Tales and Tips from a New Supervisor

Posted on June 23, 2023

Two people lean over a laptop computer to look at the screen in an office.

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Jessica VanderKolk, Communications Manager for the City of Battle Creek, Michigan. Catch me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

What I’m reading: Still working on the audiobook of Spare by Prince Harry. I’ve renewed it probably four times so far… support your public libraries!

What I’m watching: Firefly Lane – I’m almost to the end and am completely wrecked. I will not be entertaining spoilers.

What I’m doing: Producing a ton of videos and still trying to adjust to the 10-year-old’s summer schedule.

As I write this, I am a few days from a full two years officially supervising someone. The role still feels so new to me and, while my situation might be different from yours, I’ve learned enough to share.

I served our city as a team of one for seven-plus years. At the time, I needed help, but didn’t want the supervisory role. This was for the same reasons I never wanted to move into an editor role as a newspaper reporter (my first career):

  • I enjoy actually doing the work; I didn’t want managing people to reduce the already limited time I have for the creative.
  • I am an introvert, and felt uncomfortable with my ability to successfully supervise others.

It’s going well. I feel better equipped than I did two years ago, but am very much still learning. My insights are general enough for most situations because: I supervise one person and, because we are a team of two communicators, we talk daily and we both do the work. By nature of this work and the people drawn to it – at least here – we become friendly pretty quickly. I have hired two people in these two years, and will talk about them generally; they are both excellent people and employees.

Here are four important ways to be a good supervisor:

Fight for your people.

This has since changed, but it used to be that new hires did not walk in with paid time off. My teammate suffered an injury (not work related) in their first weeks with us. While we can easily work remotely – and do work a hybrid schedule – they needed to rest, and I worked with Human Resources to advance their PTO.

I think it’s important to show teammates we care about them, and I didn’t want mine to worry about work and the benefits puzzle when they needed time to heal.

Another time, my teammate had been with us for barely two months and was very much still learning about the organization and the tasks. As such, the work they produced was not as timely as it would become, and another staff member expressed concerns to me about it.

I kindly explained my teammate was still new, and already making incredible progress in learning and doing our quite fast-based and high-volume work. Their work still met necessary deadlines, but not as far in advance as someone more seasoned. I had to help adjust some expectations that someone newer in their career could come in and meet the same workload right away.

Stand up for your team and their needs. You can help build their confidence and help them grow in their role with your agency.

Remind your team to care for themselves, and do the same yourself.

When I don’t see PTO marked on my teammate’s calendar, I remind them to schedule some time. We are BUSY, we work all days and hours, and we have plenty of responsibilities outside of work.

And I take my PTO, too. I’m often available, especially to my teammate and especially when they are new, and I also take time when I am NOT available.

I take time during the work day to participate in my son’s activities and attend doctor appointments. I have a great example, seeing my own boss make health and family a priority, and I want my teammate to know they should do the same.

I tell my teammate it’s OK to turn off apps and notifications. When they have an evening event, I assure them I will have eyes on my emails and our shared notifications. When they are buried in tasks, and frustrated by more coming in, I gently remind them to stay off the email while they are focusing.

And I do the same. I screen my calls, I turn off email notifications, and I only work on specific types of tasks after hours.

Understandably, if either of us started missing important communications, we would revisit this. But it hasn’t come to that. As communicators, our jobs can be 24/7, so it’s important to me that we take these simple steps for our well-being.

Ask questions to learn how your folks like to work and communicate.

I have supervised two different people, at different times. Their personalities, the way they learn, and the way they work are quite different! This means you have to keep your mind open, and adapt to each person’s style, so you can find success together.

I get my teammate’s input on how often we meet to go over our work. If I need to teach them something, we determine if they want me over their shoulder going through the steps, or if they want the instructions and templates to go try it solo. I assign their initial tasks based on what I need, and their self-reported strengths, then adjust as we go, and they grow.

We use Microsoft Teams for daily communication, text when it’s urgent, and share many FYI emails. The key is that we are both comfortable with this setup, and it is working for us.

Give honest feedback in a way that helps them grow.

Supervisory training I’ve been through says you have to address problems before the annual evaluation. I try to address issues in real time as much as possible.

I’m fortunate those issues mostly are knowing when to step away, answering questions a particular way, and style or best practices. I try to praise something great they’ve done, and also give the correction needed. When possible, I’ll say that I usually do something THIS way, but do you think we should try it THAT way?

We did have a time of miscommunication in our office, due to a lack of communication and understanding. I misunderstood the situation, and hurt another teammate in the process. Once I assessed and understood, I apologized where needed, guided some different action in my teammate to avoid a repeat, and we all moved back on track.

Try to hear all sides of a situation, right the wrongs quickly, and respect people’s feelings.

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