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The Top 5 Qualities of a Great Manufacturing Supervisor

Dec. 26, 2019
Managing people takes an entirely different skill set than running a machine. Companies need to be clear about what they expect from supervisors and give them the tools to get there.

Too often, companies promote great individual contributors to supervisory roles because of outstanding job performance, skills, or tenure with the organization. These high-performers-turned-supervisors are likely not assessed for their people management skills, and related resources for onboarding, training, and developing them into good supervisors are lacking. After all, if the person was great at their production job, then, as the expert, they should be great at managing other people doing the same job, right?

Wrong. Managing people takes an entirely different skill set than running a machine. Companies need to provide clarity to their employees on “what makes a good supervisor.”

In this article, we share a case study that illustrates the challenges following the promotion of a high-performing employee into a supervisory role with a lack of clear expectations and support to set them up for success in people management.

The data in this article come from the Denison Leadership Development Survey, a 360-style survey that has been used with more than 15,000 leaders. The 5 leadership qualities come from the survey data using text analytics of data from 400+ front-line leaders at more than 25 manufacturing companies.

Case of a “great individual contributor turned supervisor”

Mike has spent the last 30 years of his life working for a pretty darn good company. The type of company you want to stay and work for.  Mike is also a really cool guy to hang out with.  He, too, is smart, reliable, very knowledgeable and always willing to lend a hand. As an individual contributor, Mike gained a lot of valuable experience and knowledge--he was well-liked and respected by his peers. Naturally, the company felt he would do well as a supervisor, and made him a boss.

Often, great employees who work hard and eventually move up to management receive little training and development. Mike was no different. His knowledge of supervision was what he observed over the years from other supervisors on the floor. Unfortunately, most of the hourly employees felt that the supervisors were jerks. One day Mike was cool; the next day he was a jerk. He didn’t really become a jerk overnight, but it didn’t take him 10 years to become one either. He perfected the process within a year.

Learning to be a bad supervisor - A typical progression

When new supervisors do not have access to formal leadership development, they turn to informal means—in the form of local mentors. In Mike’s case, his mentor lived by one simple phrase, “I don’t care if you respect me, as long as you fear me.” Mike then took all this to heart and began building his own team through ridiculing, yelling, and micromanaging. He started sharing information on a need-to-know basis. He discovered being a boss wasn’t that difficult.  If morale seemed low, he would just remind everyone, “If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else.” However, as the economy began to gain steam, they did!  They realized they now had options. Why get abused by Mike when you could go down the street and get abused by another Mike for more money?

The fallout of bad management: Challenges in retaining and attracting talent

The impact of “old school” bosses shows not only in turnover but recruiting as well. If one of the regular topics on your leadership team agenda is turnover and/or recruitment, have someone pull up your facility on sites like Glassdoor, Indeed or Linkedin—where employees can rate their employers—and see what people are saying. If people are leaving because of their experience with how your managers are leading people, it’s time to start creating some expectations on the type of leadership you expect out of your supervisors and managers. 

In the 360 Leadership manufacturing surveys we analyzed, each supervisor’s direct reports were asked the question: “What makes this leader/supervisor effective?” The responses and feedback were provided by the direct reports, as well as the supervisors’ peers, customers, and their own supervisor. We used natural language processing (NLP) techniques combined with human oversight to conduct a topic analysis of over 3,000 comments.

Here are the five key themes we uncovered:

 A Highly Effective Supervisor...

1. Shares information within and across groups.

This is not the “I will tell you on a need-to-know-basis” boss. Great supervisors share information to help their people get the job done. They do not hoard information for the sake of power; they share it. They share the goals & objectives of the organization and regularly communicate them through formal and informal means, such as staff meetings or walk-arounds. When they see shift-to-shift issues, they confront them head on by bringing people together to solve problems, not create them.

As Mike reflected more about his own leadership style, he realized as a boss he enjoyed being the “know-it-all.” But for his people to be successful, he needed to be better at sharing information that made it easier for them to do their jobs. A quick huddle before first shift took hardly any time out of his day, but it did wonders for his employees who now had concrete expectations of what they needed to get done that day. 

After years of having third and first shift battle over the perception that each was purposely try to sabotage the other, Mike set up monthly meetings so they could finally discuss their issues face-to-face. Just opening up a communication channel defused their grievances.

2. Listens, is approachable, and is open to different ways of doing things.

Employees will describe this person as a “people person.” They are approachable in a way that employees feel comfortable raising issues with. Not only do they listen, they actively solicit feedback and input from others, thus making employees feel valued and respected. These supervisors demonstrate that they are open to diverse viewpoints and new ways of doing things.

One of Mike’s biggest takeaways during his development from a boss to a leader was that he spent more time reacting than he did listening. He developed a mantra to shift his focus when people approached him: It was “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

3. Follows up with action.

This person is authentic when making commitments and ensures that actions are taken as a follow up to feedback and input provided by others. People respect this person because they not only listen but follow up and take action. They get things done, and employees walk away feeling like this person has their back. If resources are needed, this person makes it happen. They remove obstacles; they don’t create them.

Mike found this to be as simple as walking through the floor daily and making a mental note to follow up with people as he saw them. It wasn’t rocket science. If someone asked him a question that he could not answer on the spot or needed something he could make happen, he would make it a point to follow up within 48 hours. 

4. Stays calm under pressure and makes tough decisions.

This person does not “lose it.” They are calm, rational, and always in control. They are not condescending, and they relate to people in a professional manner. They are proactive, not reactive. No one will look at this person as a firefighter—just as the person you rely on to get the job done. This person does not shy away from conflict.  In fact, they deal with it effectively to make tough decisions that have been weighed by differing viewpoints.

You could say Mike changed his behavior overnight. He went from communicating like a dictator to a more calm and rational way of speaking—to the point where people on the floor thought he had received bad news from his doctor and now was atoning for past transgressions.  This didn’t mean he was weak and allowed people to walk all over him. It just meant he didn’t need to belittle people to get them to work. What he found was it wasn’t what he communicated, it was how he communicated.

5. Mentors and supports others.

This person takes great care in developing their people. They check in with employees regularly asking for what they need. They are good at giving out instructions, but also at making themselves available consistently and making sure their people understand the instructions.

Mike realized quickly that his shift was a reflection of him. If he didn’t develop his people to execute flawlessly, then maybe it was something he could have done better. After all, he became a supervisor because he was an impeccable individual contributor. It was up to him to share that knowledge and develop others to become impeccable individual contributors.

The skills that make a supervisor successful on the line won’t necessarily make them a great people manager. To support their development, companies must establish rigor for selecting or promoting managers, and determine how they can set them up for success through thoughtful onboarding, training and development.

Mike took this to heart. After applying the five qualities in the survey, he ended up a year later ranking in the top 75% of leaders in the Denison Leadership Database.

Jay Richards is a member of the founding team at Denison, a firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializing in corporate culture and leadership development. For 20 years, Jay has worked with manufacturing firms in improving their culture and leadership. 

Joseph Mroz plans, conducts, and translates applied research using advanced analytics for clients seeking data-driven insights and action planning for Denison. He also conducts and publishes research for internal development, white papers, publications and presentations. 

Jasmit Kaur is a talent analytics consultant for Denison. She is also the founder and CEO at Culturebie, a firm specializing in data mining located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jasmit envisions a world of enlightened leaders, informed by data analysis to guide engaged and productive teams.

About the Author

Jay Richards | Partner

Jay Richards is a member of the founding team at Denison, a firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializing in corporate culture and leadership development. For 20 years, Jay has worked with manufacturing firms in improving their culture and leadership. 

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