Being a front-line supervisor can be the most gratifying and exciting of roles that anyone will ever experience. It can also be the most terrifying, overwhelming and demoralizing. This is because new supervisors generally have no idea of the “squeeze” into which they are stepping.
The front line is the firing line
Imagine a place where the most challenging of work is reserved for those who are least seasoned and least prepared. Welcome to most organizations. After the initial glow associated with the promotion fades, new supervisors find themselves facing a difficult set of dynamics. They are fundamentally responsible for delivering on the organization’s promise to customers. Whether the focus is on product or service, front-line supervisors hold the key to hitting targets and making goals.
Naturally, making this happen requires that the largest spans of control occur at the front line. I recently worked with a highly technical manufacturing organization where supervisors were responsible for upward of 200 employees.
Here’s the rub: Depending upon the organization, first-level employees may require the most training and coaching of any employee population. Additionally, behavioral and performance issues may be greatest with this population. So, we saddle the least seasoned of leaders with these challenges and we saddle them with a disproportionate number of these challenges as compared to more senior leaders who may be better equipped to handle them.
The vicious vice
Front-line supervisors frequently assume their new role with the expectation that now that they are the boss (rather than being under the thumb of a boss), the pressure will let up. They quickly come to understand, though, that they’ve really traded one-way pressure for a two-way vice. They continue to experience pressure from above in the form of targets, goals, mandates, policies, directives and eternal changes. This puts them in a “hard place.”
But they also experience pressure from below. The employee concerns they may have had and the pushback they might have engaged in as an individual contributor now becomes the “rock.” So, front-line supervisors consistently find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Just one more thing
Despite general agreement that the front-line supervisor’s role is already full, it’s normally where new initiatives and requests ultimately land — and pile up. New systems. New processes. New paperwork. The problem is that while new tasks are constantly added, old tasks rarely are retired. And it’s incremental — “just one more thing.” As a result, supervisors are lulled step by step into overwhelm and overload, often without being fully aware of the predicament that’s brewing.
One supervisor described it like this: “It’s like a balloon. Yeah, it’s full. But you can blow a little more air in. And a little more. And a little more still. But the rubber starts to wear thin and pretty soon — and without warning — it’s got to pop.”
High-stakes on-the-job training
Given the ever-escalating challenges, scope, expectations, and pressures facing front-line supervisors, they should be the best and most proactively prepared of all in leadership roles. Yet, in most organizations, it’s exactly the opposite. The best individual contributor (whether it’s a production worker, service provider, or sales person) gets promoted to be supervisor.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the skills that helped these people to excel in their previous roles are completely different from the skills required of front-line supervisors. And the assumption generally is that this new skill set will be acquired upon promotion — perhaps by osmosis or some quick on-the-job training.
It’s time to stop the supervisory squeeze. The stakes are too high for those charged with engaging the bulk of the workforce and delivering the bulk of the results. Organizations must give some thoughtful consideration to the front-line supervisor’s role. A few good first steps might include:
- Proactively offering leadership and supervisory certifications to high-potential individuals so that no one steps into the role unskilled and unprepared.
- Right-sizing the front-line supervisor’s role by rationalizing employee ratios and eliminating low-value-added tasks.
- Pairing up seasoned leaders with front-line supervisors to allow for two-way mentoring; the supervisor acquires important skills while the more senior leader benefits from a “reality check” of life on the firing line.
Front-line supervisors really drive the business. It’s time to rethink the role and set them up for success rather than a squeeze.
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.
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