New supervisors play a key role in any organization's growth and development for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that their main responsibility is creating a link between technical employees and upper management. Not only do new managers have a huge impact on the bottom line of most organizations, but they also represent their firms 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making them business agents for their respective companies in a sense.

Businesses, professional practices, health care facilities, and government agencies have learned that success comes to organizations that train and prepare their supervisors in effective leadership skills. Electrical contracting firms are no exception. In order for them to get a competitive edge in today's ever-changing marketplace, these firms must be dedicated to employee development. Traditionally, contractors have placed a high value on the technical skill of their employees, but many have left the leadership skills to trial and error for new supervisors. This no longer has to be the case, thanks to the availability of various avenues of training opportunities these days. No matter how an organization chooses to implement training, it's important to focus on the development of certain key traits in its new managers.

The following core skills are critical for new supervisors:

  • Effective supervisory skills and best practices.

  • Knowledge of legal considerations for supervisors on and off the job.

  • Effective communication and leadership skills coupled with a vision toward goal achievement.

  • Ability to motivate others toward established company directives.

Let's take a look at how each of these principles is put into action in the real world.

Supervisory skills

Because so many companies have historically relied on the trial-and-error method in this industry to develop effective supervisory skills, supervisors have made mistakes because they didn't know any better or simply lacked the training to make better choices. Some of these supervisors learned from their experiences, improving their leadership skills, while others continued to struggle.

By examining both successful and unsuccessful supervisors, certain precedents have been set. Knowing and adopting commonalities or best practices of effective supervisors provide a more productive work environment, higher morale, less stress, safer work habits, and a better advancement opportunity for supervisors. Additionally, knowing and learning from the mistakes of unsuccessful supervisors can assist managers in overcoming obstacles. Following is a list of the top 10 mistakes most new supervisors make:

  1. Seizing power and attempting to hold onto it.

  2. Failing to solicit feedback.

  3. Delegating without authorizing.

  4. Reprimanding employees in the presence of others.

  5. Supervising everyone the same way.

  6. Keeping the interesting work for themselves.

  7. Siding with team members.

  8. Distancing themselves from those they supervise.

  9. Promoting an “us-vs.-them” attitude.

  10. Engaging in illegal behaviors.

Identifying mistakes before they happen and knowing competencies of other successful supervisors will allow for an easier transition into the new supervisor role. With illegal behavior rounding out the top 10 list, it's especially important to examine the ramifications of such actions.

Legal issues

Supervisors who are not familiar with legal issues may unknowingly break the law. For example, working in an environment with a collective bargaining agreement will only give them guidelines that have been negotiated between the employer and the employee's representatives.

Several legal issues need to be brought to the attention of new supervisors, such as identifying a supervisor's legal responsibilities and discussing aspects of the employment relationship. Supervisors should know the definition of legal terms, such as at-will employment, exempt employees, nonexempt employees, discrimination, whistle-blowers, privacy, and defamation. In addition, they should be familiar with all company employment policies as well as the agencies that enforce these policies, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And let's not forget about the big one: sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can be defined in two ways. First is quid pro quo, a Latin phrase meaning “this for that.” It is used to refer to sexual harassment that occurs when an employee is forced to choose between an employer's sexual demands or suffer an economic loss. The second is defined as a hostile environment, a form of sexual harassment that can occur between not only employee and employer, but also between two employees. Supervisors should know that sexual harassment can be verbal (jokes of a sexual nature, repeatedly asking someone out, or sexual innuendoes), physical (grabbing, leaning on a person, impeding or blocking movement), nonverbal (staring, following a person, or derogatory gestures of a sexual nature) and visual (posters, drawings, or pictures of a sexual nature). When supervisors see such things occurring at the job site or anywhere else, they must know that they need to act and how to act upon this behavior.

In addition to understanding the legal ramifications of these issues, new supervisors must also know how to achieve goals set by the department and/or organization.

Goal achievement

Effective leadership skills and vision toward goal achievement is often the most important job of a supervisor. Establishing written and well-defined company vision and goals is crucial to an organization's success as well as to the development of the supervisor. Without vision and goals, supervisors sit back and wait for things to happen, naturally becoming reactive instead of proactive in their duties. Company vision and goals should be realistic, easy to understand, commonly understood, inspiring, and meaningful.

Realistic goals are important. If your goals are not attainable, then they will not be motivating. Vision and goals must be appropriate for the supervisor and the organization in order to be met. For example, if a supervisor has a goal of pulling in a $20 million electrical installation on a large industrial job, then the company must be large enough to obtain this goal. A vision statement must be specific and easy to understand. Vision statements that are short are normally more effective than those that are long and drawn out. Companies want to avoid general statements as their vision statements, such as, “to be the best electrical contractor in our markets,” because they are ambiguous, not to mention hard to measure. Remember that vision and goals must be well defined and obtainable. If they're understood by all members of the team, everyone will be working together as a cohesive unit with the same understanding and path toward attainment.

The best visions and goals also have emotional appeal, designed to inspire other team members. Having a vision or goal of 10% profit before tax may be inspiring to the supervisor but may have little effect on the other team members. Using vision and goals to motivate the team, such as obtaining backlog of work for the next 18 months, will motivate the entire team because they have a personal and emotional tie.

Helping an organization make decisions, prioritize short-term goals, and determine resource trade-offs, vision and goals should not be overlooked. Clearly establishing such objectives will help guide an organization down the road to success not only with it's customers but also with it's employees and vendors. In order to achieve these goals, new managers must be able to motivate the masses, a task that's often easier said than done.

Measuring motivation

It's not uncommon for new supervisors to struggle with their new role because they've always had to get the work done themselves. As a result, delegating and working through others becomes a challenge.

Motivating others is also difficult for some new supervisors because they must remember that their values and beliefs may not be shared by other team members. For example, some believe if they work hard enough they will get ahead. Others believe it's not what they know or how hard they work but whom they know. Trying to motivate these two types of individuals in the same way will undoubtedly lead to failure. It works the same with values. Some people value career success and wealth, while others may value close relationships and good citizenship. When motivating others, supervisors must know what is important to them, using these triggers to achieve individual goals that lead to success of the entire team.

Sometimes confused with leadership, management is more of an art than a science. Supervisors must manage their resources, such as material, tools, and information, but not their employees. Research has shown that employees prefer to be led, not managed, and respond positively to leaders who can motivate them. Tom Landry, the long-time football coach for the Dallas Cowboys, once said, “Leadership is getting someone to do what he or she doesn't want to do, to achieve what he or she wants to achieve.” Knowing the difference between leadership and management is the key to the success of a supervisor at any level in the organization.


Mitchell is president of Integrated Management Group in St. Louis.