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How do we incorporate professional skill development that taps into a staff member’s strengths? Consider using a management plan model and learn how you can help staff identify ways to use their strengths.

Supervising to Strengths: Creating the Management Plan

I have spent the past month detailing part of my professional journey as a student affairs professional. Highlighted were some of the ways I fell short of building my skills and how I was impacted by the politics that were on-going in the places where I worked. I reflected on the lessons learned from each experience and what I would do differently the next time around. It was a healthy, albeit exhausting, experience to document and I feel differently about my professional journey after the reflection.

One of the common themes that showed up in multiple departments and across the decades and types of institutions: not knowing how to ask for better supervision. I sometimes struggled asking for help and floundered for months with a supervisor ill-equipped to help me reach OUR goals. One thing I took away from the experience is that I was forever judged for the work I was doing but only so much as it was a reflection on the department and division I was working for. While the impact was allegedly important, it was always more important than making sure I was fully equipped to manage the situation. In many ways, I was always being managed and supervised for my deficits rather than my strengths.

It has left me wondering: where are all of these student affairs managers and leaders learning how to lead their staff teams? 

This will be the second in a series of posts about supervising to staff strengths, focusing on using a management plan approach to supervision.

Separating Personal from Professional

How many of us have started staff meeting with the phrase “So I was reading this article about this leadership inventory and I thought we should try and do it as a staff development exercise!” After the groans, very likely the staff put the inventory away without a thought about what to do next. But what if you were given the tools to put the inventory skills described into action? What if you were able to figure out how to make your skills work to your and the department’s advantage?

One of the best supervisors I had used this model. The model helped focus my work for the year, separate from my own positional and department goals. The plan allowed me to identify areas of professional skill-building and ways to showcase strengths that benefited the department and division, without distracting from work that would be measured and evaluated.

Simply put, a management plan is different than developing and measuring operational and programmatic goals and objectives since the focus is on the personal and not on the output related to the title. Often the annual evaluation gives some space for speaking about professional development but I find that when we remove our professional goals from our personal goals, we can look at what we personally need to do over the course of a year that will impact our professional work. I’ll give an example of two times this has worked for me and could work for you.

Simply put, a management plan is different than developing and measuring operational and programmatic goals and objectives since the focus is on the personal and not on the output related to the title.

Answering Three Questions

Like most colleges and universities, we had annual department and individual assessments due around May of each year. For the first couple of years at this institution, I found the act pretty perfunctory and didn’t put much thought into the submission other than completing it. My third supervisor asked me to put together a management plan separate from my annual review.

She asked me to identify three things: a skill I wanted to learn, a skill I wanted to refine and a skill I wanted to teach.

Learning To Focus on Myself

To focus on a skill I wanted to learn, I looked at professional conferences and meetings. I would review the program with her to see if the outcomes were going to match what I needed. If it was an annual conference, I would pre-select sessions with her with several options that matched the goals I had identified.

To focus on the skill I wanted to refine, we would review the assessment inventory that we would complete as a staff to identify strengths. Using the assessment or inventory as a guide, we looked at what type of leader this made me and what skills I needed to improve. For instance, Communication is a recurring strength but sometimes I lose focus when speaking to large groups. Using the strength as a guide, we worked on scripts and notes that worked for my impromptu style of speaking while still staying focused.

To focus on a skill I wanted to teach others, we identified important lesson or message from the framework of my strengths. For instance, my professional interests in assessment didn’t come from a strength in strategy or analytics but from my strength Individualization. I always want to know that whatever service or program we offered students was going to meet the needs of all of our students and I wanted to understand our students better. Once I began to use these assessment techniques in my own programs, I taught our entire division of student affairs on the skills. This eventually led to a job in assessment ten years later.

Learn. Refine. Teach. Three simple concepts but each of the ideas helped me begin to own my professional development in ways that continue to serve me today.

Putting the Plan into Action

Using this model felt like an investment in my personal and professional development. I knew I wanted to continue advancing my skills to manage bigger and larger programs and needed her guidance to figure out the what and why I needed to know. Since it was separate from my annual evaluation goals, I could act more vulnerable and focus on what kept me from meeting the goals, like feeling overworked or overwhelmed and adjust the goals.

The management plan was designed to focus on what I wanted to learn, but not what I needed to learn. Those skills were focused on the annual evaluation and had consequences for employment. But the management plan focused on skills to advance me in the field and at the institution. Even years later, I still put together a management plan every summer to help focus my goals for the academic year, even though I’m now working for myself.

You can develop the plan even if you have an unsupportive supervisor or a supervisor who doesn’t support your personal development over institutional goals. Find opportunities to learn, refine and teach others even if you don’t have institutional dollars to do so. For instance, can you advise a student organization to give workshops on skills? Or can you attend a drive-in conference held locally rather than invest in a national conference?

Managing With a Management Plan

Maybe you’re now asking yourself, “How can you use this tool as a supervisor?” What strategies would work for your staff team without adding a great deal of extra work? Start by asking your staff questions about their future and using this information to make decisions together.

Where Your Staff about Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

The best way to begin to implement a management plan is to ask your staff individually where they see themselves working in five years. Do they plan to stay at the institution? Move elsewhere? Try a lateral move? You can’t help staff discern what they need to know if you don’t ask.

Find Out Their Strengths

Buy assessments and inventories as part of your staff development. Challenge your staff to learn how to deliver an inventory – even if you have staff who have worked for multiple years, asking them to be the teacher could be a management plan exercise. Don’t be afraid to invest in your staff by helping them understand more about their strengths and potential.

Make sure annual evaluations focus on professional skills necessary for the job, rather than for convenience of the supervisor. I will say first that the skill of budgeting for me was a challenge in my former life as a programmer, but it was necessary skill for my work as a director for a campus center. Learning this skill was never going to be part of my management plan since it wasn’t optional for me to learn. Make sure that skills necessary for the job are part of the annual evaluation and separate from personal goals to help advance in a career.

Help Someone Move On But Gently

After you help a staff member identify what they want to know or do in the next few years, begin to hold them accountable to the skills they demonstrate. When you begin to see that skills are stagnant and there is nothing of value left to learn, it might be time to ask critical questions about whether the position fits in their goals.

I’ve had this conversation before, and it was awful. I don’t suggest telling someone they aren’t good enough to do the job anymore, but you can always point out evidence that the skills demonstrated haven’t improved and either give options for improvement or give a deadline for the end of the contract. At the most, you can speak to their own goals and ways to achieve their personal goals using their strengths in different ways. Perhaps your staff member is not great with time management and follow-through but is wonderful with idea development and goal alignment. What other positions in the field would use these skills, such as assessment and coaching?

By framing personal and professional development separately, you can help your staff grow confidently in their roles. By giving multiple ways to demonstrate competence in a skill, your staff will begin to understand that professional development doesn’t end with a new title. And by taking personal responsibility for our own development, we empower ourselves to grow and follow our own passions and strengths.

Download the Management Plan Template

To help supervisors and staff members keep track of their management plan progress, download the Management Plan template. Members of Leadership and Values in Action get a free copy of the template as part of their membership!

Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals 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.

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Joseph Rios, EdD
I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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