Your new supervisor is struggling in their role. Here's why...

Top performing associates have characteristics that make them successful, such as showing up on time, finishing their work with speed and accuracy, and being a team player.  When this type of associate is tapped to become the next supervisor, the skills that got them here are different from those needed where they’re going.  As a leader, they’ll need a new set of tools to tackle challenges like effectively teaching others to be top performers, setting clear performance expectations, and course correcting behavior of people who not long ago were their peers.

Try before you buy

Hiring and retaining top talent in the supply chain is paramount for senior Leaders these days.  For many companies the professional development path for a good hourly associate is to be promoted into a supervisory position.  Too many times though, you’ll see a top performing associate promoted without a trial run to ensure it’s a good fit.  How can you increase the odds that a promotion is successful?  

A good practice is to provide candidates for promotion an opportunity to perform a trial run of their leadership skills on short, well-defined tasks such as on-the-floor training of a new hire, running a shift start up meeting, or creating the staff plan on a day when their supervisor is absent.  In an example we’ve seen at a client of testing skills needed as a supervisor, a top performer being considered for promotion was asked to train a new hire on an e-commerce packing process.  After two days of training, the top performer self-selected out of consideration for promotion.  She realized she didn’t like being in the teaching role all that much (a required role for effective leaders) and would rather continue being a top performer in her current role.  What a gift for leaders to learn that up front before trying to promote her and struggle with an ineffective leader!

An opportunity to test leadership skills gives each side (associate and leader) the chance to evaluate whether the promotion is a good fit.  It’s no so much ensuring they have all the skills needed right now, but evaluating their coachability, communication strengths, and willingness to work through ambiguous situations.

Congratulations, you made it! Now the real work begins…

After a successful trial run, where the associate’s leadership skills are tested and found to have potential, you’ll gain confidence that the transition to a supervisor role is appropriate.  Now it’s time to anticipate the hardest parts of their new job they won’t be good at yet and have the playbook ready to begin building new levels of competency.

For some of the circumstances during transition, you’ll need to call it what it is: the new supervisor is going to be better at doing their old job than the person who took their place AND they won’t be very good at their new job yet. Do you remember that feeling when you first got promoted?  It’s a strange and uncomfortable place to be, but the new supervisor will need to recognize where they are in their journey, focus on the skills they need to develop to get where they’re going, and they will eventually work through that beginning phase.

For the other experiences that will be hard for a new supervisor, you’ll have the playbook ready to begin teaching them the fundamentals.  Two big ones: how to hold people accountable through goal setting and how to have difficult conversations. 

The new supervisor was likely very good at managing their time, setting goals to achieve production targets, and motivating themselves.  Now they must learn how to instill those same habits in other people.  The new supervisor will shift from creating personal goals to developing goals for an operation, or a shift, and then holding a group of people accountable for the results.  Also, the new supervisor is now in charge of people who used to be their peers. Once the supervisor begins setting goals and holding people accountable, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll need to have a difficult conversation around performance or policy infraction.  The new supervisor may feel awkward discussing low performance with an associate who used to be their peer and may choose to not have the conversation to avoid the discomfort.  They’ll likely need a buddy to help them through those first few difficult conversations so they can see the long-term benefits of giving honest feedback.  After a few reps they’ll be better equipped and see the value in having these types of conversations.

These new experiences are all too common for new leaders, and as time goes by each of us forget that feeling of uneasiness until we’re promoted again. You can start with a trial run to evaluate whether a top performer is a good fit and if that works out, then have your playbook ready to help them through the first few hurdles.  Your new supervisor will quickly increase their competence to thrive in their new role.

Additional resources

An article for your new supervisor…

A short read on The Hardest Transition We’ll Make: From Self-Leadership to Leading Others

A short book…

The Servant by James C. Hunter will teach your new supervisor about Servant Leadership

A longer read…

Buy them a copy of Seth Godin’s What to do when it’s your turn. This book has nuggets of inspiration to help supervisors through the first weeks of stepping into a new role.

Mike Mullican