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Greg The New Breed of Supervisor

March 1, 2000
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Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley company, from "The 21st Century Supervisor." Copyright (c) 2000 by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. This book is available at all bookstores, Amazon, and from the Jossey-Bass Web site at www.jbp.com, or call 1-800-956-7739.


Having been a supervisor for less than three years, Greg truly understands what being a rookie means. Most of the men and women that work for him are ten to thirty years older than he is. As he is sometimes reminded, he was still in diapers when many of his senior employees were starting their families. Yet this age disparity has not handicapped Greg or his passion to be a good supervisor.

Greg possesses something that will become more and more typical of future supervisors: a college education. However, that is not all that Greg brings to his role at a truck equipment manufacturing company. He also brings a lot of perseverance and tenacity -- traits he learned when he was growing up, from his father.

Greg’s father was a union member at a manufacturing facility, and Greg knew that he wanted to work in the manufacturing environment. He also knew he wanted to work in a position that would allow him to exercise his leadership abilities. Being a supervisor would allow him to do this and would give him the opportunity to enact some of the changes and improvements he saw were needed.

Greg’s dad gave him this advice, "I think it is important to treat people right. Respecting others because of their experience, skills, and job knowledge is very important. If you don’t respect others, they sure won’t respect you." Greg found this to be some of the best advice he had received as he began his job as a supervisor.

"Because of my age, I realize there is a lot that I have yet to learn," Greg says. "However, I have been very fortunate. There have been some great learning experiences for me. Whether it was learning to weld or learning to punch and shear metal, I’ve received some good training on how to perform many of the basic operations executed in a machine-shop facility. I’m not intimidated by what I don’t understand, and I am always quick to watch and learn from others."

Greg’s great desire to learn is one of the best traits a supervisor can have. "Supervisors must always be learning," Greg explains. "If there is a process or technique I don’t quite understand, I’ll ask one of the operators about it. They are usually impressed that I even ask, and they often spend a lot of extra time educating me on the process or technique. I have learned a lot about our company’s production processes by merely asking questions."

Greg doesn’t believe that having a college degree makes him superior to those he works with, but he does believe his degree benefits him. "Getting a college degree allowed me to expand my knowledge in areas that I knew would be important for me later on in my career. Learning things like accounting, finance, marketing, and economics gave me a well-rounded outlook on how a business must function to be competitive," Greg says.

Does all that college training help Greg on his career path as a supervisor? Greg is confident that it does. "It seems that not a day goes by that I’m not using something that I learned in college," he explains. "It might be as simple as understanding the new production efficiency reports or trying to find a better way to streamline production for the night shift. Whatever it is, I usually wind up making use of some bit of knowledge learned in a college class."

"Working to get my college degree also prepared me for a bigger need in life -- learning how to learn," Greg says. "That sounds a bit crazy, but I think that college really prepares you to see new experiences as learning opportunities. Because I got my degree in business administration, I have a natural interest now in seeing my team’s efforts through the eyes of efficiency and quality. And I believe it is true what you hear about quality: if companies don’t have a strong focus on quality, they won’t be around in the future."

When asked about how he relates to the employees on his production team, Greg is just as confident. "The last thing I do is try to be a know-it-all. When I first started as a supervisor, I tried to spend more of my time with people one-on-one instead of always speaking to them in group sessions.

Dealing with people individually gave me a chance to learn from them and ask them questions. It also gave them a chance to see that I was very interested in them personally and that I wanted to know what I could do to support their work efforts. I think this approach is most important for a younger supervisor. Standing in front of your employees like you are the ‘big bad boss’ will only get you into trouble as a leader."

When Greg was asked about advice he would give to other supervisors or to those individuals aspiring to be leaders in their organizations, he offered this idea for others to think about:

"I don’t think there is a substitute for knowledge. A college education is very important to supervisors and can make them more effective in ways that past supervisors would not even have thought about. For instance, my education prepared me to look at business from a profit and loss perspective. Now that I’m in the ‘real world,’ I see too many supervisors only focused on the end-of-the-day production numbers. Yes, they might be slightly concerned about quality, but they still don’t see that poor quality makes a company less profitable. I believe my formal education at college has made me better prepared to recognize the harmful effects of poor quality and correct the problems when possible.

"So getting a college degree would definitely be a huge advantage for a supervisor. The next area of knowledge that is definitely needed is the technical knowledge associated with your company or industry. Whether your company makes robotics, manufactures E-coat systems for painting, or processes insurance claims, it is important for supervisors to learn as much as they can. I don’t think you have to be a technical guru, but you do need to understand the process involved, the critical indicators, and the needs of your employees.

"Probably the final piece of advice I’d give is to work on your people skills. Being a supervisor means you need to learn how to lead. Leading others is not done by using a club but through talking, listening, coaching, and persuading. I have found that the better I get to know the people on my work team, the better I can approach them whenever a situation develops that requires their involvement. Learning how to organize and conduct a meeting is important too. The team concept works, but it takes time for meetings. Supervisors may facilitate many of these meetings, so it is important that they learn how to speak in front of a group of people."

From his own words, you can tell that Greg realizes the significance of his role and his relationship to his team. His approach to supervising might have been exactly the same if he had not gotten a college degree. However, with the things he learned in college he has been able to spot developing problems that might have been ignored by a supervisor without such education. The years he spent learning in the classroom prepared him for learning on the production floor.

Greg represents the new breed of supervisors who make a bigger impact than traditional supervisors were allowed (or even cared) to make. Greg educates his team on many of the things he learned in college. Helping his team members understand company costs, production reports, scheduling, and computers is a normal part of his day. Greg is raising the knowledge base of his team members, which, in turn, raises their standards for quality and continuous improvement.

Greg says, "Most people really do want to learn. Not everyone has the chance to go to college. I did have the chance, and now I want to help move my team as far as they can go to be the best they can be. If I do that, they’ll be happier, they will make more money in the long run, and we will all have a company worth working for."

Greg always advises other supervisors that, no matter how old they are, it is never too late to go back to school.

"If you never started college," he says, "enroll this year. If you started college but quit, go back and finish your degree. If you are not in a position to attend college, begin learning on your own. Visit your library, and check out books on basic business and leadership principals. Question other leaders on how they do what they do, and put into practice what you learn. Always be teachable, and then teach what you know to others. Remember, most people really do want to learn if the information is presented in the right way."

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