Being a student affairs supervisor for the first time can be scary.
But it’s also an opportunity to create an efficient and productive environment for your supervisees.
Your number one priority should be to create an environment and support system that helps your supervisees grow and succeed as professionals. Here are three you need to focus on to do so.
1. Create a culture of transparency
It’s vital to create a culture of transparency, starting with your very first meeting with your supervisees. Ideally, this should start during the interviewing process, before they even begin the job.
Being transparent means being accessible, wherein other people can easily discern how you feel, what you want, and what motives you have. Transparency helps create an environment of openness between you and those whom you manage. It builds better relationships between you and your supervisees and allows for more engagement in the workplace.
And perhaps most importantly, transparency leads to mutual trust.
During my first meeting with a person I’m supervising, I always outline my expectations and leadership style. This includes expectations for the job and the workplace culture. For instance, I tell them that I believe in democratic leadership, so I want a workplace in which everyone feels comfortable speaking up, working together, and providing input.
During the interview process, I tell candidates what I see as the current positives of the workplace and what I see as areas that can be improved. When I talk about the latter, I mention how that candidate can play a role in improving that area, as well as how our entire team can collectively do so.
Additionally, I like to provide insight into my personality and how it informs my management style. As a supervisor, I take a rather laid back approach, wherein I place the emphasis on being efficient and finishing tasks rather than on the amount of time spent in the office. I know that my staff — as with most student affairs professionals — often work unique or extended hours, so it’s important to me that my supervisees know that I’m flexible. I don’t want them to feel forced to sacrifice important events with friends and family when time in the office can be adjusted.
Perhaps the most important part of the transparency is making sure that the openness that you preach is not one-sided. It’s often easier for a manager to be open with those they manage than vice versa.
To combat this, ask your supervisees how they feel rather than telling them how they should feel. And instead of telling them how you have done things or would do things, ask them to share their ideal solutions. Be appropriately vulnerable by sharing some mistakes you’ve made.
But transparency is only effective with creating a strong support system when you combine it with two other things: Advocacy and feedback.
2. Be an advocate
Supervisors should be advocates for their staff, meaning they provide support in meaningful — and when necessary and appropriate, public — manners. During the first meeting with anyone I supervise, I make it clear that part of my job is to serve as their advocate. I also articulate exactly what that means.
For me, being a good advocate as a supervisor means:
- Asking what supervisees want to get out of their positions
- Asking what experiences, skills, and qualifications they wish to gain (as well as having them articulate what they do well and what they wish to improve upon)
- Asking what they want in the future
- Articulating that I will hold myself accountable for helping them reach their goals
I also ask everyone I supervise to tell me about their goals for the next three to five years, including if they plan to eventually pursue other positions internally or externally. I make it clear that I am open to discussing other positions, especially if it will help advance their career.
It can be difficult to have these discussions as a supervisor because you don’t want anyone who is doing a great job to leave their role with you. However, acting as a good advocate means helping supervisees reach their goals. And your supervisees reaching their goals will mean advancing the overall progress of your department or area.
As supervisors, our job is not to discourage staff from leaving; it is to create an environment of learning and advancement that makes folx want to stay. If you actively work to create a positive workplace culture and your supervisees do great work, it’s inevitable that they will become desirable for other positions.
We should embrace the advancement of our staff as a good thing. We should also create mechanisms so that professionals doing great work can also train others and prepare them for advancement. Additionally, we should work with our supervisees to create a template that we can apply when we look for candidates to replace folx who advance.
3. Talk about feedback
If you want to create a good support system, talk about feedback — how you will provide it to others and how you wish to receive it yourself.
Providing feedback as a supervisor means encouraging strengths and addressing weaknesses. Any feedback should avoid judgment and allow for a two-way conversation in which your supervisees have ample time to respond.
The best way to provide feedback is to involve your supervisees in the process. Have your staff identify areas in which they are strong and areas in which they wish to improve.
During one of your first meetings with your supervisee, mutually agree upon those items. This will help encourage mutual responsibility and ownership. As a supervisor, you should then deliver specific, tangible feedback that relates to the areas supervisees identified as important (whether those areas are strengths or weaknesses).
Be solutions-oriented in the feedback you provide. Identify the issue, explain why it is (or could become) a problem, and come up with a plan for solving it. It’s also important to identify a reasonable time to address the issue and to follow up.
If you receive pushback, refer back to your early conversations wherein your supervisee identified issues they wanted to improve upon. And also, make clear why you are providing feedback to help them — as an advocate for reaching their goals.
Additionally, to maintain a strong support system for supervisees, feedback should go in both directions. You should acknowledge that it can be difficult for many supervisees to provide direct feedback to a supervisor.
Fortunately, you can work through this issue by frequently soliciting feedback and asking your supervisees to focus on how to improve things in the future rather than the past. Additionally, ask leading questions. Don’t just wait for unsolicited feedback; ask your supervisee to help you brainstorm ways you can improve.
Remember to take the initiative by asking for feedback regularly. Then, make sure that you understand any feedback you receive. Ask for more details, respond thoughtfully, and agree together on a plan for improvement moving forward.
There are many challenges associated with being a supervisor in student affairs. But, by combining transparency, advocacy, and feedback with empathy and a willingness to learn, you can be an asset to many professionals in the field.