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chapter 21
first steps

You have now been promoted to a supervisory position. Your success in this role does not depend upon rocket science.

Before you go charging off, take these first steps:
  • Make sure you completely understand the specific performance expectations of your manager for your department and yourself.
  • Become familiar with any budgets, financial statements and other financial reports used by your department and organization. Ask your supervisor or another senior person in the organization to help you gain a good understanding of these documents. If necessary, take a course in basic finance.
  • At the start of the first day in your new position, call a brief meeting of everyone in your group to exchange introductions, shaking everyone’s hand. State that you know that you need them much more than they need you. Advise them that you want to meet individually with each of them to learn more about the department over the next few days. Tell them a bit about yourself so they can get a sense of your personality and character. Ask if they have any questions. Be yourself and do not play the role. Inject some humor into your comments if you can.
  • After three days, consider asking each person in your group to complete a brief confidential questionnaire “for your eyes only,” listing their three best ideas for improving the performance and productivity of the department, plus giving them the opportunity to identify any issues of concern to them. E-mail or hand each person this questionnaire and ask to receive it back within the next five days. Emphasize that you want to receive each person’s individual views and tell them not to worry about trying to be Shakespeare.
  • At the beginning of each day, go on a tour around the department, say “hi” or “good morning” to everyone and take an interest in each person’s work station. Ask a lot of questions. When you are a new supervisor, do not worry about asking “stupid” questions. Keep an open mind. Listen carefully to what people say. Be alert to the existence of hidden agendas. Recognize that what people do not say may be as important as what they say. Refrain from expressing your own opinions. Some people will try to test you as soon as they can. Do not get sucked into any quick decisions before you have a better understanding of how the department operates. When you are asked a question, be unafraid of saying that you do not know the answer.
  • Start immediately to lead by example. Set the right tone and pace. Be punctual for all meetings. Eliminate reserved parking if it exists so the first to arrive at work get the closest spaces. Meet with others in their offices or workplaces as opposed to asking them to come to your office for meetings. Adopt a sense of urgency about doing first things first in a purposeful manner while avoiding getting distracted or appearing rushed. Refer to your group as a “TEAM” and refer to its members as “associates”, not “employees”. Do not say anything negative about your predecessor.
  • Let the members of your TEAM know that you are available to discuss any matters of consequence or concern with them. Tell them the best times for doing so. Consider establishing a set time every week for your “open office hours” when you will be available for people to drop in. Alternatively, you could say, “If the door is open to my office, I’m open.”
  • Be friendly and open with everyone but recognize that you are not there to become their pals or to win a popularity contest. Treat all TEAM members fairly. Be firm in holding everyone accountable, including those who were your peers and friends in your prior position. Do not socialize after-hours with the members of your group.
Take these additional steps to strengthen your position as supervisor:
  • Boost your credibility by tackling issues in your early days that can be fixed or improved fairly easily and quickly. The more “early wins” you can pull off, the better. Take the approach of under-promising and over-performing.
  • Determine what are the most important three to four opportunities, tasks and issues for you and your TEAM to concentrate on. Make a list of them for you to keep at hand. Similarly, jointly develop a list of the three to four highest priorities for each person reporting to you. Review the progress being made on these priorities with each person every week. Make sure that everyone knows that results are what count as opposed to busyness that consumes a lot of time and energy without accomplishing anything of consequence.
  • Begin to rethink how to best measure your department’s performance, customer service, productivity and whatever else is really important. Develop new benchmarks for tracking these factors. Challenge everyone in your group to do likewise.
  • Wherever possible, use quantifiable numbers to track the “outcomes” produced by your group. The first step to improving anything is to measure it. As Bernie Marcus, the founder of The Home Depot, once said, “At the end of the day, the numbers rule the game.”
  • From the start, figure out who are the key allies and partners that you and your department are dependent upon in the other areas of the organization and develop a good personal working relationship with them, one that is mutually beneficial.
  • After 30 days, meet individually with any members of your TEAM who appear to be resentful of your appointment as supervisor, are uncooperative or are undermining the performance of your department. Be totally candid with them about your concerns. State that you are depending on everyone to give you their full support. Ask if you are misinterpreting their behavior. Request that they explain their attitude and position. Try to put yourself in their place but be firm in saying that, if they are not prepared to give you and your TEAM their total, positive 100% commitment, then they should look for another job. If there has been no significant improvement on anyone’s part in another two weeks, tell that person to look for another job. In some cases, it may be necessary to fire individuals who are dragging down the performance of your group.
  • Learn to say “no” when someone comes to you with a request that is unreasonable or will interfere with the performance of your TEAM. It is inevitable that some people will attempt to get away with “nice tries” and, when they do, just smile and firmly say “No”.
  • Read the book The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson.
At an appropriate time, explain to your TEAM members that you are relying on them to use their best judgment in performing their duties and dealing with problems as they occur. Admit that everyone makes some mistakes, including yourself, and request that you be told of any serious issues right away so that together you can take the necessary action. On the subject of “bad news”, Anne Sweeney, former co-chair of Disney Media Networks, always cautioned her people, “Tell me early, I’m your friend. Tell me late, I’m your critic.”
The best leaders cultivate feedback from their subordinates on a regular basis. At some point in time, you may want to go a step further and conduct a confidential 360° survey of yourself with your peers in the organization with whom you have regular contact and all of the people reporting to you to obtain their assessment of your leadership qualities. Questions to ask could include what are the four things you do best, what are the four things you need to improve on, what should be your four biggest priorities ranked in order of importance, and what are the largest obstacles standing in the way of achieving these priorities. Compare the answers to your own self-assessment of these questions. Many organizations incorporate such a survey into the annual job performance review of their managers.


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