Transitioning into a new leadership position: Avoid a major roadblock

Federal Supervisor office, 1908.
Federal Supervisor's office for Arkansas National Forest (now Ouachita National Forest), 1908. (Public domain)

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2014 — Typically, a newly appointed supervisor or manager is filled with good intentions about doing his job successfully. However, any new supervisor transitions into his or her new job following a predecessor in that position who was invariably different in terms of style and belief. This can prove quite problematic when the previous supervisor was inconsistent in enforcing rules and policies, creating in turn an often significant burden on the new supervisor who must establish him or herself with new and possibly unfamiliar employees.

Just how do new supervisors establish themselves?

New supervisors should begin their jobs by collecting data. Specifically: observe and document. Be sure to know how the unit and the assigned employees are performing. Supervisors will lose significantl credibility if they take any personnel actions based upon rumor or innuendo.

Once the data are obtained and the information about past practices are confirmed or denied, the next best strategy is to meet with each individual subordinate so the new supervisor can explain his or her expectations. Those expectations must be consistent with company policy, and should reinforce the importance of policies that may have been overlooked or unenforced in the past.

The next step is to “walk the walk.” Supervisors must perform the way they expect others to perform.  or example, if supervisors expect their employees to be on time at the beginning of their work day, the supervisors themselves should come to work early and demonstrate that they are productive immediately upon arrival at work.

In their new roles, supervisors should spend several months modeling appropriate behavior and mentoring employees who may need assistance.

The last step for the new supervisor in the transition process is to consistently enforce rules and policies. This means holding employees accountable for their performance, which includes discussing problems directly, correcting problems immediately and disciplining if necessary. It also includes commending employees when they are performing correctly and well.

In order to be effective, this approach depends on accurate and thorough observations and documentation by the supervisor. Without that, employees will perceive the enforcement of policy as a personal attack or will view the supervisor negatively.  For example, they may think the supervisor is malicious, especially in comparison to their previous supervisor.

The steps above will prevent most misconceptions from arising among employees with regard to the new supervisor’s intent, since the new supervisor’s policy enforcement is based upon observation and documentation, clear expectations and a clear example or model of the right thing to do. Perhaps most importantly, however, employees must be treated consistently.

This week’s prescription:  You, as the new leader, do not have to be constrained by the previous supervisor’s bad leadership style. You can change your employees’ expectations.

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