Want To Be a Quality Supervisor? Focus on Courage.

Want To Be a Quality Supervisor? Focus on Courage.

Pam Nessle Curtis

Director of Student Leadership and Service, University of Louisville

"With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate, and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity." -- Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s quote has been an inspiration to me in my career, particularly in how I approach the joys and challenges of effectively supervising a team of people. I think about the courage it takes to be a caring, competent and consistent supervisor. And I realize courage isn’t always at the fore-front of people’s minds when it comes to supervision, so let me explain…

I have been supervising staff - all kinds of staff - including undergraduate and graduate students, full time staff, long time staff, brand new staff, staff that are smarter than me (or at least more credentialed), and staff that are older than me. Along the way, I have learned about myself, other people, how to motivate, and the importance of taking risks. I played it safe early on, meaning I tried not to make any mistakes by doing exactly what my boss and the university policies expected. So I followed the rules meticulously and forced the staff to fit within those rules. The reality is that, it didn’t always work. So, I found the strength to be more compassionate with my staff while still holding them accountable and, as it turns out, the work was better!

Even though I may have had to fight for my sometimes “not-so-by-the-book methods” of working with a person, it was almost always worth it. Instead of immediately going to “the book,” I would consider what am I doing to contribute to this staff person’s poor performance or lack of performance. This is where courage comes in. As Twain mentions, courage is about taking risks, so I had to decide, am I brave enough to consider that this employee is failing because of me?

Have I provided everything I can to ensure this employee can be successful? Or perhaps I haven’t given her/him enough structure or clarity of expectations? The questions are often hard to ask, and the answers are not always easy to hear, but they are crucial to quality supervision.

I found that being willing to be vulnerable and admit responsibility for some of what was happening changed the conversation right away. Allowing for there to be a two way street of responsibility helped the staff person to let her/his guard down over time. Sometimes I have let the staff know that I had serious concerns but I was willing to work with her/him until a certain point before committing my concerns to writing or forwarding them to leadership, etc.

As I reflect on my years of supervision and the lessons I’ve learned, there are three things that rise to the top of what I would consider imperative in order to effectively manage a team of people with courage.

1. Make time for your staff. Schedule individual meetings with staff throughout the year and honor the time – don’t cancel and don’t let it be interrupted. Set a clear purpose for the meeting and use it as a time to truly listen to your staff member’s professional joys, challenges, and identified areas of growth.

2. Provide clear expectations for staff. Create a checklist of what should be covered with every new staff person. Develop a training program to help staff feel competent in their duties as quickly as possible. And finally, provide tangible examples of what good, very good and outstanding performance looks like in the position.

3. Trust takes work. Trust isn’t automatic, it has to be earned. Everything you do is being measured by your staff to determine how trustworthy you are just as you are determining how trustworthy you consider your employees to be. The more authentic, honest and transparent your communication is the faster trust is built.

I definitely have learned a lot about humility and how to listen over the years. With a focus on courage – both as a person and a supervisor – I continue to hone my management skills. Twain offers all of us, staff and supervisors alike, great encouragement in his quote. No matter what your supervision philosophy or approach, start with the courage to be brave and you will lead people to extraordinary accomplishments.

Pam Nessle Curtis

Director of Student Leadership and Service, University of Louisville