After working as a professional in Jewish organizations for over 26 years, I have rarely come across an organization that has created and upheld a healthy and clearly defined culture of and standards for professional supervision across the entire staff and workplace.
Why is that?
The main reason is that supervision is commonly understood as one person with greater authority making sure that someone else has completed specific assignments and projects efficiently and in a timely manner. While this is certainly one important role that supervisors play, the process of supervision is so much more than task management and operations. Supervision is about developing a professional, collaborative relationship in which both parties share responsibility and feel accountable to one another as they both strive to meet the goals of their organization. Supervision is a skill and a craft – one’s title, salary, and professional portfolio do not automatically or universally make someone an effective supervisor.
So what does it take to be an effective supervisor? Among other things, supervisors should articulate expectations, goals, available resources, and provide direction and guidance to direct reports, who then apply knowledge, skills, and competency to complete the work. The most productive supervisory relationships are built on trust, confidentiality, support, constructive feedback, respect, safety, and self-care. Effective supervision is critical for employee retention, career advancement, productivity, and positive morale at work.
Interestingly, the most valuable supervision training I ever received took place years before I officially launched my career and accepted my first full-time job. The most rewarding culture of supervision I have been a part of was when I worked as a camp counselor and unit head for several summers during high school and college. As a part of staff orientation, I was asked to think about who I wanted to be as a camp counselor and how I wanted to “show up” for my campers. I had to make sure that my campers were fulfilling their responsibilities like making their beds, participating in activities, washing their hair, writing letters home, being respectful of others, and keeping track of their belongings. I had to find ways to hold them accountable for their actions and at the same time I had to let them be independent and express themselves authentically.
Just as professional supervisors engage with their direct reports, I was expected to get to know my campers by listening to them, caring about their well-being, helping them feel a sense of belonging, and encouraging them to be the best version of themselves. I focused on their interests, strengths, challenges, fears, accomplishments, goals, and interactions. When campers were asked to do something that was out of their comfort zone or made them feel insecure, I would guide them to try new things, ask for help, and believe in themselves. I felt responsible for making sure that my campers understood that putting forth their best effort was expected even though they would still make mistakes, let people down, and feel disappointed sometimes. My job was not to make things easier or more difficult for my campers, but rather to help them approach whatever they confronted with an open mind, fresh perspective, and a strong sense of self.
My role as a camp counselor was not only to help my campers effectively contribute to the camp community, but I was also positioned to serve as their advocate. I introduced them to new people beyond our bunk and age group, I recommended them for special opportunities at camp, and I supported them whenever I could. Just like a supervisor, there were challenging times when after multiple attempts to help a camper thrive and fit in and adhere to camp policies, I had to work with the camper’s parents and other staff to accept the fact that our camp was not the right fit for that child at that time. Being responsible for other people is challenging no matter where you work. But as I have learned, it can also be the most rewarding aspect of one’s job.
There is no doubt that effective supervision requires a lot of time at the start. However, designing a plan to thoughtfully supervise staff is crucial for the employee to succeed and is a direct reflection of the supervisor and the organization as a whole. Setting up direct reports for success from the outset most often results in a huge return on investment.
Over the last several years I have trained clergy, senior executives, and managers on how to be effective supervisors. I have also had the good fortune of training direct reports on how to maximize supervision experiences, how to establish strong relationships with supervisors, and how to navigate difficult conversations. Supervisees are often surprised to learn that they are empowered to drive the process to ensure an optimal supervision experience.
In addition to these distinct responsibilities of supervisors and supervisees, there are a number of joint responsibilities in supervisory relationships, including celebrating successes, identifying growth opportunities, documenting accomplishments, and sharing important information with one another. It is critical for supervisors and direct reports to establish guidelines for clear and open communication and to be strategic about how and when to share constructive feedback with one another.
In the current climate of remote work as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is even more important for supervisors and direct reports to be transparent, direct, and communicative with one another. The absence of regular in-person interactions and hands-on supervision can be more challenging for everyone. It is particularly important for direct reports to be proactive in seeking information, understanding and managing expectations, and checking in with supervisors to ensure alignment. Both direct reports and supervisors should be careful not to act on assumptions, but rather on facts and truths. This may require more frequent and intentional communication than usual because there are no casual opportunities to run into someone’s office to get a quick reaction to something or an answer to a question. Over the past two years, I have seen many supervisory relationships shift in positive ways by creating a safe space for employees to honestly share how they are feeling and to be encouraged to take care of themselves. The more an employee feels seen, heard, and cared for by one’s supervisor and organization as a whole, the more likely that employee is to maximize value, performance, and overall impact at work.
What I learned at camp over 30 years ago continues to shape my thinking around supervisory relationships. It is no surprise that many of my friends and colleagues were once my counselors, camp directors, bunkmates, and campers. Supervision is not just a task but rather an opportunity to invest in someone’s growth and professional journey while ensuring that the work is getting done and organizational goals are being met. I am committed to helping organizations understand the value and impact of effective supervision and to embed it as a central component of their workplace culture. When this happens well, everyone involved is primed to be a happy camper.