Are You Ready for the Changes That Can Come With That Big Promotion?

Moving from front-line operations to leadership is a major challenge — in ways many newly minted leaders don’t expect.

One of the toughest challenges of my professional career came when I was promoted from account executive to account supervisor at the public relations firm where I was working.

I loved being promoted, the prestige that went with it, the sense of accomplishment and of course the pay raise. But I soon found out I wasn’t ready to be other people’s boss. There were skills I needed that I just didn’t have.

I’d been a high-performing account executive, but that didn’t mean I would automatically be a good or even mediocre supervisor. I struggled so much at first that I was tempted to ask to slide back into my previous role. Only pride and persistence kept me from actually doing so.

I know that many Treatment Plant Operator readers are facility operators or maintenance people who want someday to be a supervisor, plant superintendent or plant manager. There’s more to reaching those levels, and succeeding, than being a superb performer and passing more licensing exams. In that spirit, here are, from my experience and things I’ve read, some bits of advice for those looking to climb the career ladder.

It’s now all about people. People skills always count, but especially when there are people you need to lead, coach and inspire. Early in my tenure as a supervisor, a colleague handed me a copy of Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends & Influence People. In a way, it was like being given a bottle of mouthwash. Nonetheless, it was something I needed. The advice in that book is timeless, it helped me a lot, and I’m forever grateful to the guy who gave it to me.

Your role has changed — profoundly. I got promoted to account supervisor, but I still acted like an account executive. That is, I spent too much time on my own clients and not enough working with my team. My job was no longer to be a super account executive. It was to help my team members become super account executives — and maybe one day supervisors themselves. There is an enormous difference.

There’s such a thing as being too hands-off. Supervisors are often counseled, rightly, not to micromanage. At first I took that advice too much to heart. I let my team members do their jobs, not realizing how much two of them, relatively new, needed help and guidance. As a result, they blew the budget on a project, got themselves and me into trouble, and almost cost the company a client. If I had done my job, that wouldn’t have happened.

Some conversations are tough — but essential. When a team member is underperforming, it’s tempting to let it go and hope things get better, or to be content with making polite suggestions for improvement. That’s a huge mistake that I made more than once. Performance issues need to be addressed promptly and directly. Sure, that takes guts, but what’s the alternative? In reality, a forthright discussion is the best gift you give a team member who’s struggling. Candid talks that supervisors had with me were among my most valuable career experiences.

Your team members are not your pals. It’s especially important to remember this if you now supervise people who were your co-workers, your peers. Maybe you all used to go out for a drink after work. That relationship has to change. For one thing, getting or remaining too friendly can make things touchy if at some point a person on your team needs to be disciplined.

People are complicated. To be a good leader, you need to know and understand your team members intimately. People have different personalities, wants, needs, motivations, goals. It’s essential to know about their families, their hobbies, their backgrounds. What’s happening with them at home, for good or ill, they will bring to work with them. Deep knowledge of each person can help you lead and coach with optimum effectiveness.

Feedback is a two-way street. Just as you should give team members honest and consistent feedback, you should welcome feedback coming your way. Nothing inspires more trust than listening as a team member points out where you made a mistake, where you could have done something better or, for that matter, where you did something he or she appreciated. Two-way feedback helps build strong teams.

There’s much more to learn about becoming a leader, of course, and there are plenty of ways and places to learn it. I must say I strongly recommend Dale Carnegie’s book and the human relations principle he considered the most important: “Become genuinely interested in other people.”


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