We’ve really got to become more comfortable as humans as well as student affairs professionals at being honest about our failures. We mold students for goodness sake! We have conversations with them about their failures as learning opportunities, why don’t we talk as freely about our own? I say we because I am right there with ya. Do I always show my weakness? No! Do I admit that I messed up? Rarely! Maybe it’s because my top strength is Achiever so I, naturally, don’t ever want anyone to think I’m not capable of excelling at something (maybe some of this is myself not wanting to accept that I can’t do everything 100% all the time either but that’s another story). Maybe it is because I am an introvert so I prefer to process feelings and emotions internally versus openly with others. Either way, I’m working to accept my failures- embrace them rather- and give myself some grace in the process.
A couple years ago I switched positions on campus and was thrust into the role of supervising staff. Granted, I read the job description and was familiar with what the job would entail so I knew what I was getting myself into. I exercised some thoughts of doubt and worry that I wouldn’t be up to this new task but ultimately knew that this was a necessary next step I needed to take so I accepted the challenge. Whoa! WHY don’t we have more professional development out there for new supervisors? Or just supervisors in general? There was no training that came with this role. This was a totally new job description for me and within just a few weeks, I knew I was in way over my head. Supervising is tough and I was failing. I was finding it hard to communicate with my staff so I just wasn’t. I didn’t want them to not like me so I was avoiding difficult conversations. I wasn’t listening to what they actually needed from me because I was too busy giving them to-do lists to make sure that things in the office were getting accomplished. As a result, I suffered and my staff suffered with me.
I reached a point where I was desperately searching for resources. How to set expectations for staff? How to manage first-year professionals? How to handle difficult situations as a leader? Through some independent research, I found ACPA’s Mid-Level Management Institute and applied on a whim. I was accepted into the institute, attended in January of this year and thus began a six-month soul-searching professional development process for me. At MMI we were challenged to do some “head to heart” thinking. Being vulnerable and open with staff and others so you can learn from one another. To ask staff questions about themselves and show them things I previously had kept guarded about my fears of being a bad or incapable supervisor. My issues really boiled down to my fear of thinking “Am I enough?” As a woman and as a mother, I think I will always have aspects of struggling to “do it all” and “keep it all together” since I am always going in so many directions. But as a professional, there is immense growth and possibilities attached if you can throw aside these fears and really be present and open with your staff. They will be more receptive to you and your leadership if they can really learn WHO you are- even with admitting the failures.
After MMI, I had some tough (for me) conversations with my staff (ones in which I might have cried). I put it all out there by first apologizing for not being the best supervisor I could be but not because I was incapable; because I was just doing it wrong. I promised to listen better. To ask for their opinions more often. To show more vulnerable parts of myself to them on a regular basis. They were extremely appreciative of my honesty and I’m happy I took that step. Some days are still a challenge but I feel I am in a much better place now than I was and am learning and taking more risks every day. The “failing” aspect of putting myself out there doesn’t scare the crap out of me now as much as it once did. I share with you some of the key takeaways I’d pass onto folks who feel like they are failing as supervisors:
1. Be clear with your staff about your expectations.
Setting expectations early is crucial. It’s true that your staff needs to see you as a leader that models these expectations too. But you also need to clearly discuss with them these expectations in person. When they are not followed, quick follow-up to address the issue is always key versus letting it go or being passive aggressive about it.
2. Include them in conversations and decision making as much as possible.
Your staff will feel like you care if they feel valued. Bring them with you to meetings so they can learn. Teach them about processes you handle in the office. Ask their opinions on new projects or decisions you have to make it. Actually TAKE their advice or suggestions so you aren’t just asking for opinions you’ll never put into practice. Explain to them as much as you can about why you are making the decisions you are when you do.
3. Give yourself permission to be honest about not having all the answers.
Sometimes the best thing you can say when someone asks you a question you don’t have an answer to is just that. Be honest with yourself that supervising doesn’t mean “knows everything”. There’s great learning potential when you can work together with your staff as a team on a project or in finding a solution to a problem that you couldn’t do on your own. Seeing your staff accomplish things like that makes you feel like a good supervisor because it’s promoting teamwork and developing new skill sets for everyone.
4. See supervising as less about you and more about them.
Spend time with your staff and get to know them as a person, not just a professional. Take an interest in them and ask lots of questions. They will start to feel like you care about them- not just in a “this person can get the job done” way but in the real way. The real potential an area has to shine lies in how well its people get along and how much trust and respect is valued.
A successful supervisor is not a perfect one without failures. A successful supervisor is one who finds value in the art of continually learning to understand people and ourselves. Failing makes experiences worthwhile. We come out stronger, smarter and braver. We can create a better environment for our staff and ultimately touch more students as well.
When is the last time you failed and lived to learn from it and talk about it? I challenge you to try it and join in the conversation as we all #FailForward.