Developing First Line Supervisors


February 11, 2013



Do you set out to grow supervisors and future leaders in your Enterprise or do you “buy-in” top Leadership when vacancies in the C suite occur and expect Supervisors to develop their Management and Leadership Skills “on the job” with negligible training or coaching?  Is there a collective sense of direction like the skiers who made the turns in the photograph above or do individuals in your organisation choose their own “destinations” and “trajectories” or slavishly follow the boss?


A recent Harvard Business Review Blog highlighted data that showed that the average age of individuals attending Leadership Training was 42 but the average age of supervisors in the firms concerned was 33. The blog questioned why we readily accept the need for teaching when we learn to ski or play golf but are, in too many organisations, reluctant to invest in training future supervisors [Leaders] and appear ready to accept:


  • bad habits being ingrained because people have not been given the training / guidance to learn good habits
  • inefficiency from individuals ‘practicing’ leadership without the basics – the equivalent of skiers turning (in a business context perhaps the basics of individual motivation). In the process attitudes are being formed and management practices are coalescing.

The subsequent wide ranging discussion of the blog included a wealth of interesting perspectives. Having personally had the “luxury” of attending RAF Officer Training at the age of 21 I have seen the benefits of training future Leaders early. We had 4 days of selection that aimed to identify those with potential and then 16 weeks of training (that in realty covered elements of both management and leadership) – some theory and lots of practical exercises. We gained lots of experience in a safe setting to help us build good “habits”.  Only if we passed did we get anywhere near leading/managing airmen and airwomen! Amongst other comments that resonated with me included:

  •  Assumptions (particularly in Technology Companies) that because you’re good at something, you can be a manager of that something because you’ve been doing it for a while – without any management training.
  • As individuals leave Managers – rather than companies – why are there not more accessible / known special management training programs specifically designed for the IT field?
  • Rigorous analysis of the needs of the individuals – perhaps against an Enterprise competency model before committing to investment in training
  • A supportive organisational culture and individual support (even when everyone agrees that the training was relevant and well delivered, it seldom has a significant impact on the behaviors of the trainees or the performance of the organisation in isolation)
  • Enterprises in many industries spot high potential “talent” early and many (including General Electric for example) have introduced programmes such as Building Long Term Potential to identify and developing leadership skills when people were in their early careers. Some of these have shown that when risks were taken to promote “trained” younger managers, they usually exceeded expectations in management and leadership roles – especially when supported by the right internal mentors and external coaches. As one blogger stated “It works in sport … the business world could learn from their examples.”
  • The importance of good role models


The vital importance of supervisors has also been given particular prominence by Tom Peters in his 30+ years of study of excellent companies. To quote from Tom Peter’s Excellence Now slide set – First Line Supervisors Rule  “1st line supervisors LITERALLY #1 key to Productivity / Retention / Quality of work.” Tom lists 10 questions…..:

“1. Are you, Big Boss, a … formal student … of first-line supervisor behavioral excellence?* (*Yes, this sort of thing can be formally studied.)

2. Do you absolutely understand and act upon the fact that the first-line boss is the … KEY LEADERSHIP ROLE … in the organization? Technical mastery is important—but secondary.

3. Does HR single out first-line supervisors individually and collectively for tracking purposes and special/“over the top” developmental attention?

4. Do you spend gobs and gobs (and then more and more gobs and gobs) of time … selecting … the first-line supervisors? Are your selection criteria consistent with the enormity of the impact that first-line bosses will subsequently have?

5. Do you have the … ABSOLUTE BEST TRAINING & CONTINUING DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS IN THE INDUSTRY (or some subset thereof) … for first-line supervisors?

6. Do you formally and rigorously … mentor … first-line supervisors?

7. Are you willing, pain notwithstanding, to … leave a first-line supervisor slot open  … until you can fill the slot with somebody spectacular? (And are you willing to use some word like … “spectacular” … in judging applicants for

the job?)

8. Is it possible that … promotion decisions …  for first-line supervisors are as, or even more,  important than promotion decisions for the likes of VP slots? (Hint: Yes.)

9. Do you consider and evaluate the quality of your … full set/CADRE ….  of first-line supervisors?

10. Are your first-line supervisors accorded the respect that the power of their position merits?”


As part of Efficienarta’s Leadership development offerings we have an eLearning course “Managing Your Team Better” that is specifically designed for new managers / supervisors in small and medium sized entrepreneurial organisations. If you have inexperienced supervisors / managers that could benefit from a course delivered personally over the Internet please contact


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