers or be able to solve all problems. Your boss has given you sound advice. Your job is to manage technical experts, not to be a technical genius yourself.
When you expect subordinates to come to you to "answer all their technical questions," you are short-circuiting their development and responsibility. This is a common mistake made by many managers.

There is a way to avoid this mistake and learn the technical side of the unit's responsibilities at the same time: When your employees come to you with a problem, let them know you also expect them to provide tentative solutions.

Learn to ask questions about how the problem developed, what the employee thinks should be done about it and how it could be prevented in the future. Your subordinates will learn to think through their own problems and will eventually be able to solve them on their own.

In addition, tell them that you want project updates and that you expect them to consult you regarding political concerns or when problems will affect others. This should continue even after your employees have become self-sufficient and you are confident in their judgment.

Don't make a lot of changes right away. Not only is this likely to cause resentment among your subordinates, but the changes may turn out to be inappropriate once you gain a better understanding of the operation.

Ask your unit for input when developing your new procedures and policy manual. They will give you a realistic view of the unit's activities and be more committed to any changes you make.

Use your authority when necessary. Your reluctance to turn down "requests that may disrupt the unit" may be the result of having seen previous managers abuse the power of their position. But under control is just as bad. The respect you now have may quickly fade if you are perceived as someone who can't say no.

One technique to use here is to tell your subordinate, "Let me think about it." Then consider all the ramifications of the request and get back to the employee quickly with your decision and the reasons. Eventually, they will begin to think like a team player just as you do.

Your decisions won't always be popular, but you'll be well on your way to becoming an effective supervisor.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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