Teaching People to Lead

We have a supervisor who doesn’t come forward with solutions. He doesn’t talk in meetings. He just listens and comes to my partner or me for solutions. He’s way too dependent on us, and we’re tired of giving him all the answers. What can we do to get him to initiate more on his own?

Thoughts of the Day: A take-charge attitude can be learned. Make sure your supervisor knows what’s expected. Encourage your people to be innovative and independent. Talk through solutions to improve the chances of things going right. If you’ve made a hiring mistake, own up and fix it.

Is there’s two-way trust between yourselves as owners and your supervisors? Do employees know they can experiment, make mistakes, get things wrong, take corrective action, without fear of criticism or reprisals? Your job as owner is to encourage people to try until they get it right.

Do you have the right balance between how you react when things do go right and when they go wrong? Many owners are so focused on what they want to have happen, they assume the positive, and jump all over the negative. Try reversing the emphasis, to encourage success and dial your reaction down when things go wrong. After all, if your supervisor has his heart in the right place of wanting to succeed, he probably feels as bad as you do, maybe even worse, when things go wrong. He may not understand that admitting to problems is the first step towards fixing them.

Where and when your supervisor get to see examples of successful leaders? If people don’t know what success looks like, how will they learn? Try courses, an internship at another company or working in a different department. Put your supervisor in an environment where he can observe someone who demonstrates real leadership skills.

Check on how well your supervisor understands the job responsibilities. Especially if this person grew up on your shop floor, and then was promoted into the supervisory role, he may not be clear about the full change in expectations. Define the accountabilities of the supervisory role, including the part about innovating and solving problems.

Most shops have specific ways they do things, whether that’s in writing, or simply the informal habits of how things get done. Encourage your supervisor to be look at new and better ways of doing things. If there’s a change in how things are done, your first inclination may be to ask why things aren’t being done the old way. This can be interpreted as a critique of change. Depending on how the question comes across, your supervisor may take the question as a signal that innovation isn’t appreciated or desired.

Stop giving out answers. Instead encourage your supervisor to propose solutions by making the time to talk about topics that need work. Wait for the supervisor to respond rather than jumping in with suggestions. Suggest your supervisor do some research and then come back with possible solutions. Give your candidate time to think rather than demanding instant answers.

Once your supervisor has identified a solution, talk it through. Ask him to describe how he would implement the solution. Listen carefully to the steps he plans to take. If he’s missing a step, ask him “what about” questions. If he’s taking a wrong turn, ask him to describe the rationale for taking the step he suggested, and to describe what he’s trying to accomplish by taking that step. Recognize that there’s more than one way to get to an endpoint, he may be taking a different, but equally viable route.

If you’ve tried everything and your supervisor continues to hang back, you may have picked the wrong person for the job. If your designated leaders can’t or won’t lead, you have a problem. Don’t perpetuate the problem by continuing to step in, fix it. Put out an ad to find another candidate. Offer the supervisor the option of stepping back onto the shop floor, or moving on to another job inside or outside of the company. Keep working to build a solution that can take the burden of supervising off your shoulders.


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