Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP, ICMA-CM
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the twelfth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

Have you ever heard (or even asked) the question, "What does management do all day?" It might look like a pretty easy life—hanging out in your office and issuing orders—then heading off to the golf course. Well, who wouldn't want that job?

So, you've worked hard and earned that promotion to "supervisor." Congratulations! The easy life is about to begin!

Once the celebration winds down, you realize that Monday morning you are no longer only in charge of you. You are now in charge of people who were previously your friends and coworkers and you're expected to produce results. Yipes!

Relax—supervising people is really an outdated label. Most progressive organizations are looking more for "leaders" than "supervisors." So, if you're already thinking about how you can lead your team to success you are on the right track. If you're only thinking about reserving that tee time, you may need to reset your paradigm, because transitioning from coworker to leader can be challenging.

So, here are a few questions and answers to help you get started.

Burning questions new supervisors may have for seasoned supervisors:

Do you have any advice for how to handle the transition from being "one of the guys (or gals)" to supervising your peers?

As a supervisor you have new responsibilities. Chances are you are getting paid more to take on more responsibility and accountability. But, chances are also good that you were promoted to some extent because you have the ability to work with people. So, dust off those people skills and dig in! First, recognize that your promotion is an adjustment for your peers too and give them time to get used to your new role. Meet with your team and talk about the vision, mission and goals. Welcome input and suggestions. Be prepared for a lot of questions coming your way, most of which will concern change. Most people have varying degrees of uneasiness about change, so be sensitive to how your plans for change will affect the team. As a leader, you need to inspire your team to greater heights. Too much or too little change will inspire them to hang onto the status quo. Initiate change in quantities that your team can embrace and absorb.

How do you know how much change is manageable? By strategically planning change, but by mostly trial and error. Be prepared to adjust to verbal and non-verbal communication from your staff.

Communication is also very important, especially at the beginning of any transition. Be visible and available. Your job is really a facilitator, not a dictator. Assume your crew already knows what to do—you're just there to move obstacles out of their way.

When I was a college student, I worked for an excavating company one summer. It was my first exposure to construction. I honestly had absolutely NO idea what I was doing. My assignment was to "supervise" a crew of very experienced heavy equipment operators. I learned rather quickly that my real job was to make sure they had fuel and got paid. They didn't need any other advice from me. I respected their knowledge and they graciously decided to help me succeed. Had I attempted to actually direct their work, they might have done what I told them to do and that would have been disastrous! But, from my boss's perspective, I was a good supervisor because the work got done correctly and efficiently.

So, don't feel compelled to be "the boss." A better choice is to be "the facilitative leader."

What happens to the friendships I already have with people I will be supervising?

You also may need to think carefully about your friendships outside of work. This is a tough issue, as it is unfortunate that being a supervisor may mean curtailing previous friendships with people that are now under your supervision.

Primarily this is a perception issue. Think about how you would feel if your boss was overtly friendly with one of your peers. Would you sense unfairness? What happens if your friend does something wrong? Can you fairly discipline your friend? Will the discipline be perceived as fair by his/her family, by his/her coworkers, by your supervisor?

Think through the perception and act based on the message you want to send to your crew. This issue is one of the most significant judgments you'll need to make, but regardless of the decision, this issue needs to be carefully considered. Think about it; don't just ignore it.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in dealing with your employees? How did you handle the situation?

I don't really think in terms of "dealing with employees." I think about how I can lead, facilitate, coach, mentor or otherwise help them be their best. Each employee is different—different talents, different personal issues, different communication styles and different emotional maturity. I have to adjust ME to help my employees.

This can be a challenge as it means everyone gets personal attention. This takes time and an extraordinary amount of patience. In a busy work environment, it is very tempting to skimp on personal attention or to give your attention only to folks who are disrupting progress or who are superstars. Recognize that all of your staff need something from you—whether it's a "thank you" note or a stern counseling session. Invest time in your staff. It is a very good use of your time in the long run, even though it may not be obvious in the short term.

Another challenge is the ability to recognize when a staff member has reached his/her potential. Appreciate the contribution they make and release your temptation to drag them unwillingly to a new level.

How much responsibility do you take for mistakes? If your employee makes an error, do you let them take the blame so that they can learn from it, or do you step up and take full responsibility, since, as the supervisor, you should consider yourself accountable for their actions?

As a leader, you are responsible for your team. Publicly, it is always your responsibility. Privately, your employee should be counseled. There will also be times when you see, for example, a judgment error that will result in something uncomfortable but not disastrous happening. Sometimes I let these situations play out, so that the employee does learn about consequences. Usually, these are situations that do not involve "blame," but rather an opportunity to demonstrate "what happens if...." The only way to learn about dealing with the public and elected officials is experience.

If I am always "mom," my staff never grows. But, it is important to use good judgment when deciding when/if to step in to help. As a supervisor, you have to let your staff learn and stretch their abilities. If you always prevent problems and solve every issue for them, they will only learn to depend on you. So, if you ever want to take a vacation, develop your staff so that they can confidently do the job that needs to be done in your absence.

Don't be concerned about anyone "taking your job" or "making you look bad." If you develop a strong team, together you can be even more valuable to the organization. If you separate yourself from your team, the team will be less likely to be innovative, creative, outgoing and enthusiastic on your behalf. They'll save that for someone they trust.

Since every employee is unique, do you have any tips for how I can go about really learning what makes each of them "tick" (i.e., what motivates, challenges, discourages, encourages, etc.)?

Communication is really the key to learning about your employees. This doesn't mean sending a daily e-mail. It means routine face-to-face communication and visiting their work area. It also means a reasonable amount of non-work conversation. Occasionally inquiring about a weekend event, vacation or hobby lets the employee know that you are a person too and that you are interested in them as a person. This should be done sincerely, not as something to do on your checklist. Body language is also important—watch for non-verbal clues and be aware of the non-verbal clues you are sending. For example, when you mention an upcoming sewer project—does your employee become highly engaged or disengaged? Do their eyes light up or do their arms get crossed? Try to match an employee's enthusiasm with a corresponding project. If they like to multi-task, pile on the assignments. If they like dealing with people, send them out to meet with citizens. Your employees will notice that you recognize their preferences and are attempting to be responsive to them.

You can also learn a lot about your employees by asking questions. Questions and the resulting dialogue will lead to learning how your employees think, how they solve problems, to what extent they are emotionally involved in their work and how they best respond to you and your management style.

As a supervisor, it is your job to figure out how to communicate best with your staff so the job gets done well. A common mistake supervisors make is to use the same communication style with all of their staff. People are different and respond differently to different styles. Some employees may need more feedback or more connection with you. Some employees may prefer to work very independently and require less interaction with a supervisor. Find out which style is best for each of your employees and respond accordingly. Don't make their style match you; adjust your style to match your employee.

I want to have an open-door policy and make sure my employees have access to me when they have questions or concerns. Do you have any recommendations as to how I can do this in a balanced manner so that I still have time to do my job and my employees don't feel neglected?

Well, the truth is you can't do it all, so you have to decide how to allocate your time. As best I can, I try to put my employees' needs first. If they are stuck waiting on me, progress slows or stops. So, barring other things on fire, try to prioritize your efforts to assist your employees. However, that doesn't mean you should allow them to delegate their problems to you. Talk to them, but don't just solve their problem. Ask questions, make suggestions (such as "have you considered..."). Give them enough guidance to move forward, but not so much that you are solving their problems.

If you have more work than time, you may need to set aside some uninterrupted time for your work. Usually early in the morning or after work—when most everyone else is enjoying dinner with their family—is a great time to get an hour or so of work done very efficiently. As a supervisor, your employer probably expects a few extra hours, so you should plan on some extra time at the office.

That doesn't mean you should neglect yourself or your family; but it may mean that you'll have to plan your day more effectively. Remain true to your family commitments—it is very important to maintain a balanced life, especially as you continue to move up in the organization. How is that possible?

The only way I've found to be moderately successful at balance is to organize my life and put some priorities on personal time. I schedule my vacations about eight months in advance and I invest money in them. So, unless something really vital comes up, I'm mountain biking a few weeks each summer. If I waited until the last minute to schedule these trips, I would never go. I also exercise every morning before work—no excuses.

Even with all of your new responsibilities, don't forget you have a family. Treat your family commitments with importance; put them on the calendar and resist the urge to cancel them. Your family will be there long after your job, so be sure to give them the respect and the time they deserve.

I recently read an outstanding book on this topic loaned to me by a very successful businesswoman in our community. The book is Habits of the Heart: Simple Ideas for Taking Paths to Success Wide Enough for the Family, Friends and Fun by Jeff Conley. If you read this and plan your life accordingly, you will not only be a tremendous success, you will seriously enjoy your personal and professional life.

So, when you dive into supervisory responsibilities you maybe won't have time for that daily tee time at the country club, but once you find your supervisory style and it works for you and your crew—you'll be surprised at the free time they'll help you achieve so they can get a break while you're out of the office having fun!

Good luck taking on the supervisory challenge. It is a challenge, but it is so rewarding when you and your team achieve great things for your community!

Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3411 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment