Managing your future as a supervisor

Use these five tips to proactively manage your professional transition to management.

06/28/2013


Learning objectives

  1. Get over yourself.
  2. Invest in their best.
  3. Don’t hover.
  4. Expect them to eclipse you.
  5. Keep a sanity nugget for yourself.

Many engineers face the transition from sole technical contributor to supervisor or “management” with trepidation because they haven’t received training to assist with the transition. This article gives some practical exercises and tips for proactively managing your future as a supervisor.

1. Get over yourself

Engineers undergoing the transition to supervision often remark that they could do the work faster and more accurately than their workers can. But people who work alone in a technical organization eventually will reach a plateau in the degree of contributions they can make due to the physical limitations of time. A person’s effectiveness can be multiplied when others work with them. It takes humility to accept the fact that you can’t do everything by yourself. Coming to this realization will allow you to pursue your ambitions toward greater responsibility and broader influence. People are promoted to be supervisory positions because they do their work so well that they can teach others to do it just as well—and then they should stop doing it themselves.

In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Dr. Stephen Covey suggests that we should review our commitments and evaluate them on two dimensions: importance and urgency. Successful people often get pulled into dealing with the urgent whether it is important or not, forgetting that the most important thing a manager should focus on is the “important but non-urgent” (i.e., the future).  

Ask the following questions to determine what you should spend your time on:

  • What percentage of time do you spend on
    • Non-important/non-urgent things? Why?
    • Non-important/urgent things? Why do these occur?
    • Important/urgent things? What do you personally have to do?
    • Important/non-urgent things?
  • What really requires your pay grade?
  • Where do you want to be indispensable?
  • What do you need to give away to allow you to do that?

2. Invest in their best

Once you have people working for you, your job is to get the best out of them for the benefit of the firm. However, many supervisors I know seem to give only one type of feedback: criticism. I know that we are training to be detail-oriented and our success has been built on quality, but if we focus only on what is wrong, people will feel disengaged and unmotivated. The trick is to focus on building a relationship that allows you to give constructive feedback that reinforces workers’ strengths, directs learning for improvement, and encourages growth for the future. Someone once told me that “they don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

To determine what kind of supervisor you want to be, consider the following:

  • Think of the best boss you ever had. What did he or she do that you would like to emulate?
  • Think of the worst boss you ever had. What lessons do you carry from that experience?
  • Think of some of your direct reports. What can you do to coach them for the future? To manage better performance on current tasks? To show them that you care about them as human beings?

3. Don’t hover

No one likes a back-seat driver, someone breathing down their neck, or a micromanager. If you feel the need to hover over and check in constantly with your direct reports to ensure that they’re doing their work, then you probably haven’t done your work as a manager. You have better things to do with your time than to babysit others, driving your staff and yourself crazy.

The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory proposes contextual leadership responsiveness along two dimensions: direction and support. At the start of a project, teams need high direction but low support: they are already eager to face a new challenge but need to be told what to do. As they start to face difficulties, you must provide high support and high direction, especially in cases where they are likely to become stalled or to go astray. As they figure things out, you should provide high support but low direction by regularly encouraging their good performance without micromanaging. And as the team finds its groove and becomes highly productive, you can step back into a low support, low direction role—but don’t disappear or the relationship will falter.

Consider the following:

  • What is your natural leadership style?
  • When does this style help your effectiveness as a leader?
  • When does it hinder your effectiveness? What can you do about it?
  • Think of a team you lead currently. What phase is it in? What leadership style should you use?

4. Expect them to eclipse you

Your success as a manager is solely built on the success of the people you manage. The future of your firm relies on your workers’ continued growth, especially in industries where technological development is happening quickly. Some people worry that if they teach too much, their direct reports will become so capable that they will become competitors. My attitude is that if we truly commit to meritocracy, the people who work with me now could be my future bosses someday. Therefore, my responsibility is to share knowledge, build leadership skills, and ensure alignment with the firm’s values so that my reports can someday lead a firm that I would want to keep working for.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you an obstacle for your staff?
  • Do your strengths hamper their growth?
  • Do your weaknesses hamper their growth? What can you do to compensate for those weaknesses?

5. Keep a sanity nugget for yourself

Those who are undergoing the transition from technical contributor to manager often mention that “losing touch” with the technical side is one of their greatest fears. We all went into this business because we chose it over all other professions. Our schooling trained us to think in a technical way that was compatible with our pre-existing inclinations. After all, we’ve all heard stories of engineers taking things apart as kids (and putting them back together, most of the time). I believe that for many engineers there is a kind of comfort in doing technical work, a comfort that feeds natural aptitudes and allows us to commit to all the other tasks we have to complete during the workweek. So I say: You’re the boss, and you can decide what technical bits you work on. Now you can’t take all the cool projects or your people won’t grow. And you shouldn’t do too much of it or your real job will suffer; take just enough to keep yourself sane.

Ask:

  • What is your sanity nugget?
  • What brings you joy, excitement, and meaning at work?
  • How often do you get to do this?

Managing your future as a supervisor is up to you. Your openness to change and your thoughtful investment in these practical exercises may make you a better boss and give you more time to pursue your dreams.


Erin McConahey is a principal at Arup. McConahey works in mechanical engineering at Arup, where she focuses on multidisciplinary design approaches and integrated technical solutions grounded in extensive engineering analysis. She has worked internationally and is now a lead engineer on a wide variety of project types including educational facilities, offices, high-end retail, laboratories, museums, and high-rises. She was a 2008 40 Under 40 winner, is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board, and was a 2012 Career Smart Engineers Conference presenter.



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