One of my mentees just started a new position at a new institution and is tasked with supervising an already existent staff. As many of us in student affairs have changed positions a number of times in our career, supervising an “inherited staff” can be either a rewarding or especially challenging experience. However, there are a few secrets that you can use in order to gain the respect and trust of your new staff and have an easier job transition. I have managed inherited staffs on a number of different occasions throughout the country and have found success every time by using the following strategies:
1. Learn the culture of the organization and your new staff. Despite your experience and advanced skills, you’re the new person on the staff so respect the existing department and staff culture. I learned once from a colleague that it takes at least two years to change a culture (particularly from an organizational standpoint). Trying to lead with an iron fist all at once to change things will cause more problems than solutions for you. Take time to find out about the history of the staff and important traditions, symbols, and events that have meaning for them. Try to embrace that to become part of that culture. Introduce new ideas and practices slowly. Also, be mindful about how you speak about your previous experiences at other institutions. staff members don’t want to hear, “Well…when I was at University X…” or “This is how I did it at University X…” They want to know that you are on their team and are proud of your new institution.
2. Set expectations as soon as possible. This is one of the most important things you need to accomplish. Consistent with the department’s goals and mission, setting expectations with your new staff sets the tone for the year / semester. Do this during a staff meeting and reinforce it during individual “one-on-one” meetings. Additionally, actively find out what your staffers’ expectations are for you and their fellow staff members. Here is a free staff development activity to help start conversation related to expectations and working together as a team.
3. Get to know your staffers on a deeper level. Take time to find out who your new staff members are: What are their strengths? What are their goals? What are they passionate about? How can you leverage that knowledge to development them? People appreciate when you take an honest interest in their lives and care about them.
4. Set the standard; be the team’s role model. The staff is going to take your lead on the behaviors that you exhibit. Complainers and naysayers don’t have a lot of ammunition if you are the hardest worker on the team and do so with a positive attitude. You don’t have to be an over-the-top “cheerleader” for the team, but actively and consistently demonstrating the type of work ethic and attitude you expect sets the standard.
5. Deal with “troublemakers” quickly. Ultimately you are the boss, and some staffers need to be reminded of this, particularly if they are causing unneeded discord. This tactic needs to be applied tactfully and judiciously, but doing so can extinguish a lot of problems before they become worse. Other staffers will appreciate this, and it sends a clear symbolic message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated.
6. Gain allies. Find out who the “play-makers” are on your new team, and embrace them as confidants. Remember that although you acting in everyone’s best interest, you are the boss and not everyone is going to share their honest opinions with you. These allies will be more willing to share their own personal opinions releated to staff issues as well as give you a better idea about the staff’s temperment as well. This can help you to make more informed decisions.
7. Develop an environment based on civility, respect, and teamwork. This should go without saying, but a “happy staff” is typically a productive staff. As is the case with most people, I want to work on a staff with people that value each other and treat each other with respect. You must be purposeful and strategic in this endeavor to develop civility, respect, and teamwork. Staff development activities, social outings, and participating in volunteering opportunities together are some simple tactics that can aid in this effort.
8. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the former supervisor. Staffers will naturally share the slights and misgivings of their previous leader. Although you’re not going to be able to be the perfect supervisor or solve every problem, take the lead on quickly addressing blatant issues the previous supervisor created. This could be anything from unfair scheduling practices and inappropriate relationships with subordinates to staff member favoritism and general disrespect.
9. Listen! Truly listen. Value your new team members’ opinions and expertise. Because you are brand new, they are going to have better insights about certain issues given their history at the institution. This is another great way to create allies, solve problems, and increase staff morale.
10. Create excitement based on goals, work productivity / outcomes, and teamwork. Keep things fun, and motivate your staff through excitement. Figure out ways to create competition, contests, and rewards among the team. Be a champion for your own team and be public about their efforts to others.
What are some personal examples of the above tactics that you have successfully used with an inherited staff?
Scott M. Helfrich (@studentlifeguru) is the director of upper campus housing at California University of Pennsylvania, co-owner of Student Life Consultants, and the creator of http://www.studentlifeguru.com.