What I Wish I Knew: Supervising Professional Staff

I found supervising professional staff a distinct challenge. But I did learn a few things. Learn how to supervise professional staff for the first time from lessons learned during my time in higher education.

In my twenty years working in higher education and fraternity management, I have supervised a few professional staff. Some were emerging grad students, others were new professionals. Some were re-careering professionals, others were professionals who had hard times being held accountable.

I can say now, looking back, that it was not an easy skill set for me to practice. Not like my work with students and volunteers. I admit that I struggled learning the skills I thought would make me an effective supervisor. Some things came to me naturally. Others were not as easy to learn.

I learned something from all of them. There were a few lessons I wish I had learned before working with them. Others were lessons learned after some challenging situations. But all were lessons that helped improve my supervision skills and hopefully create better work environments.

Lessons Learned and Those I Wish I Had Learned Earlier

I am going to speak to supervising full-time and part-time professional staff. I have had the opportunity to work with both levels of employees and found that my workstyle needed to adjust to both of them. In your professional career you won’t always have a choice of employees, as budgets and institutional priorities change.

What I Wish I Had Known: Your Biases Will Be Exposed

I’ve written about the fears I have felt when looking critically at my professional work through a social justice lens. For most of my career I was as the sole person doing diversity education and social justice trainings. I had colleagues but no staff reporting to me. And once I had staff reporting to me, I had to critically look at how my privileged identities showed up in the work place.

For me, I had to look at my cisgender male identity and my education. I felt comfortable looking at my interactions with staff and faculty through my sexual orientation and ethnicity lens, because I could identify when I was the target of both macro and micro-aggressions. But looking at how I showed up as a cisgender man? Or someone with advanced degrees and who used them to gain credibility? I was much less comfortable with these identities.

Plus no one really likes an insufferable know-it-all.

I’m pretty sure this is how people talked about me. Cause it’s how I came across to people. I’ve since learned to listen more.

One experience stands out to me because it involved a cisgender female staff member who approached my Dean about feeling silenced and talked over, and that it felt like misogynistic behavior. It forced me to really look at my biases and ways my intentions didn’t match my impact. We did work through the behavior and became closer. But I can’t deny that these biases, hidden to me until someone was able to call me out, could pop up again without intentional work to address them.

What I Wish I Had Been Told: You Can’t Act Like Miranda Priestly

The movie The Devil Wears Prada has one of the best on-screen villains, Miranda Priestly. How I would love to use the phrase “Please bore someone else with your questions” with a colleague who I needed to instruct. But the reality is that this is a fictional character who is the anti-hero for a good number of fans. It’s not necessarily useful when supervising professional staff. Or anyone else for that matter!

This type of withering look can destroy someone’s self esteem.

While the character makes for good screen time nemesis, it doesn’t work that way in the working world. You can’t dismiss someone with ‘That’s all’ and go about your day. I’ve worked with staff that would listen to me drone on and on, trying to make a point so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself. But what I was saying wasn’t helpful or insightful. And I would have to repeat myself anyway.

I learned that crafting myself as the villain didn’t lead to long-term friendships. What I needed was to be vulnerable, willing to listen and give instructions as necessary. I’m pretty certain Miranda would not have done that!

What I Wish I Had Been Told: You Will Need to Anticipate and Problem Solve with Little Information

Supervising a part-time professional staff person while working with my Fraternity showed me an entirely different way to make decisions. We worked in two different states, and didn’t live in the states where our chapters were located. We had to figure out, quickly, how to communicate summaries of situations so we could put out fires in the moment. In the Fraternity world, situations can escalate quickly and we needed to be on the same page within minutes of learning of concerning situations.

Because we usually only had partial information, we were quick to use Facetime or Skype to share information face to face. We found that talking, rather than using email or texts, to share critical information allowed us to make better in the moment decisions than waiting for a response via email or text.

Like Olivia, I also learned to love my phone. And I helped my Millennial staff member to become comfortable talking face to face rather than relying on texts.

We also learned to be on-hand when a chapter visit was going to happen, so that we could hop on our Facetime fast. Anticipating the need to talk helped us better prioritize our time together. Plus it showed our chapters that you should anticipate needing help, even when you’re in charge.

What I Learned: For Every New Skill Required, Provide a Scaffold

I’ve written about implementing a management plan when working with staff. That is important to help staff separate skills that need to be learned as part of the job versus those that will advance them personally. When you require your staff to learn a skill, like budgeting or learning outcome development, how will you help them learn the skill? Especially when there are competing daily priorities to manage.

I believe that supervisors must provide the scaffold to their learning and implementing the skills. Teachers use this technique when introducing complex skills. Imagine using the scaffolding technique when introducing learning outcomes development. You could tap into previous use of learning outcomes, introduce learning outcome vocabulary during staff meetings, develop an outcome as a staff to measure during the next week’s programs, and discuss ways to measure outcomes that can be taught to student programmers.

If you only ask a staff member to learn a skill, but provide no support to get there, I believe you’re unintentionally setting them up to failure. Without a way to apply their learning, how will they know they are meeting your needs or the departmental needs?

What I Wish I Had Been Told: Your Relationship Dynamics Will Change.

The last lesson I learned was while I was an interim leader in my department. While I was a director-level staff, the rest of the staff reported to the Dean within the area. I had the ability to assign work but the follow-up was with the Dean.

Except for the month he was out of the office at the start of a academic year. And I had to lead the department, reporting to the vice president how we were accomplishing divisional goals and planning for the rest of the year. I took this role seriously.

Two cartoon people holding megaphones yelling at each other.
I should have taken more time to listen to the concerns the staff had, rather that just talk at them about what we needed to do.

My colleagues, however, did not think my role was that serious. When I tried to hold people accountable, I got eye rolling and heavy sighs. I thought as friends and colleagues we were all in this together. But the dynamics had changed and we weren’t the same. I just tried using the ‘well I’m in charge, so that’s why you need to this right now’ response when I got the eye rolls and sighs. Not my best response, but I know that now.

I had to recognize that my role within the hierarchy was changed, and that meant I didn’t have the same relationship as I had before. When the Dean returned and I returned to my original role, the relationships changed to their original status too. I had to just acknowledge that this was something that could and would happen. I could get upset and ask questions about why or I could share my expectations, listen more, and hold people accountable when appropriate.

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals, and those supervising professional staff, for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

One thought on “What I Wish I Knew: Supervising Professional Staff

  1. Pingback: How to Assert Yourself Without Being Assertive, and Other Lessons I Was Told to Learn: What the Experts Say | Leadership and Values in Action, LLC

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