Unlock the potential of your organization’s frontline supervisors. In our first podcast episode, Mick Holly and Brian Smith reveal the critical role that supervisors play in driving success, and how to transform them into effective leaders who inspire their teams to achieve their best. With practical tips, you’ll learn how to build strong relationships, set clear expectations, and provide coaching and feedback that connects your strategy with your execution machinery.
Mick: Welcome to Change and Sustain, where we discuss driving sustainable change in your organization through enabling people, process, systems and technology. Today we’re focusing on people, how to harness the power of your frontline and watch them unleash their full potential. This is Mick Holley and I’m also joined by Brian Smith. Hey, Brian.
Brian: Good morning, Mick. How are you?
Mick: Fabulous, fabulous. And this is an exciting topic for us. Supervisors in an organisation are an absolutely critical element. Brian, this is an audio podcast. People can’t see our grey hair, but how long have you been going intoorganisations and helping them improve.
Brian: I’m afraid to say it’s approximately 29 years at this point in time.
Mick: 29 years and all the issues today the patterns of Challenge very different to what you first saw 29 years ago.
Brian: That’s a great question Mick. I would say there are some differences today, but the vast majority of the kinds of things that we see, the kinds of issues that we pick up when we’re dealing with host organisations, particularly with the supervisors, have remained the same to my amazement for all of that time. And even talking to folks who are doing this who taught me all those years ago, I don’t think they’ve changed for decades, we’ll say.
Mick: So we as people haven’t changed. We still experience the same kind of challenges when we’re trying to driveimprovement, when we’re doing things on a day-to-day basis in complex organizations. So fascinating that challengespersist. You know, we titled this episode, you know, Turning Your Supervisors Into Difference Makers. I’ve always enjoyed the quote by the Duke of Wellington when he was speaking about his foe Napoleon. Duke of Wellington said,Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men. Now by that he meant when he was there, people would feel connected, they would rally around, you know, he would make such a fundamental difference. And what I’ve seen, Brian, in a similarly long career, is that in most organizations, there’s one or two people that influence many people and can really make a difference to a broad spectrum. And those people are often in the supervisory ranks. And if you can build more supervisors into difference makers, then you can connect your strategy with your execution machinery. Brian, we have some techniques looking at what supervisors and other people do in the organisation. Do you want to comment on that?
Brian: Absolutely. Just to echo some of your thoughts there, Mick, we absolutely spend a great deal of time in a new organisation looking at frontline supervisors because they really are difference makers, they’re the folks who connect operational strategy to execution, they’re the folks who take the words of the management team and make them happen, and also the folks who connect to the frontline and really understand what’s going on at a fundamental level in any organisation. So, we can get to know an awful lot about an organisation by focusing on those folks. And one of the things that we do, almost every time that we engage with a new organisation and perform a diagnostic study, is something that has various names over the years, day in the life study, or work execution observation, supervisory study, whatever you want to call it. But this is basically us spending time with those supervisors. We can’t understand what it is that gets in their way. We can’t understand what kind of troubles they’re facing, what kind of issues, whether they be systemic or personal. We can’t understand any of that unless we have walked a mile in their shoes. So we will spend time with those folks from the second they walk through the door to the second they go home, and we’ll note everything that they do. We’ll talk to them, we’ll listen to them, we’ll do everything we can to educate ourselves about what those folks are facing. So these dialogue studies are very, very important to us. One of the things that we often see in studying those folks is that they don’t spend as much time as they would like actually supervising, believe it or not. They don’t get to spend as much time actually directing folks to do what needs to be done. And I find that personally fascinating. It’s something that amazes me to this day is that we all just assume that somebody has the title of supervisor, that’s what they’re actuallyspending their time doing.
Mick: So Brian there, you mentioned a key word, active supervision. What does supervising mean to you? What do you think that looks like?
Brian: Active supervision is when a supervisor spends time with their crew, with their employees, if you like, and says, okay, Joe, I would like you to go do this. Fred, I would like you to go do that. And Bill, when you’ve done that, please come back to me and I’ll get you another assignment. When they’re actively telling folks what it is that they are requiring them to do and providing boundary conditions, in other words, you know, do this, but if you come across this, stop and come and tell me. Those are the kinds of things that we’re looking for in active supervision. And we are looking for things that get in the way of active supervision. Anything that stops the supervisor spending time with their folks and getting things done.
Mick: What are some of those things that when we’re doing these dialos and we’re looking at supervisors that we would find gets in their way or we would critique?
Brian: Certainly. One of the first things we’ll look at is their administrative load. So we often ask supervisors to attend a number of meetings. We don’t know what’s going on on the shop floor, so we ask the supervisor to come to a meeting and say, hey, tell us what’s happening today, tell us what happened yesterday, that kind of thing. And any time a supervisor is spending time in that meeting, they’re not spending time with their folks. Now, please understand, I am not saying that supervisors should not do administrative tasks. I am saying, though, that we ought to limit that to what is necessary for them to be able to function properly. All that time they spend doing administrative tasks, can we redirect that to somebody else? Are they spending time approving invoices, for instance? In the oil and gas industry, for quite some time, it’s been very, very prevalent that supervisors out in the field spend a vast amount of time, you know, 50% of their time in some cases, I’ve seen it, just approving invoices. Is that really what we want our folks doing? That’s one of the key things that gets in people’s way. That’s one of the things, by the way, that hasn’t changed over time. I’ll tell you something that has changed over time though. We ask our supervisors to go and direct their workforce. In other words, please Bill go do this and please Joe go do that, whatever it might be. Supervisors these days are running into the situation where folks don’t like to be told what to do. It’s a generational change actually. And that is something that gets in supervisors way increasingly these days, that’s something new. Folks don’t like to be directed and if they are directed too much, they might just quit and go away.
Mick: So the skill level of a supervisor, they’ve really got to have that ability to coach and to inject ideas without barking a mandate to people, is what you’re saying.
Brian: Well, it certainly require a healthy dose of people skills. Absolutely. And that’s one of those things that we often overlook in putting a supervisor into a role. They have to be able to deal with people and they have to be actually prettygood at it. You know, if somebody comes to work and they’ve had a bad evening or whatever it might be, we have to be able to know how to deal with that and still get the work done whilst being responsive to people’s needs. That leads us to the issue of training. How much training do we give our supervisors such that they can perform the tasks that we’re asking them to perform? And it’s a really common issue, and it has been for decades. What we will do is we’ll find the bestoperator on a production line or in an area, whatever it might be, and we’ll turn them into the supervisor because they were a great operator. And this is such a common thing, I’m sure all of our listeners would have seen or heard of this before. You lose the great operator and you gain a lousy supervisor, which is a double whammy. Put the wrong supervisor in the place and some of the other folks in the organization might just leave, maybe your better ones, and now you’ve done some real damage just by moving one person.
Mick: When they leave organizations, you know, one of the main reasons that they leave is because they don’t have a great relationship with their first-line manager. And if you’ve got a supervisor in place who’s not really relatable and can’t coach and doesn’t have those people skills, you’ve got a great bunch of operators, people in your organization you’ve trained, you’ve developed, who are leaving for that very reason. So it’s a critical role. So there’s both operational oversight, but also leadership training as well for supervisors.
Brian: Absolutely. It’s one of those things that training is often regarded as a sort of, as a nasty word. You know, when we’re blowing and going, we don’t want to devote the time to training because we don’t feel that we have it. And when we’re not, when things are slow, we don’t feel like we’ve got the resources to devote to training. But it’s vital that these folks who are so important to our organisations know what they’re doing. An example of that would be understanding whether the work being performed by their folks is value‑added or not, are they doing what you want them to do or not, how do you tell somebody that what they have done is not to the standard that you expect in a way that encourages them to do better rather than just demotivates them and you’ve kind of lost their heart and mind. This is crucial skill for a supervisor and something we’re looking for every time we do those dialogues.
Mick: And one of the things that always fascinate me with the DILO studies, Brian, is that particularly those operators that were really adept at a particular skill and they get into that supervisory role. When a problem emerges, instead of directing their people to be able to solve the problem and learn from that solution, they’ll dive in and they’ll do the work themselves. And of course, okay, we fix a problem that was immediate, but your supervisor is spending the time doing that work and not supervising the other seven or eight people under his or her stewardship. And the people are just standing by the side watching you do something and not learning from it. So it’s a tragedy tragedy of epic proportions, butthat supervisor thinks, you know, I’m the best at doing this, I don’t have time to transfer that knowledge and skill to others. So that’s a critical omission when we do our studies. We’re always looking to see if that happens. I mean, we’ve done thousands of these supervisory studies. What percentage would you say was active supervision that we find and what should it be?
Brian: So, we will often see active supervision completely missing, believe it or not.
Brian: In favor of another category we look for, which is passive supervision. Aha. So what do I mean by passive supervision? Passive supervision is basically management by walking around, if you like. So rather than direct my folks, rather than ask them to do specific tasks at a specific rate with a specific end date that I’m gonna follow up on, et cetera. What I’ll do is I’ll just assume all my guys know what they’re doing, all my folks know what they’re doing, and I’ll just wander around and touch base with them every now and see if they’ve got any issues, that kind of thing. So we will often see very low active supervision and it’s been moved out of the way, if you like, replaced with that passive supervision. Just call me if you need me, that kind of thing. Most of the time though, I would say you don’t get more than about 30%active supervision. What do we want? We want double that, easily double that, because that’s why we are employingfolks, is to direct. Now, do we want them doing other things? Yeah, absolutely. There’s a certain amount of admin that we’d like them to do. There is a certain amount of passive supervision we’d like them to do too. Because when I ask somebody to do something that they’re not familiar with doing, I don’t want the supervisor to tell them how to do it and then leave. I want them to stand there and make sure that that person gets it. Not do it for them, but make sure that theyunderstand that they can perform those tasks safely and effectively, if you like. So there’s the admin bit, there’s the passivesupervision, there’s the active supervision, and there’s also a certain amount of manual labor that folks do. That’s what you were referring to earlier, Mick. That’s, hey, Joe, get out of the way, I’ll do this for you.
Brian: Is that what we want our supervisors doing? Well, if it is training, if I am doing it with the purpose of showingsomebody how to do something, I show you once, you do it with me here once, and then you do it after that on your own with a different type of follow-up, okay, that’s fine. But if you’re doing it because that’s what you’re comfortable with, you became a supervisor because you were doing this manual job for 20 years, so you’re very good at it, and that’s what you feel comfortable doing. That’s really not, again, what we want folks doing.
Mick: When you go in and help organizations drive this kind of change and harness these supervisors, what are the things that you do and what can our listeners take away, practical tips to double their active supervisory time?
Brian: Okay, how long have you got, Mick? I’m just kidding. This could be a very long conversation, but concentrate on a few key things. One of the things that always amazes me, if you like, when we put supervisors in a new role particularly, is expectation setting. What expectations do we set of that supervisor? In other words, we might say, hey, your job is to go control this crew. Okay, fine. Is that enough? Did we tell them exactly what we wanted? Did we, in fact, tell them how we want them to spend their time. The supervisor might have no idea, absolutely no idea what you’re expecting in terms of how they spend their time. How much time should you actually spend doing admin versus how much time do I want you actively supervising folks? Did I tell you what all of those things are and what that ratio is? That would be my first ideal, if you like, is expectation setting. Very, very clear. And I can follow that with metrics and goals, right? So, okay, I can tell you how roughly I want you to allocate your time, how I want you to spend it, but now I can tell you what I’m going tohold you accountable for and what I will hold you responsible for. These are the metrics that I want you to keep your eye on and these are the metrics that we will discuss to help us understand whether or not you’re succeeding. The third thing is that training that we talked about. We have to spend some time and effort teaching people how to supervise, not teachingthem about the process, not teaching them about, you know, all the various other things that they might come across in an organisation that kind of standard. I need to teach people how to supervise and a strong component of that is leadership.These guys are your frontline leadership and if they are not taught how to lead, if we don’t give them that training, then woe betide us.
Mick: How do we really embed these skills and capabilities? It’s not just classroom, I’m hoping.
Brian: But just putting people in front of a computer and hoping that’s going to turn them into a good leader, I don’t recommend that as a strategy. So, yes, we can use those training courses as the input, if you like, but we have to make sure that our supervisors are practicing these skills. That’s way, way more important. I would rather teach a supervisor one skill a month, one, believe that, one skill a month, but have them practice, practice, practice, and give them coaching and feedback. That’s critical, coaching and feedback. I have to be able to see in action, and I have to get some feedback on how they performed and I have to respond to that. I have to be able to say, this is what I liked about what you did, but this is what you didn’t do or did poorly. Just an aside there, supervisors, I expect them to give their people feedback, right? And there’s a little bit of art to that. Certainly a lot of science to it. And it’s a matter of practice in many cases. So yeah, read the course, that’s fine. But let’s spend our time repeating that over and over and learning.
Mick: Well, that’s fantastic, because, you know, one of the foundations of what we do here at Audair Partners is to drive results through getting behavior change from, you know, 20% of supervision to 40% and that supervision being very proactive and sensitive and coaching those people. Yeah, there are some basic principles, but you said some profound things there, Brian. I wanted to delineate. Number one, you know, just teach these supervisors one skill a month. Secondly, you’ve got to do it in situ when they’re out there and watch how they’re coaching. It’s like having a mentor and to see how that coaching and that supervisory behavior is being received and give appropriate feedback. And it’s an iterative process, got to repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, until that confidence is built, that capability is developed, and that supervisor can then, you know, swim on their own and be a much more effective leader so that practicing and repeating is So profound because you can’t just tell somebody something they they jump into the morass There’s a million and one things that hit them And what do we do in the face of that kind of onslaught we revert back to the behaviors that we’ve always practiced So unless we embed it through that repetitive coaching You’re just not going to get the result.
Brian: Absolutely. It’s tough to single out an individual supervisor if you’re not giving the same sorts of training to the other supervisors with whom they interact. So this has to be a sort of egalitarian world. We have to make sure that everybody feels like they’re being treated the same. That’s pretty important because when things get out of balance, it is a real danger to culture and behaviours. Two other things I’ll add. You have to give your supervisor something to aspire to.They have to understand what the consequences are for them, the positive consequences when they do what you’re asking them to do. Give them something to aspire to. I don’t know about you Mick but some of the best leaders that I have ever interacted with, they weren’t folks who micromanaged, they weren’t folks who taught me a very, very specific tool or task or whatever it is. They were folks who gave me something to aspire to and then got out of the way while I did it.
Mick: Yeah, I like the phrase, aspiration is more powerful than desperation. I like that too. I agree with you. I agree with you. And then our final coaching point suggestion is listening to their people. We talk about the study that we do, the day in the life of a supervisor, the best CEOs will literally do that. They’ll go out into the environment, into their, you know, administrative offices, out there with their field sales people or technical people, or with their production people on the plant floor and live their day and actually listen to them. I know you’re a very big proponent of this Brian, an active listener when you go in, right?
Brian: Absolutely. People will tell you what their issues are. They will tell you. There’s nothing to stop them other than a little bit of trust, which is quickly earned if you start to listen. And it’s one of the things that our consultants will often do is that they’ll find the most senior leader in a location, doesn’t spend that much time on the floor. So we’ll take them by the hand and we’ll walk down to the shop floor and show them, have them interact with their folks, and you would be amazed how much discretionary effort you can release just by talking to folks, walking around, shaking their hand, hey, how are you kids, these kinds of things. But listening to them when they say, hey boss, this thing’s broke, and I need somebody out here to fix it, this is the thing that’s getting in my way. If you prove to them that you are listening to them, you release so much discretionary effort. And I couldn’t, I can’t emphasize that enough.
Mick: I first heard you say this a week or two ago, the release of discretionary effort. It’s a very powerful phrase and that is, we know there’s implicit potential in the organization and you can unlock it in very, very simple ways and profoundly as you just articulated.
Brian: None of this is rocket science. It’s all basic human behaviors at the end of the day. That’s the thing that connects all of our clients, if you like, they’re all companies that are made up of people who are following processes, etc. They’ve all got the same kinds of issues. So the same kinds of solutions are generally applicable. That release of discretionary effort, if you can do nothing else in your organization, releasing discretionary effort is the difference between good and great.
Mick: Oh, what a moment to close on Brian, fantastic. Look if you’re looking to unleash the power of your supervisors,we have a complimentary scoping session. You can always reach out to us, you can learn more at auderepartners.com. We’ve got more episodes coming up looking at similar topics, so if you click the follow button you’ll be the first to hear about them. Also if you like this podcast please leave us a rating wherever you listen to your podcast because it helps other people find us too.