Supervisory Advisory

How do most people learn to supervise? They repeat some version of what they saw an early boss, or teacher, or parent, or older sibling do. More often than you’d think, this sort of patterning can lead to domineering, inflexible, unsympathetic behavior — counterproductive behavior that seems supremely geared to reducing subordinates’ passionate participation. At worst, this kind of behavior can force thinking, feeling employees right out the door, or at the least, may leave them floating in some organizational purgatory to experience a numbed, drained, embittered half-life.

Does this sound too dramatic? When I teach management workshops, I often ask participants to close their eyes and visualize all the great bosses they’ve had. Many people come up with one; a few lucky souls can think of more than one; one or two folks can’t remember a single person they considered a good boss, although they may remember fondly a coach, or a neighbor who led a community group.

And when I ask them to picture a terrible, awful boss? No problem. They can’t wait to call them out their examples with glee, multiples of them, one worse than the next. Why is this? And what can management do to ensure that employees aren’t being underutilized or driven away? (Keep in mind the old saw about people quitting to leave bosses, not companies.) We might start by reexamining what it takes to succeed as a supervisor. Remarkably, many people get promoted into and out of the job without doing it well.

In identifying capabilities a business should look for when hiring or promoting a new supervisor, I’m intentionally leaving out specific teleservices knowledge such as scripting, managing call queues, and staffing. We’ll focus on some of the basic capacities that are fundamental to being able to manage other human beings, and that are a necessary underpinning to effective supervisory skill development.

Critical supervisory roles and responsibilities include allocating resources, assigning work, measuring results, coaching, motivating, and reporting. These are the kinds of topics the textbooks describe as supervisory. Most people are not born with these skills, and most of them are not intuitive. So if it’s hard to find supervisors who are tailor-made with years of experience in these skill areas, what are the human capacities that serve as useful surrogates?

First of all, those who supervise others are able to supervise themselves. This is no small task. Individuals who understand what they themselves notice and react to around them have a much better chance of choosing how they wish to react in front of a staff– what signals they want to send, what requests they want to make, which things they wish, even, to overlook in pursuit of larger goals.

Self-knowledge and self-management are particularly useful in the call center environment, where there tends to be significant turnover of staff, constant influx of new people, increased demand and conflict in customer behavior, multiple deadlines, and plenty of fires to put out. This perfect storm of conflicting conditions suggests that resilience and responsiveness will prove much more successful than rigid adherence to rules or forms.

People who become skilled supervisors also tend to be both good listeners and alert observers. They size up situations as they occur, and are attentive to the needs, motivations, and expectations of all parties; that is, they are empathetic. This doesn’t mean they agree with or intend to satisfy all parties, just that they are able to perceive motivations and purposes that are not their own, and understand why another human being might hold them. Their responses are measured and proportional to actual events.

As they size up situations, they identify the crucial factors and weigh them. They are good sharers, that is, they are able to give, or give away, some of their own resources, whether those resources are time, information, budget, even humor. They apply these resources for a purpose, though, not just because they are asked, and they are realistic about the value of the resources they have. They are kind, but they are not pushovers who always seek to please everyone.

High-potential candidates know what they need to do, which translates into being able to set expectations for themselves. They can explain what they see, what they know, and what they want. They are persuasive, and have a natural tendency to be helpful. They are trustworthy and treat confidences and confidential information appropriately. They have a bias toward action, that is, they seize on what can and should be done to resolve a situation, as opposed to just being able to analyze and report what the situation is. This means they consistently look for and propose solutions instead of just detailing or complaining about problems.

People who have these kinds of competencies, can learn most of the supervisory skills they need through a combination of classroom sessions, on-the-job training, and mentoring. The emotional intelligence they demonstrate in the forms of self-knowledge, listening and observation, sharing, persuasiveness, and the ability to take action serves as the foundation for important organizational practices and cultural norms in such areas as time management, coaching and corrective action, and setting goals and expectations congruent with the strategic goals of the organization.

The specific functional competencies of situational analysis and diagnosis, planning, and team building so necessary to call center management can be built much more durably on a foundation of good character and interpersonal strength. Hiring for these general, human skills makes it much more likely that your supervisors will be the kinds of bosses that employees are happy to remember.

Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates, a Rockville Center, NY-based based contact center consultancy.