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HR Magazine: Sink-or-Swim Attitude Strands New Managers

By Kathryn Tyler  2/1/2003

HR Magazine, February 2003Vol. 48, No. 2

Dumping novice supervisors into uncharted waters can be disastrous; toss them a lifeline with timely, effective training.

After only five months of working for a national retail chain, Amber McCracken was promoted to department supervisor. “I was thrown in,” she says. No one taught her how to complete the reports she was required to bring to weekly store meetings. “If you haven’t done them before, it’s like a foreign language,” says McCracken, who lives in Newnan, Ga.

Although she went through a crash course type of management training shortly after her promotion, it left her wanting more guidance, she says.

McCracken’s situation is not uncommon. Many companies promote employees based on their technical expertise—not on their leadership skills—and don’t teach them how to adapt to their new supervisory role.

“A new piece of equipment often gets more attention than do new supervisors,” says Michael Lee Smith, SPHR, a consultant for a professional services company in Wall, N.J. “If the new supervisor is thrown into supervising, this sink-or-swim approach will ensure some will sink.”

Failing to train new supervisors can be perilous. According to a 2002 Watson Wyatt study, “Strategic Rewards Charting the Course Forward: Maximizing the Value of Reward Programs,” two of the five main reasons top performers leave a company are dissatisfaction with management and conflicts with managers. Also, untrained supervisors may make potentially costly mistakes, such as asking an illegal question during an employment interview, or not following proper contractual procedures with a union employee.

“Just consider the detrimental effect of letting the supervisor learn to supervise by making mistakes: fewer results, confused direction, poor work assignments, problems ignored or solutions applied to symptoms instead of root causes,” says Smith.

Appleton Papers, an employee-owned manufacturing company in Appleton, Wis., faced this problem when promoting people from the manufacturing ranks into supervisory roles, where education was given “on the fly,” says David Badilla, people development director. “It wasn’t very good. It was a case of one supervisor trying to duplicate themselves in style or approach in the new supervisor.”

Last year, the company developed a training program for new supervisors that focuses on communication as well as on interpersonal and performance management skills.

“Training new supervisors has a positive effect on all of the supervisor’s staff and produces more results than the supervisor was able to accomplish as an individual performer,” Smith says. “The time and money needed for such training is returned many-fold.”

A 2002 study by Hewitt Associates LLC, “How Companies Grow Great Leaders,” bears that out. All the top 20 companies surveyed, whose rankings were based on factors such as net income and company reputation, had formal leadership development programs, compared to 76 percent of companies overall.

While many companies offer some sort of management training, often it’s ineffective. But by adjusting when the training is conducted, what is included and who conducts it, you can make big differences in the effectiveness of your managers.

Scheduling The Training

Deciding when to offer new manager training is one of the most crucial elements of an effective program. Give new managers too much information too soon and you’re likely to overwhelm them. Give them too little and you risk serious mistakes on their part. How can you create a balance?

Offer small servings on a regular basis, recommends Elizabeth Guss, founder and managing partner of Cohesion, a management training and coaching firm in Salt Lake City.

McCracken, who had to attend new supervisor training for a week straight one month after her promotion, agrees. “It was hard to sit there for 10 hours a day and stay focused,” she says. Based on attendees’ input, the company now offers training once a week for six weeks.

The best training programs offer instruction for no more than a day at a time, allowing managers to go right back to work and apply what they just learned, says Ray Towle, SPHR, HR manager of the Georgia-based retail chain for which McCracken works. “They need absorption time, time to practice skills,” says Towle, who changed the company’s management training process.

Training should offer knowledge in small bites, he adds. “The best way to teach something is to put together modules, the smallest independent element.” For instance, modules for management training could include how to conduct an employment interview, how to complete a performance review and how to determine which tasks can be delegated.

Smith agrees. He recommends offering short instruction and allowing time for on-the-job practice of specific skills, followed by class sessions to debrief managers on their attempts to apply the skills.

“The way to learn a behavior is to do the behavior,” he says. “The worst thing you can do is get the supervisor away from his job for a week, and then expect the supervisor to apply what was learned immediately. The first thing the new supervisor does after a week is catch up on the work. The motivation, as well as the memory, has dissipated somewhat by the time the supervisor remembers to try out what was learned in the class.”

Often, HR cannot conduct training the moment an employee gets promoted. Typically, a new supervisor will be on the job for at least 30 days—sometimes much longer—before attending training.

Southwest Airlines fills in that gap by giving new ground operations supervisors an on-the-job survival guide. “They can print it online or order it through the print shop,” says Cheryl Hughey, director of leadership training in ground operations for the Dallas-based airline. “It is customized for each position and talks about the various tasks they are now responsible for and the resources in the company that are available to them.” Trainers go over the survival guide checklist with new supervisors.

This new practice, which Southwest implemented in 2001, ensures that all new supervisors receive the same timely information, Hughey says.

Initial Training

The first phase of instruction for new managers should focus on skills they will need in the first 90 days, Towle says. “You don’t want them to make early mistakes and lose credibility.”

Certain subjects should be covered as quickly as possible, leaving the more developmental aspects of manager training for later so as not to overwhelm the newly promoted employee.

“Some essential ‘stay-out-of-court’ personnel information needs to be communicated immediately, as well as some basic company strategy and a management skills introduction,” Guss says.

Knowledge and skills to consider focusing on during initial training sessions include:

  • Understanding legal and union contract information. One of the main components of Southwest Airlines’ training for new supervisors in ground operations is understanding union agreements.

    “As an agent, they may never have been familiar with their own union agreement. As a supervisor, they need to know the proper procedure for giving out discipline and contractual do’s and don’ts,” says Hughey.

  • Interviewing. New supervisors may be required to hire someone to fill their previous position. Although they have been through the interview process, now they are asking the questions. Navigating the legalities of interviewing and the art of matching applicants to the right jobs is tricky. Moreover, a mistake can result in a lawsuit or an unsuitable employee who could cause the company lost productivity for many years.

  • Creating new relationships with co-workers. “New managers need to know that their relationships with former peers will change, and they must have thought through how to handle that emotionally and professionally,” Guss says.

    Don Miller, a ramp supervisor for Southwest Airlines in Burbank, Calif., who recently graduated from new supervisor training, says the most difficult thing for him—even after training—is supervising people with whom he used to work side by side.

  • Delegating. “High-performance individual contributors get promoted to managers. [However] their instincts are to roll up their sleeves, push people out of the way and say, ‘Let me handle that one,’” says Louis Quast, vice president of development solutions for Personnel Decisions International, a management consulting firm in Minneapolis. “But this consistent pattern from a manager sends the message to direct reports, ‘I don’t trust you. You aren’t capable.’ This can have very negative consequences for the rest of the organization.
“The best and brightest [under this manager] will quit,” Quast adds. “The rest of the employee population will learn they can sit back on their heels and do nothing.” New managers must learn how to delegate.

McCracken understands the need for delegation, but she admits it’s tough to let go. “The hardest thing [about being a new supervisor] is delegation. I want to do everything myself. It’s hard to put your trust into someone else that the job will get done,” she says.

That’s a common response, Smith says. “The new supervisor has typically been responsible for his own work and now has to get even more accomplished through others. It is a fundamental shift in how one approaches working.”

Indeed, delegation isn’t innate in most people; it’s learned behavior. Make sure any management training program teaches the fine art of delegation or your good employees will lose morale quickly or, worse, leave the organization.

Phase Two

When a new manager has been on the job for a while and has been equipped with some basic tools that he is likely to implement right away, training should shift to leadership development.

At this point, you should add a “soft skills development program that can nurture healthy management attitudes and habits,” Guss says. “This works best in measured increments that the new manager can digest intellectually, try on for effectiveness and begin to [use to] build a personal toolbox for the new role.”

Quast agrees. “Leadership skills are best served after three to six months on the job.” Those skills include providing direction, giving positive and negative feedback, motivating subordinates, communicating effectively and resolving conflicts.

Management training classes also can grow into a support system for new supervisors. For example, Miller valued the camaraderie of the classes, which gathered new supervisors from all over the country. “It created a network of resources to rely upon,” he says. “You have people you can ask, ‘Have you ever dealt with this?’”

Towle has added a popular element to his management training program: “On graduation day, I bring in executives for a panel. One of the things I ask them is, ‘What was one of the things you wished you’d learned [when you started as a manager]?’”

McCracken recommends asking the attendees—in advance—what they need help with, then tailoring the sessions to trainees’ needs. She also recommends having time for open questions.

Miller agrees. “Listen well to the [new supervisors], to what their needs are, what the challenges of that position are, and go from there.”

Evaluating the Training

Training that doesn’t produce results is pointless. How can you make sure that your managers are benefiting?

Hughey evaluates training based on quantitative measurements, such as aircraft turnaround times, baggage numbers and employee complaints, she says. Also, the company has had fewer union complaints and contract mistakes as a result of the training, she adds.

Smith favors anecdotal evidence for demonstrating effectiveness. Immediately after a training session, ask whether the supervisor tried the new behavior and what the results were. “Asking the person the supervisor reports to helps ensure that attention is placed on using what was learned in class and that new behaviors are reinforced.”

Let upper management take the new supervisor training, Hughey suggests. Not only does this keep executives informed about the type of training subordinates receive, but it also creates buy-in and provides HR with constructive feedback.

Don’t overlook training for new managers who had some supervisory experience at a previous job, Guss says. “People learn from one another, and the more experienced managers may help shorten the learning curve for the new ones. Secondly, a corporate management culture is built through the process of bringing people together, discussing issues and suggesting alternatives to one another.”

Such communication will help HR create the kind of supervisors the company needs, and the kind of managers your employees want to become, Miller says.

Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.

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