Organizational change needs focus on supervisor competencies

Process by which competencies created, selected, transferred and developed must keep up with changing workplace

Despite the popular trend towards flatter organizations and empowered employees, supervisors remain critical in the achievement of business success. They align strategy with work behaviours, while suffering the risks of being closest to the firm’s raison d’être: its product.

They endure the most re-invention because they are the last level of management responsible for the work of others. Everyone has a plan for them. They’ve been called foremen, forepeople, co-ordinators, team leaders, supervisors, change agents, coaches and back again.

To use an old metaphor, supervisors are caught between a rock and a hard place. They translate management’s plans, decisions and concepts into product, human performance and accountability.

And while managers remain the linchpins of change, what must come first is a process to ensure the right management competencies are being created, selected, transferred and developed.

The staff of human resources, organizational design (OD) or training and development — whoever owns competencies in your organization — have realized, quite rightly, that change and progress must include focused attention on supervisory competencies.

Common mistakes in competency development

Unfortunately, many organizations failed to put systems and processes in place to support the evolution of the traditional supervisor. Consequently, supervisors became fatigued, cynical and frightened.

Some of the more common mistakes might be familiar to you:

•The move to self-directed work practices for production employees often puts the cart before the horse.

Organizations made the mistake of thinking that the people closest to the work know it best. Who better to operate and manage packing equipment, for instance, than the packing operator with 20 years’ experience? Now, I agree, self-direction and empowerment have proven to be the best practice to enhance performance. Everyone should perform at their best levels, unhindered by crippling and antiquated roles or hierarchies. This is the human side of an economic value-added (EVA) business focus.

But organizations had to scramble when, to their surprise, they realized operators knew how to run things only in normal operating mode.

When trouble arose, lights started flashing or alarms rang, it was the supervisor who reached over the operator’s shoulder to fix things, re-establish specification or reveal the mysterious reset button. Remember that sudden spree of supervisor re-hiring?

Operator competencies could have been defined, tested and coached first. Indeed, this naturally leads to a demand for new supervisory competencies of mentoring, coaching and managing performance.

•Few organizations checked to see if operators had the right skill sets before supervisors were pulled back. Mind you, organizations have gotten better in recent times. Many have learned from this original miscue, and now offer robust learning systems for operators. But supervisors became cynical of this herky-jerky approach.

•Competency tables came late and failed to reflect the real nature of work and definitions did not involve all affected players, or often relied on vendor competency definitions.

•Because they are poorly defined, competencies are often untrainable or uncoachable: Just exactly what is leadership anyway?

•OD and operations failed to align values. OD failed to recognize how important supervisory development is for operations. And operations couldn’t look beyond production, production, production. Many firms manage supervisors on a daily basis, only to dust off the more esoteric competency books once a year.

•Some organizations have become much better at this: evolving from a time of no performance management to fairly consistent use of relevant competency books. But supervisors still balk at the mismatch between the competencies described in the book with what they do on a daily basis or, more accurately, the contradiction with current task structures.

Actions to take

What to do? It’s a case of getting the timing right.

•Begin by taking away irrelevant (non-EVA) tasks before adding new ones. After all, you have to empty the glass a little before you can add more.

•Use OD staff expertise to eliminate this task obstruction. Supervisors find it hard to coach, lead or represent the customer when, for example, large parts of their shifts are dedicated to completing time sheets. Take away time sheets — cleanly and efficiently — then add the coaching competency. It’s a one-for-one swap. Provide regular communication to supervisors about context and expectations. Cynicism will diminish when performers see this “out with the old, in with the new” approach.

•Use facilitated sessions to include performers (high, medium and low) in the process of defining forward-looking competencies. Do this in-house whenever possible. Never rely solely on vendors for this.

•Define competencies with concrete behaviours. Otherwise the competency does not exist, cannot be measured and never gets trained. What can you point to if this competency is performed? For instance, “performance management” appears in most competency lists. In this case, let’s define it as a desire for employees to work to their full potential, with clear expectations, performance data monitored, resources provided and a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions. A great motherhood statement for sure, but can you take visitors on a tour and point this out? Instead, include the activities the manager should be completing. For example: Develops training plans to improve employee skill sets; regularly coaches employees one to one.

•Be sure all relevant organizational functions are included in the project to overhaul supervisor competencies, especially the operations folk.

•Design learning programs to support new supervisory roles. The shift to self-direction required training for line staff, but many supervisors now need the same investment.

Learning plans develop easily from the participative competency sessions, especially if a disciplined focus on visible, concrete behaviours is maintained.

•Revise performance reviews and competency books to reflect skills recently transferred. Tell performance reviewers what new skills their reports have learned thereby reinforcing workplace application.

•Be sure all supervisor expectations are in the competency manual and that only its subjects are used for reviews. You may be surprised that supervisors often ask how their annual merit pay is calculated only to hear a manager respond, “Don’t worry. I realize your shift work doesn’t allow you much time to develop these skills. I have taken into account all that other work we also expect of you.”

Competency development process

This competency development model reinforces participation, an inclination to the future, and a bias towards concrete behaviour. Vendor packages can be too historical, offering competencies that fail to support organizational growth or change.

One useful tool for competency development is training expert and author Robert Mager’s “goal analysis.” Facilitators can modify it to focus on future skill sets. This process also boosts motivation and reinforces change efforts. Follow this five-step process:

Step one: Describe the goal. This is provided with input from both HR and operations. A sample goal would be: “Supervisors to become workplace coaches.”

Step two: Brainstorm behavioural indicators. Facilitators push for concrete wording: “Develops crew training plans to bridge gaps and optimize skill mix. Regularly coaches employees one to one, and finds opportunities to do so.”

Step three: Short list and remove abstractions. Wording such as, “Identifies obstacles to the behaviour change process,” becomes something more identifiable, measurable and trainable: “Gives individual and group feedback about performance soon after it occurs. When poor performance becomes a trend, counsels the employee.”

Step four: Write complete behavioural indicators. Get everything down on paper and in the competency manual.

Step five: Check for completeness. Review the competencies catalogued to ensure they capture supervisor development needs.

Lloyd Livingstone is a certified professional facilitator and senior affiliate with RANA International, a Canadian provider of organizational intervention, process facilitation and strategic learning. He was also a production supervisor for many years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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