Guidelines for transitioning from coworker to supervisor

Dear Joan:

I am a senior writer and editor for a federal agency. Our communications group used to be larger, but now it includes just myself and two colleagues--a program assistant, whom I'll call Ann, and another writer-editor, whom I'll call Brenda. Our group also includes two other staffers and a director in another city.  

The three of us have been working together for nearly six years and relations among us are cordial and cooperative. (Ann and Brenda have been together about 20 years.) So what's the problem?  

Brenda is a lovely person and she does have many talents, but her writing and editing work is of questionable quality. I have generally refrained from commenting about this to our current and previous directors, except when it had a direct bearing on my job. Our directors have been aware of her professional limitations, but largely unwilling to take any action to address the problem. (The previous director did send her for some writing classes, but, not surprisingly, that didn't help much.  

His next strategy was to try to steer her away from writing projects and toward other tasks where she was stronger, but most of what we do involves some writing or editing.) On the few occasions when Brenda and I were involved in the same project and I needed to critique her efforts, she seemed defensive or evasive. Generally, her work does not have a direct impact on mine, but I take pride in what I do and lament the fact that some of what comes out of our office is of poor quality.  

Brenda also takes liberties with her schedule, especially when Ann, who handles the timecards, is not around. Brenda will often leave an hour earlier than she is supposed to, without putting in for the time--I know, because we keep an office calendar where we are supposed to record this--or offering any kind of explanation to me. I have felt uncomfortable about this, and even resentful at times, but I have not confronted her about it, nor told our director. I figure that since I am not her supervisor, it's not my job to fix the problem. Also, I feel that if I do make an issue of this, Brenda may scrutinize my comings and goings and try to get back at me. I never take advantage of the system, but now and then I do arrive 10 or 15 minutes late or leave a few minutes early.  

Given the amount of work I get done and the quality of what I produce, no one seems to question my performance or conscientiousness. I do think our rigid timekeeping system is sometimes not appropriate for my type of job, but that is a separate issue. In short, I don't want to point out Brenda's transgressions unless I'm prepared to be impeccable in this area.  

I suppose life would go on like this indefinitely in our little world, but now there is a strong chance that our director in the other city will be promoted to a higher level and I will be the leading candidate for a newly created supervisory post for our local group. We may even get to hire an additional writer. It will be an upgrade for me, so that's good. But now the "Brenda problem" will be mine to deal with.   

Assuming I get the job, I will need to define my new relationship with Brenda--and with Ann, for that matter--and set clear rules and expectations. Can you suggest any guidelines for going about this? I suppose there are certain challenges facing anyone transitioning from "coworker" to "supervisor." But I will have the added burden of confronting a situation that has festered unattended for years, and possibly needing to take unpleasant corrective action regarding someone with whom I've had a friendly, non-threatening relationship for six years. How do I prepare to climb a rung on the ladder of professional success without stepping into a potential hornet's nest?  

Answer:

Moving into a supervisor role, managing former peers, is always a challenge. But you sound as if you have a level head and a clear idea about reasonable expectations for your group.  

Yes, you do have some specific challenges—Brenda has not been subject to any corrective action for years, the attendance system needs attention, your manager is off site (so may not be much help as a coach on this issue), and your HR function (especially in a federal agency) will likely expect a paper trail of documentation before any corrective action will be supported. 

But you sound up to the job, which is probably why you are one of the top candidates! 

Here is a strategy to get you started:  If you get the supervisor job, contact your new director and have a meeting to discuss mutual objectives and expectations. During this discussion, explain your situation with Brenda and ask the new director for his/her support and advice. Explain that you are going to contact HR and draft a plan to deal with the problem and that you will keep him/her informed. As a part of the discussion with HR, get their opinion regarding holding her accountable for her job responsibilities versus letting her move into another job, which may be better suited to her strengths. 

Next, have a meeting with your new team. Because you are a new supervisor, it is acceptable for you to change the performance expectations of the group. Share what you and your new boss established as goals. Then articulate some of the expectations you have for the group. Ask them to come prepared to share their expectations for you, as well.  Include in your list, attendance, performance standards, how you want to meet/communicate, how frequently you want to provide feedback, etc. There is no need to point out who did what in the past. Merely state what you expect going forward. If she’s smart, she’ll get the message. 

I suggest that you set up weekly one-on-one meetings with each person, to do project updates, plan new work and provide coaching and feedback. The purpose for these meetings is to provide assistance and support for each of your employees. This forum will also enable you to stay close to Brenda’s work and monitor her quality, attendance, etc. Start a three ring binder, with tabs, for each of them. Keep notes and agendas in the binder, so that it is easy to stay organized. Ask each employee to summarize your one-on-ones after each meeting, along with action plans they have agreed to complete. This will help you all stay on the same page and is a good way to hold them accountable. If she continues to show problems in these areas, you will have a documented trail of activities.  

In Ann’s case, she will likely enjoy the contact with you and the ability to brainstorm ideas and get feedback on her work. Even though Ann is not a “problem” it still makes sense to keep track of her projects, agendas, etc. It will be very useful at performance review time, or to go back and revisit goals and action plans. 

Regarding the attendance policy, discuss this with the HR department, to see how much flexibility you have. Whatever you decide to do as a group, be consistent with both of them and also model the behavior you want. Even if you go to a more relaxed system, Brenda should be held accountable for putting in the required number of hours. In other words, if you say it’s okay to shave fifteen minutes here and there as long as you get your work done, hold her to it.  

You would be wise to provide updates to both your manager and HR. If Brenda can’t perform to your expectations, corrective action should be taken. With this plan, you will have the system behind you. I hope you get the job. Good luck!


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) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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