Lacking Supervisory Experience


I read your website almost every day and continue to learn from it. Now I have a question for you. I’ve been approached by someone from another governmental agency regarding a job opportunity. The position, Business Operations Manager, would be a wonderful opportunity for me and would involve a substantial increase in salary. The position is, however, a supervisory position and I have never had supervisory experience. I fully meet all the other position qualifications.

Could you give me some suggestions on how to broach this subject? I’m having lunch with the person that contacted me, as well as two others from her agency, next Tuesday. I should tell you that I have worked with this person for 7+ years, as she sits on the board that I work with. She has often commented that she would love to “get me up there” (referring to her agency). She says they are looking for good people, which leads me to believe that she knows I would be right for this position.

How can I get past this hurdle of no previous supervisory experience?

Your advice would be GREATLY appreciated. Hope to hear from you soon.


New Possible Job


Dear New Possible Job:

If I mention something that you are already aware of, or even VERY aware of, just overlook it. I don’t know your background, and don’t want to leave out anything that might be useful; even at the risk of saying something that might be considered obvious. I’m going to just mush around in my thoughts, to save time in editing, then will tack an overview on at the bottom!

1. As you’ve undoubtedly found, the key for establishing job fit is to focus on the knowledge and skills required for the position, whatever the job title might be. Experienced managers know that the prime requirement for effectiveness as a supervisor requires a combination of solid general job knowledge, a willingness and ability to continuously develop specific knowledge and skills, and already well developed skills in working effectively with and through others.

What I notice with many people who want to convey that they can supervise effectively, even though they haven’t had a supervisory job before, is that they emphasize their interpersonal skills with a focus on “getting along” with a variety of people over time, or they talk about effectively working on committees or projects. But the component that emphasis leaves out is the responsibility component, as well as the leadership component.

A supervisor’s job requires more than getting along. It requires viewing each individual as a vital part of the overall team that achieves the crucial work of the unit or section. It also requires knowing how to develop, encourage, support, guide, direct, redirect and correct, and even inspire each individual to do her/his best work every day, without exception. Good interpersonal relationships are important in that process, obviously. But the most important part of the process is this key fact: The supervisor is responsible for his or her own work, and the work of each individual as well as the team. And that work must be done effectively every day. Ideally a supervisor cares about people and wants them to feel positive about work. But a supervisor’s only job; the primary responsibility; is to use every bit of knowledge and skills she/he possesses to get the work done in the way the organization wants it done, no matter how individuals feel about work. Every manager interviewing candidates for a supervisory position knows that getting work done requires an effective balance between people and productivity. Thus, and over-emphasis on interpersonal skills can worry a manager as much as an over-emphasis on work product.

2. So, if I wanted to convince someone I was ready to fulfill the role of a supervisor, I would check through my history and find times I had directed others or been in charge of a project, or changed the way others were doing something, and was able to do so while still maintaining positive relationships. I would look for times when I had helped someone respond better to his/her own supervisor or manager, through my encouragement. I’d also look for evidence that I know how to get work done even under adverse circumstances. Anything that shows I can work with and through others to achieve the mission of the unit or section, in relationship to the greater organization. And if there is a written mission, I’d know it by heart. If there isn’t one, I’d develop one and say it at the meeting in a casual way.

Like, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the Business Operations section. It seems to me that their mission is to provide the business and administrative support for the Department, in a way that is 100% accurate and effective and that encourages internal and external customers to view us as their favorite resource because of our service and productivity. Is that a pretty good idea of what you see the mission as being?” (Or some such thing.) They may say that’s perfect, or they might add something else. Then you could absorb that, maybe even write it down on your little note pad you’re using, and add, “OK. Here’s how I see my mission if I become the supervisor. I will provide the leadership and oversight necessary to ensure that your vision and requirements, the vision and requirements of Director Smith, and the requirements for each job in the section, are fulfilled. I will do that by doing my own assigned work at the highest level, and by working with and through each individual and the team in a positive, focused way. I wouldn’t even be meeting with you about it, if I didn’t feel I could do that the way you would want it done.”

That’s not pandering to the egos of the managers or others you meet with. If they are going to be held responsible for whom they hire, it’s important for them to see you as someone who won’t be running your own show—you’ll be guided by them and others, as well as contributing your own ideas.

3. Here’s part of a job description for a Business Operations Manager from a government job description in Ohio. I’ve put key supervisory activities in red type, so you can be thinking of what experiences you have had that show you are ready to do these things, assuming they might be very similar to what you are considering. They generally fit the supervisory role of every Business Operations Manager I have ever worked with.

Supervises, evaluates and directs activities of clerical staff for assigned field office(s) (e.g., determines work priorities and assigns staff ; develops mechanisms to assure work product is completed in a timely manner, assigns and reviews work, completes performance evaluations, recommends or authorizes leave & travel expenditures, recommends or initiates disciplinary action, etc.); maintains confidentiality regarding staff issues; coordinates reasonable accommodation processes for staff with Human Resources per RSC policy provisions; encourages and assists staff with professional development; responds to employee concerns and grievances, and administers labor agreement (OCSEA contract); interviews and recommends applicants for hire; reviews, interprets, and implements policy and procedures for clerical personnel and monitors telephone schedules; provides technical advice and information about functions of the WP operation; acts as back-up to support staff functions as needed; conducts and attends staff and administrative meetings and training conferences;

Look over your resume and think through your work experiences to see how you can prove to someone, in a few salient points during a limited lunchtime informal interview, that you have a good idea of what the job involves as it relates to working with and through others, and that you are ready to do it, and confident you can do it while developing a strong, eager team.

4. As I mentioned, it will be important to let them know that you will be following their leadership about the needs of the team. For example, there may be problems already that need to be handled. OR, things may be fine and they just need continuity of what is going well now. I think I’d ask them about that, to show that you don’t make assumptions about it, but rather are guided by their wishes and needs. And also that whatever approach they want, you can provide it.

5. If you have read any decent books on supervision, have those ready to mention. If you get this in time, I suggest you buy a book, even if you’ve read a zillion others, and be able to say you were reading it over the weekend, as a way to show that you want to train yourself. Two I like are “Skills For New Managers” by Morey Stettner and The Art of Managing People” by Phillip Hunsaker and Anthony Alessandra. I’d say that while I realize leadership as a concept is important and I want to provide positive leadership; nevertheless, I also am aware that leadership can be a remote sounding concept, but supervision is direct, personal and highly interactive. So, I’ve been refreshing my thoughts about that. (Refreshing implies I knew it already and am only updating.)

6. Consider, if you have the chance, discussing a goal you might have, given what you know about the section already. This lets them know a flavor of what you want to achieve. As a manager I was usually looking for a supervisor who made me and the section more popular! That might not be the need there, but it’s one that usually works if you don’t have another one.

I like to use an analogy that doesn’t work in every context, but has worked for my purposes when talking about administrative offices. Most government administrative offices involve individuals who each have their own kingdom of work, often with a wall built around it; not necessarily in a mean-spirited way, but it’s there nevertheless. A good goal is to maintain the feelings of pride and ownership that are felt by each employee, while ensuring that walls fall down and are replaced by bridges and paths instead. Instead of having external and internal customers left with the impression that each employee is a barrier to get around, the administrative team is viewed as the best resource available. Then, you’d need some ideas for eliminating the walls and building bridges and paths!

I think cross-training is a key issue for that, as well as purposely developing work that requires two or more people to interact; preferably more than two. Even if it’s a small a thing as organizing a supply closet, I think more than one person should do the work. Anything that is apart from the primary job task is a good place to look for making it a duo, trio or group task. And the more employees who can work on something, the better it is for breaking down barriers in the regular work.

7. Even for this lunch, I’d be prepared for some interview-type questions to find out how prepared you would be for supervision. The ways to frame those are limited. You can be asked one of the following type leading questions;

Tell us about a time when…………….. Have you ever…………….? What would you do if………………? How would you………………? What are your thoughts about……………..? What do you know about………………….?

You may find most of their emphasis is on the work you will be doing, rather than on supervising. But since that is what I’m writing about, I’d say to give some thought to some key issues involved with supervision, and at least have a philosophy about it, even for this more informal meeting.

Training employees on the job. Communication; oral and written. About work, interpersonal, to solve problems, etc. Correcting and redirecting when employees make mistakes. Correcting and directing, when employees purposely violate policies and procedures. (A great book for later is Robert Mager’s book, “Analyzing Performance Problems.”) Developing a motivating work climate. Dealing with interpersonal conflicts. (Especially that.) Analyzing and correcting work problems. Team development.

Etc. The list is endless it seems; but those are some key ones. If you are hired any of those could be an issue from day one, so you might as well have thought through them anyway.

8. Let me toss out a personal thought. I like to have a candidate for a job give me a picture of what I can expect from him or her from the very beginning. I often will say, “OK. Let’s assume you are hired. You have an empty office, except for the files that are already present. You have to get settled in with your personal things and getting your office set up, as well as simultaneously getting to know the job while being involved in the work of employees right away. Describe for me that first week, at least in a general sense. Tell me what you’ll be doing with that week.” Then, based on their answers I ask follow-up.

For example, if they tell me about talking to people and all of that, I ask them when they intend to get their office space set up and operational with all of the things that are necessary to having a working office for themselves. (Phone recordings, email set-up, supplies, things on the wall, reference books laid out, etc.) If they talk about that I often ask as a follow-up what they will do to introduce themselves to employees and how will they do it. Or, how will they budget their time to make sure they have a balance between meeting people and getting their office set up. Or, how they intend to reach out to a network of peers.

What I’m after is a reflection of the reality of work in the first few days, for a supervisor. There’s not a right way necessarily. But their answers often tell me whether they have a thought process about any of that. When someone has a philosophy about their work as a supervisor, they usually have very definite responses about their first week. When they just want the job and have given it no thought, their answers are often nebulous and heavy on getting to know employees; without reflecting the reality of settling into work.

I guess if there were a perfect answer from my viewpoint, it would be for a supervisor to say that she will bring her things in over the weekend if possible, but not build her nest for at least the first week. Instead, she would use that time to learn the job and introduce herself to the people. THEN she can start hanging pictures, putting things on the desk and all of that. Employees tend to get disgusted at supervisors who are more concerned about getting their cubicle or office set up, than they are about fitting into the work.

I also don’t think it’s optimal for supervisors to come in planning on interviews with employees. Ick. I think of it this way: The horses are running down the road already, with the stagecoach jostling behind it. The supervisor jumps into the driver’s seat. Her job is to pick up the reins and ensure that the horses keep running the right way. It usually isn’t necessary to beat the horse and jerk the reins. A few gentle tugs now and then are about all that is usually needed. But it IS her job to ensure that the horses know the reins are in someone’s hands.

I might not want to share that analogy with my potential boss; but it’s the way I think about it! Actually, I often tell new supervisors that analogy, so they know what is expected. I don’t want them beating the employees, but I do want them to have the reins. I need them to do that, or I don’t need them at all.

9. Those last few thoughts may sound as though they don’t deal with the issue of how to show you have supervisory skills, in spite of not being a supervisor before. But if you are prepared to discuss supervision effectively, they won’t care so much if you’ve done it before, as long as you can do it now! I’d keep that focus: You’ve had experiences that are similar to a supervisor’s role. And, you are ready to completely fulfill the role now.

10. Remember, the role of a supervisor is crucial for a manager. They need you to help them be effective, and to help them appear to be effective to those who manage THEM. You need the manager. You need her support and encouragement, and her friendship as well. And, you need the manager to be your PR person, if you need support from those who are higher up. You should want to be part of a strong managerial team, as well as part of a strong employee team. That’s the dual role of a supervisor. You can only do that through effective communications on a regular basis. With employees I think it’s crucial to have direct, face-to-face conversation every day. EVERY day, something that establishes in the minds of an employee that you are an integral part of their work.

With managers, the need for face-to-face conversation is less, because they have time constraints just as you do. They don’t want to hear a supervisor venting all the time! But updates about work and passing along good news, is always welcome. I think it’s good to let managers know they can depend upon you to be a judicious pipeline to what is happening. And that you will also transfer what they need communicated to employees. I like to hear statements of fact about that. “I can promise you this: I will never put a negative spin on anything I communicate about you or Mr. Smith, or the policies and procedures of the organization. I see my job as selling and helping people feel positive about work.” Or something like that. Never underestimate how managers appreciate loyalty from a supervisor! They will pick a non-supervisor over an experienced one almost every time, if they think they will get good work AND have loyalty!

Does any of this help at all?

Please get back with me about specific questions you might have, if I missed the point entirely! I have to go now, because of a commitment; this weekend and tomorrow are nuts for me! But I’ll be checking email and want to help if you think I can.

Follow Up: Tina’s advice is awesome. I really appreciated her comments. I just went in and told my supervisor about this opportunity. I don’t like to sneak around but I questioned whether or not to tell her. To my surprise, she was very supportive and started listing some of the supervisory duties I have here and some of my project accomplishments. She wished me luck. Maybe sometimes it is better to be open about these things. What do you think?

As always, your suggestions are right on. Thank you. And thanks for your kind words. I’m feeling much more confident. Even if nothing happens with this particular job, it is always good to meet new people and explore new possibilities.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.