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Demonstrating the right stuff

THE majority of supervisors don’t get to go to business school to learn about the competencies or skills and behaviours for being a boss. Most of them deliver leadership on the run to staff who can sometimes feel more like weird science experiments than members of a winning team.

There are other supervisors who simply do the job the way it was done by the last person – which is fine, as long as the role model wasn’t flawed.

I am reminded of a storeman supervisor I coached in Northbridge, Dave, who assumed that because he was ‘busting his boiler’ in the shop like his predecessor, his four assistants would follow suit. In fact they tended to stand back and watch until he lost his cool and began shouting at them. When Dave and I discussed his frustration with members of his team they told him they weren’t sure what he wanted them to do. They pointed out: “Dave isn’t an old bloke like the last boss, so why should we help him out in the same way?”

The solution to this problem related to Dave’s communication skills and, in particular, his competence in delegation. Delegation is more than illustrating how to do the job. It is about clearly explaining what is needed and when.

There are other supervisors I have met who have done two days at a management institute and returned chanting words like ‘vision’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘customer’, without necessarily being able to implement anything practical at the office. It is one thing to say “customers are essential to our success” and another thing to demonstrate competence by seeking feedback or going the extra distance last thing on a Friday afternoon.

The problem with the ‘last boss’ and ‘training course’ approaches to leadership competency is that they don’t enable the individual to step away from the specific job they are doing and systematically assess and work on the skills and behaviours needed to improve performance. This is where thoughtful assessment based on a range of core competencies and on-the-job coaching can yield valuable benefits.

For many supervisory roles, core competencies can be divided into five main areas:

p the business;

p the customers;

p the team;

p the individual; and

p yourself.

Essential business-related competencies include understanding what are the most important operational priorities related to the job. Associated with this is a clear understanding of the technology and tools required to complete the task. Thus a business-related priority for Dave included having a clear idea of what the stock and delivery schedules were in relation to the stationery market in which he was working. Tools and technology included expertise in the inventory database, rack and stack technology, as well as safe lifting procedures. Customer competencies include a clear understanding of what these valuable people want and how happy they are with the service that is being delivered. Acknowledging that many of us have internal and external customers (within and without the business), these behaviours and skills may require different approaches. For example, customer needs could be established by a conversation with an internal customer over an office coffee. Needs could be clarified from external customers through a questionnaire. The key to customer care competency in a city like Perth is founded on personal relationships, and this could mean having the ability to mix appropriately with these people socially as well as taking the trouble to learn about their business environment.

Team competencies were discussed in my previous article. However, there is a simple question for supervisors to ask any member of a team, which quickly captures the essentials: “What are we trying to do together and how well do we collaborate in achieving it?” Supervisors can enhance team competencies through regular weekly development sessions, which could be an adjunct to meetings. Engagement of a skilled coach can significantly enhance this process and can be a lot less expensive than team building activities – given these can be a lot of fun.

Individual competency is related to the supervisor’s capacity to assess the strengths and shortcomings of their associates.

It is also about the supervisor’s effectiveness as a coach in developing the skills and behaviours of these people. Clearly this was a problem for Dave and it was something that we picked up on when we worked at increasing his effectiveness.

The last group of competencies concerns how well the supervisor looks after him or herself. This is a balancing act regarding how effectively they are able to focus on key features of the previous four competencies compared to how effective they are at managing their work lives. Most people want some equilibrium between home and work, and as Stephen Covey asked: “How many people on their deathbeds wish they’d spent more time at the office?”

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