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May 24, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Academy Awards

Promoting or hiring an employee to be a first-line supervisor represents a very important fundamental challenge to a county or city as well as to the employee involved.

The new supervisor enters a strange world even if she has been with the agency for decades. Suddenly the person’s role is different and colleagues look at her differently. Soon after the cake is eaten at the promotion or welcome reception, new supervisors find requirements and expectations placed on them by management, as well as expectations and hopes on the part of their new subordinates. Newly appointed supervisors wonder how they will fare in this new world, how they should carry out their new responsibilities, and whether management will support them or chastise them when they make decisions or take risks.

The new supervisor may be a long-serving veteran who is full of technical knowledge about how the organization’s particular systems function. This technical skill is an important asset, but it is by far not the most important asset. The technical knowledge, skills and abilities ("KSAs" as they are known in the ancient language of the human resources professional) are not genetically embedded into the DNA of the employee. These skills can be taught and they can be learned. What will make the difference in the new supervisor’s success or lack thereof is the extent to which she acquires the skills of collaborating with subordinates, ensuring that the job gets done.

Agencies make a serious blunder when they hire supervisors based only on their technical knowledge. However, an even greater blunder occurs when the agency, in effect, abandons the new supervisor so that she has to fend for herself as a "stranger in a strange land" without supplying the supervisor with basic tools for confident navigation.

After that celebration over the promotion or appointment of a new supervisor is forgotten - usually about 24 hours later - the real work begins and the "tests" of this new person will begin immediately.

Subordinates will test the new supervisor to see what kind of response they get and whether the new person can be worked around or whether the person will be consistent and have a sense of humor. A newly promoted supervisor with many years of experience will immediately find dear old friends on the work crew asking for exceptions, calling in sick, etc., with an expectation that the new supervisor/old friend will reward their past association with future slack.

The new supervisor is understandably insecure and concerned about properly responding to these kinds of tests and the support she will have from her own managers. It’s also one thing to read agency policies on workplace violence, non-discrimination, sexual harassment, time off, etc., but it’s quite another to have to apply them as the agency’s direct representative.

Without the tools and the confidence, which cannot come by means of the chaos theory, the supervisor is condemned. The sentence may be to either a rather short and miserable tenure or a retreat from any confrontation. The latter sentence means that the supervisor will spend years "just getting by" and not helping subordinates and the organization.

Personally, these "orphaned" supervisors will feel worried, angry, and disaffected with the organization over time. This is particularly sad when it is that very organization or individual managers who selected them for appointment or promotion in the first place. Something goes sour when people feel abandoned and unsupported. The work crew will sense the situation and take advantage of it by either working to a bare minimum level or provoking the supervisor into some unintended outburst, which further reinforces the sense that this supervisor is the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

If the outburst involved threats of violence, racial epithets or sexist remarks or actions, not only the supervisor and the work crew are harmed, but the county or the city’s liability goes way up.

The Supervisory Academy

How can such situations be prevented or mitigated? One of the HR Doctor’s favorite approaches is for the organization to create a visible symbol of the support, concern, and appreciation for a new supervisor Ð the creation of a mandatory Supervisory Academy.

The Supervisory Academy creates a consistent learning curriculum and a supportive environment for every new supervisor to attend. The "faculty" can be internal managers, directors and other supervisors, with some guest presenters, thereby reducing the costs significantly and adding a more-personal "I’ve been there too" touch to the experience.

A typical academy may involve a half-day a week of mandatory attendance for a period such as 12 weeks. Typical curriculum content includes the history of the organization and information about its budget, staffing, and the role of the different departments.

The curriculum also would include a serious dose of ethics and conflict-of-interest avoidance. It would include specific content on recognition and appreciation of staff, labor relations, grievance handling, effective discipline, critical incidence management, planning, communicating and other essential interpersonal skills. There would be components on "exceeding customer expectations" and mentoring as well as performance evaluation.

It has been the HR Doctor’s experience over many years that creating this kind of Supervisory Academy, making it mandatory, and ensuring that it is supported and recognized can produce spectacular results, especially as more and more supervisors graduate over time.

Graduates bond and network with their fellow supervisors in ways which will never have occurred before in the organization. Over time, the Academy "alumni" can come back together in sponsored events and seminars. They will have shared an experience that makes them a stronger team and stronger, more successful individuals. In every academy seminar, they will find proof of support from the organization and recognition of the importance of their role by its leaders. They will have a chance to vent and share their frustrations as well as learn techniques and resources available to help them.

A major graduation celebration at the end of the academy experience should involve presentation of certificates of accomplishments or graduation by the top elected and appointed officials, perhaps other signs of their attendance such as shirts and academy pins, and the ever-valuable class photo (except when you close your eyes all the time like the HR Doctor does).

The Academy content and its strong support should not be a secret in the organization. Members of the work crews and the office staff should all know what’s going on and what kind of experience their supervisors are going through. Over time, a momentum will build and the academy will be a major contributor to organizational morale as well as to creating a corps of technical, compassionate, experienced and knowledgeable supervisors.

A person graduating will return to the work site with a kind of confidence and positive outlook for the organization that she would not have ever achieved without the experience. The possibilities of a disaffected employee with a poor attitude spreading the virus of frustration will be greatly reduced.

Creating an academy is highly cost effective and highly valuable. It should be a part of every organization’s standards-and-learning "inventory." In fact, it would be a great idea for a similar experience to be shared by elected officials in Learning Institutes or Academies just for them.

The HR Doctor has recently conducted presentations in Georgia for the University of Georgia and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and in Montana, courtesy of the wonderful Jane Jelinski, director of the Local Government Institute of Montana State University, for the municipal clerks in the state.

If your own agency wants to begin an academy and you don’t know where to turn, eat some chocolate M&M’s and contact the HR Doctor for help!

Invite me to the Graduation!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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