Becoming Boss

by Leah Lundquist
follow me on Twitter: @leahlundquist

No millennial I know particularly wants to end up like Michael Scott, beloved by his employees in a pitiful way. No, we all want to be Tony Hsieh of Zappos, crushing organizational hierarchy in the name of productivity and passion. Or Liz Lemon, somehow getting a show on the air even while managing crazy, egocentric actors and immature, oftentimes lazy writers. But making the leap from the very lowest of the food chain to having people to supervise isn’t easy. We talk a lot about “managing up” as Millennials - what about when we start managing “down”? 

I recently made this leap myself. This past fall, I went from managing the work of no one to managing a single person and then to managing 5 within a matter of a couple months. Now – disclaimer here – I work in an academic environment where my supervisees are students, so none of them are FTEs. I’d argue, however, that supervising individuals on their second priority (school being #1) and close in age to me or older adds to the supervision challenge and provides even more qualification for what I’m about to share.  

Most of our organizations probably wouldn’t buck the organizational titles and chart for a Zappos-esque holacracy anytime soon,- so we might as well work with the hierarchies we’ve got and be the best, most empowering supervisors we can be.

Take that collaborative Millennial spirit and use it to your advantage!

As a supervisor, I’ve found that making sure everyone feels a part of something bigger than his or her contributions is essential.  I started the position meeting 1-on-1 with each of my supervisees.  I quickly realized that the students I supervise are interested in the initiative they are working on broadly but had no grasp of the big picture. As soon as I started bringing them together as a team more often, new strategies and approaches were being thrown around left and right. Having a broader perspective around the project allowed my supervisees to bring their broader skill sets to our work together as a team. Plus, it created a more fun weekly meeting! 

Team meetings can also be a great place to take the entire accountability burden off of your shoulders alone. There are many ways to have supervisees share a “public to-do list.” If they voice their responsibility and you’ve done a good job building relationships as a team and providing resources, they’ll get it done.

If the team spirit is getting in the way of making productive work happen or you don’t feel it’s clear enough who is ultimately responsible for what, the RASCI responsibility matrix can be a useful thing to have at your fingertips. It has helped me think about the multiple roles an individual might play in a particular project: Are they: Responsible for managing work? Accountable for the final result? Providing Support? Need to be Consulted or Informed? Most successful projects are more of a team effort than you expect up front.

Be a colleague and set those expectations high

I’ve always been lucky to have incredible supervisors who have expected a lot out of me. And I’ve always found myself motivated to deliver. Why? Because they’ve called me a colleague and made it clear that they were about my professional development, pulling me into meetings where I clearly wasn’t a huge contributor yet, inviting me to co-facilitate meetings that felt well-beyond my league. Be that door-opener for the people you supervise. Pay it forward. 

One time, I distinctly remember telling a supervisor I didn’t know how to handle a series of organizational partnership conversations. She responded as if she’d been to the best supervisor training in the world: “Leah, I trust you. If you fail, I’ll take the blame and if you absolutely need me to intervene, I will, but I believe in your capacity.”

And did anything bad happen to the organization because I handled this partnership? No, of course not. On the other hand, did anything awesome happen because she encouraged me to handle this one solo? YES: a huge confidence boost in her supervisee while she doubled the organization’s capacity.

For those times that expectations are not met, having conversation helps.  I recently had to have this type of tough conversation with a supervisee who did not meet core responsibilities of the position. I really wanted to stay in denial, blaming it on my poor supervision. Instead, we both had to get better. I needed to improve at documentation and deadline-setting. The supervisee needed to get better at reliability and self-initiative.

I’m happy to report that we’re on quite collegial terms now, and that he’s following through 100% with the deadlines we set together. Let’s face it. Everyone works better with deadlines, even made-up ones.

Be a friend-with-boundaries and know the person you’re supervising

It seems so simple, but being a friend-with-boundaries at work is as time-intensive as being a friend-with or without-benefits outside work.  What motivates your supervisees? What topics do they love to chat about before you dive into work talk? 

The few minutes my bosses have spent stopping by my door or cube to ask about life or share something authentic about themselves have, no doubt, increased my motivation and loyalty. The times they have clued me into their shortcomings or asked for feedback have doubled it!

Perhaps your supervisee doesn’t like talking about life outside of work. Just make sure you still get that person’s birthday on your calendar and celebrate it publicly in the office. They’ll appreciate it. I promise.

Get better at facilitating meetings

Whether over conference call, in person or online, you’re going to need to be good at facilitating meetings as a supervisor.  I find even briefcheck-in and check-out questions key to setting the tone on both ends. Invite everyone to speak up early and they’ll be more likely to speak up throughout. If you’ve been in the weeds during the conversation, help people zoom back out at the end to why they’re excited about the initiative.

We move in the direction of our questions, so plan compelling or creative questions for the meeting. Make room for introverts and people who like to provide more thoughtful responses by allowing everyone the chance to write or think about a big or strategic question for a minute before opening the floor for responses.

So there’s just a few things I’ve learned in my few months of supervising. What recommendations do you have from supervising or being supervised?

Mark your calendar! Join us at the Friday, May 16th Emerging Leaders Network Lunch at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofitsfrom 12 – 1 pm to chat more about “Becoming Boss.”


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