Making the Leap to Manager

April 1, 2007
It takes awareness to be a good teacher; a skill that is seldom taught to supervisors.

The scenario is all too familiar: The best lift truck operator in the building is promoted to supervisor and he's a failure. The same thing happens for the best order picker, or the best shipping clerk. A person who was superior on a prior job just can't cut it as a manager. What's the problem?

"They're not good at the job of leading people," says Michael Droske, director of training, TomZoselAssociates, (Long Grove, Ill., The reason is not through any fault of their own, he says, it's that no one has placed any emphasis on preparing them for a supervisory position. Distribution centers, in particular, are focused on getting product out the door. Training people to train others takes time away from the job.

"When a person becomes a leader it requires a completely different skill set," says Droske. "Too often management thinks that because a person is good at one job he'll be good at another. It doesn't always happen."

The good news in all of this, says Droske, is that as he travels around the country presenting training programs, he's seeing more interest on the part of distribution center managers to train supervisors.

A changing environment
Change is constant and change is good. Too bad supervisors have little skill and training to deal with it. "Supervisors are on the front line when change happens and are ill-trained to impart these changes to their team members," says Droske. And while all supervisors want to take their employees through change in a successful way, few can explain how to do it.

"The alarming thing," he says, "is that change done badly is probably the most disruptive thing that can happen in a work center. The supervisor can essentially counteract the positive force management was hoping to create. The result is a negative outcome."

Supervisors need to learn that just saying change is good is not enough. They need to complete that phrase with how the change is good for the employee. "The guy who tells the blue-collar worker that change is good for the stock price, or that it will put the company in a more competitive position, is in trouble," says Droske.

The properly trained supervisor promotes change by thinking back to what it was like when he or she was working on the floor. He has to develop the skill of viewing change through the eyes of the people on the floor, not through the eyes of company executives who are focused solely on the bottom line.

"Maybe changing to engineered labor standards is to going to replace a team approach," says Droske. "A supervisor needs to learn the skill of promoting individual success; where everyone will now pull his own weight."

Another skill a supervisor needs to learn is that open communication is the cornerstone of good change management. Explaining how change benefits the company is something the employees should know, however, it should not be the major piece, advises Droske. "If employees think the only benefit is to the company, resistance starts, and once resistance starts it begins to snowball," he says. "Soon the untrained supervisor is not only dealing with change, he's fighting the emotions coming from the people on the floor."

Using the example again of a company switching to engineered labor standards, Droske says supervisors need to be trained in communication skills that teach them how to discuss these standards, that they are fairer to everyone, and that the playing field will be more level.

Becoming an effective trainer
While it might seem obvious that a supervisor should be knowledgeable, Droske says it isn't always so. "Too often, the person charged with training is not the best suited for the job because he lacks the knowledge of how to be a trainer." The familiar scenario is that a new person is placed next to a veteran and the veteran is told to train the new guy. Two things create a bad training situation in this instance, says Droske. The veteran might know how to do the job, but has no desire to teach the new person. Or, the veteran knows the work well enough to keep his job, but doesn't know it well enough to show others how to do it.

"A trainer has to know how to transfer information," he says. "All individuals learn differently and the trainer has to be skilled in recognizing that. The trainer has to be flexible to meet the skills of the learner."

The supervisor or instructor who approaches the training session with a plan in hand and steamrolls the learner with that plan is in for a lot of trouble.

"Bad trainers approach the subject with the objective in mind that they are going to teach XYZ," says Droske. "Good trainers say, ‘my learning objective here is for the person to understand XYZ.'" He adds that there is a huge difference in how training is accepted when the learners know the instructor is not going away until the learners understand.

A successful training program
Droske says one of the key elements in any training program—whether its training new workers or training supervisors—is that it has to be fun. "Supervisory training is not something that can be learned in one afternoon," he says. "It takes, probably 20 hours of instruction over five days, along with follow-up monitoring, to get them to a level where it begins to stick and be used. It has to be entertaining."

This is not check-the-box training. The approach to training supervisors has to emphasize that this is a skill they will use to improve themselves and improve their team members. Creating an effective supervisor training program is tough to grow at home. It's often more cost effective to use an off-the-shelf program, Droske believes, and customize that program to fit a company's specific needs.

"Developing, designing and preparing an in-house program could easily take a year," he says. "And that's assuming a company has someone on staff with the skills to do it. An outside trainer is often a better approach to get started."

Using an outside trainer can bring quicker results; the program is in place immediately and supervisors are trained much quicker. It's also faster to make qualitative and quantitative assessments with an established program.

"You can look for a faster ROI in things like improved communications as determined by the people," says Droske. "Morale is also improved, basic things that are essential parts of quality in the workplace."

These are the "soft" things that can be measured when a training program is established. A company can also measure results by taking a current measure of what needs improvement, and measure it again six months after the training, to see what has been gained or lost.

"When engineered labor standards are used, and people are trained in how to use these measures, changes can be seen almost immediately," says Droske.

Having the right supervisors in place is critical to the efficiency of a distribution center or factory. While there are many reasons for costly employee turnover, poor training is high on most lists as a cause. A properly trained supervisor can assist employee retention by creating a work atmosphere that fosters growth through better communications and understanding. The trained supervisor is able to clarify job expectations and job requirements. He is able to recognize individual employee needs and offer constructive criticism, factors that bolster the employee's desire to succeed.