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5 Traits of an Awesome Supervisor

The biggest reason why people leave organizations is because they don’t like their supervisor. Strong supervision is an investment in your employees’ growth, which not only strengthens your organization but also builds the effectiveness of more awesome emerging leaders whose talents the nonprofit sector sorely needs.

Recently I trained our new cohort of fellow supervisors and was reminded of how universal certain supervision experiences are, no matter what your background is. Most folks do not feel they are great supervisors. This fits with what we tend to hear in the nonprofit sector; everyone has their horror stories of bosses gone awry, or the more prosaic tales of overworked supervisors who barely have time to hand off tasks, much less provide meaningful supervision.

So what does it take to be an amazing supervisor? Based on personal experience, conversations with our fellows and partner organizations, and the preponderance of literature in the field, we’ve identified certain universalities. No matter what kind of organization you are or what your personality is like, there are certain key tenets that always hold true:

  1. Delegate work effectively. It’s hard, I know. It sucks when someone else does something and you feel like you could have done it way better. But it’s likely your fault if your supervisee doesn’t do it well – you probably didn’t delegate it properly, or you didn’t set up your supervisee for success in the task. Whenever you can, try to give your supervisee true ownership of projects, and delegate decision-making wherever possible. Excellent delegation is hard, and a topic in and of itself. Luckily the Social Transformation Project has already written all about how to do it well.
  2. Be mindful of your own power. Obviously, as a supervisor you hold positional power over your supervisee, which should be acknowledged openly and discussed when issues arise. But there are other forms of power that may affect your relationship, such as privileges you have due to the color of your skin, your gender expression, or your academic background. Learn how to acknowledge and manage the forms of power that impact your supervisory relationships.
  3. Give (and ask for) feedback now, not later. Don’t wait for that yearly review. Feedback is most helpful when it’s specific and timely. Obviously, don’t give feedback when you or your supervisee aren’t emotionally able to engage in difficult conversations, but don’t wait more than a week from when something happens to give your employee feedback, whether it’s high praise or thoughts on how to improve. The yearly review should be a space to reflect on overall trends and think about bigger professional development goals. It should never be the first time your employee hears that specific feedback from you.
  4. When giving feedback, remember the magical 4:1 ratio – give 4 items of positive feedback for every 1 item of improvement feedback. If you go too far from that ratio in either direction, your feedback falls flat. Either it’s too positive and your supervisee doesn’t grow, or it’s too negative and your supervisee gives up on ever doing things well.
  5. Never forget that the number one reason why people leave organizations is because their manager lets them down. Meta-analysis of a ton of research that has been done on employee engagement tells us that so much of what keeps an employee happy and productive hinges on the strength of their manager. And having staff leave is extremely costly to organizations, both in terms of money and time, neither of which nonprofits have in abundance. If you are supervising someone, the act of supervision should be one of your top priorities. Otherwise, you’re probably not doing it very well.

Rainier Valley Corps has a deep commitment to paying equitable wages and is well aware of the problems the nonprofit sector has retaining staff due to poor pay. But we must not forget how important strong supervision is to retaining staff and hold ourselves and each other to higher standards when it comes to supervision. So, what do you think, are you an awesome supervisor?