Often people who are great employees are promoted to supervisory positions.

After all who doesn’t want to promote a loyal, capable and dedicated employee who is well-liked by the team?

Being a part of a team and knowing how to do your job well are important foundational behaviours for anyone who wants to keep their job. The problem with this promotion model is that when you are good at the operations level of front-line work, you are not necessarily equipped to take on a management role. As a supervisor, being held accountable for team results rather than just your own individual results means a shift in everything you thought you knew about work. Share on X Management treats you differently, your co-workers treat you differently, and you now have colleagues in management rather than as team members. Your focus, role and responsibilities all change, you are expected to deliver at a much higher level, and report to more high level people who are scrutinizing your results to see if you are going to survive, thrive or dive.

With all this to learn and adjust to, where do you even start?

Understanding some of the key differences between operations thinking and management thinking is critical to finding your own supervisory groove.

Let’s look first at the first five differences between operations and supervision and what they imply for supervisor thinking and acting.

1. From buddies with the team to giving direction

When you are a team member you need to get along with others, be responsible and helpful. If you do this well, the other people on the team will for the most part enjoy working with you and consider you an important team member. When you move to a supervisor position, those team member qualities are not lost, but as the person in charge, you must develop a sense of authority and inspire the confidence of others in your leadership. Your presentation skills need to improve because you are giving direction, coaching others, making announcements and running meetings. And your understanding of the system, its rules and standard operating procedures needs to be accurate and up to date.

Unless you have a boss with a lot of foresight who prepared you for this, it will feel like a shock to the system. Team members will not see you as “one of the guys/gals”. You simply cannot maintain that old buddy relationship because as a supervisor it is a recipe for failure. Learning to provide direction, set boundaries and be clear about what you do and don’t want from team members will help you feel more secure as a manager and win the approval of your team. When you first start out as a supervisor, giving yourself permission to be in charge is essential, even though it isn’t easy. This is essentially the first important shift in your thinking from operations to supervision.

Ask yourself this question to get started: How can I increase my confidence to give direction, set boundaries and provide clear expectations?

2. From doing the work TO coaching others to do the work

Taking initiative and jumping to get the job done, demonstrate the qualities of loyalty, foresight and obedience so loved by employers. You still need these qualities AND you need to shift the focus from boss-reactivity to equipping your team for success to meet the boss’s goals. As a supervisor your job is to develop the capacity of the team to do their tasks effectively. They need tools, resources, training, and coaching from you. They need you to stand up for them, and let them know when they have gone too far or not far enough. Be prepared to have some difficult conversations along with pep talks and encouragement.

Equipping the team to do the work is an area where a lot of managers stay stuck. They keep on jumping in to do their team members’ work or they redo the work after the team has left. They agonize over details that are not “perfect” and focus on details of tasks instead of seeing the whole picture. This is not building team capacity, it is building apathy, cynicism and passiveness. As a supervisor it is no longer your job to do the work directly. Sure, you can help in a pinch, but you have a new job now that should be taking up ALL your time. That job is equipping every person on your team to succeed so that if you are not there, things are still running smoothly.

To get started ask yourself this question: What one thing would help my team do their work more effectively and with less stress?

3. From following what you are told TO being the example to the team

If you can’t follow instructions you likely won’t be able to teach others to do it, right? This is another important operations skill that must evolve into a higher-level leadership skill for good supervision. Compliance is one thing. Excellence is another level up. And being an example is even higher. Being an example moves from the realm of doing to being. Being the example you want to see in others is what builds confidence in your leadership. You don’t just “do” things, you “are” the embodiment of a set of skills and values that show you as worthy of being the person in authority.

Being the example comes from a position of humility and courage. For example, when your team sees you as honest in your dealings with them and your superiors, they will see your behaviour as the standard for their own. When they see you as cutting corners and lying about it, that lowered example lowers the team standard, even for normally high performing employees. Which one do you want to be known for?

To get started ask yourself this question: How could humility and courage help me to become a good example for my team?

4. Figure it out and do it TO explain why and what

A lot of confusion around giving direction can be cleared up by understanding that crew members are responsible for the “how” piece of a job, whereas supervisors are responsible for the “why” and “what”. You may need to explain a new job procedure to the team in some detail, but if they don’t know why they are doing it, and what it means in the context of their daily work, there will be less motivation and engagement. Individuals need to know why something is being assigned and then what that assignment means to them personally before they can get good at the how part. You may have to explain some how questions, but since the crew are the ones who will be doing it, getting their input, understanding and insights into the how of a job is more valuable that telling them how.

It is easy to fall into the habit of mindlessly sending out directions and procedures when you are in a management position, but remember that as a supervisor you are responsible to guide the team, not do their work for them. Explaining why and what, then asking the crew to describe how, will increase sense of ownership and reduce mistakes. You can always make micro adjustments in this process if correction is needed but don’t get into the habit of criticizing all the hows of a task – remember that if there are consistent mistakes, you have not made the why and what clear, or have not engaged the team in explaining the how to you.

To get started ask yourself these questions: Do I know why we do the tasks we do in our workplace? Can I explain the mission behind what we do?

5. From ask the boss TO be the boss

A good employee knows how to ask questions to ensure the job is done according to specifications. When you are the boss, paying special attention to what “done” looks like will help your team do their jobs without having to read your mind. When I understand what the specifics of “done” are, I can accomplish tasks with higher levels of excellence, but even more importantly, I know who will benefit and how their lives will be different as a result. For example, I can ask my marketing team to complete a series of tasks towards a marketing campaign.

They will know what to do to finish the tasks according to an agreed upon standard, and what the criteria are for me to be happy about their work, which brings the benefit of satisfaction to all of us. But ultimately, if the marketing is “done” right the customer will benefit because our training will speak to a need and clearly show the path to get that need met. If the customer responds to the marketing, the benefit to the business is that sales keep the business alive and everyone gets paid. With sales we are all motivated to better understand the customer and better meet their needs. When their needs are met, so are ours. Defining “done” on the level of benefits to the end user helps people know what benefits doing that task with excellence brings to all the stakeholders.

To get started ask yourself these questions: Is there a task, workflow or pattern that consistently comes up as problematic on my team? What end user benefit is not yet clear? What would “done” look like if it were clear?

I hope you found these explanations of moving from operations to management thinking useful. If you feel the need to learn more so you can confidently and skillfully lead your team, check out our on-demand masterclass “Helping your supervisors get their shift together”.

About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD., CEO of Shift Management Inc., provides managerial training and workforce interpersonal development to business and industry through online courses and web coaching. She helps individuals and organizations build talent and skills for leadership, communication, and conflict resolution particularly at the supervisory and middle management level. Her work has gained a reputation for excellence in integration and inclusion of the diverse workforce. With her team at Shift Management, Dr Gervais helps clients reach their business goals through team building coaching and industry-specific training development for interpersonal leadership skills. Her impactful digital and multi-media resources have been successfully implemented with many different populations and contexts. The results prove that a learning workplace is a happy and profitable one!

Check out Marie’s podcast Culture and Leadership Connections on Apple Podcasts and on the Shift website to hear stories of leadership and all things cultural. Consider the signature Supervisory Leadership Certificate Course for upskilling your workforce at:


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