Twenty Tips for the 20-Something Supervisor

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed
May 2016
boys running

Being in that very first supervisory role is hard for everyone — regardless of age. For younger supervisors there are added challenges in building credibility and gaining the respect of others — it’s only natural to be nervous. Those promoted “from within” to a supervisory position after working at camp for multiple seasons must also be prepared to face possible challenges with the change in roles. This is especially important if the new position includes supervising staff where there are established relationships, such as former co-counselors, long-standing camp friends, drinking buddies, or past summer romantic interests.

For those rising through the ranks at a young age, embracing your new manager status starts with trusting the belief that others have in you — believe that whoever hired you knew what he or she was doing when picking you for the position.

At the end of the day, there isn’t a magic formula for being a good supervisor. Each employment situation and staff team is unique. However, there are steps you can take to develop skills that will help you transition into your supervisory position. Here are a few tips to help ensure your experience as a first-time supervisor is successful:

Managing Your Role

1. Understand what your job is. And isn’t.

Make sure you know what you have gotten yourself into. Be sure you understand the expectations, objectives, and responsibilities of the job. This should include knowing if you have any responsibilities in the performance evaluation process, enforcement of policies, and in the release of employees.

2. Walk the talk.

Be prepared to represent the camp by modeling excellence, ethics, dedication, and the character expected as a camp leader. Pay attention to what you say and how you act; try to eliminate gaps between your words and actions. Be ready to work harder than those you supervise. You will also be expected to model the attitudes and behaviors to be practiced by staff, including following (and possibly enforcing) the camp’s personnel policies, rules for staff conduct, safety practices, and setting the appropriate tone in activities (regardless of whatever shenanigans you may have pulled off as a former camper or staff member).

3. Master time management.

Being a supervisor requires being a successful problem solver who is able to balance his/her own needs, the needs of staff, and the needs of the camp. There will be deadlines, demands, and lots of changes — in schedules, weather, staffing, activities, etc. At camp, time is often intensified by the fact that a day at camp is like a week in real life. Once camp gets rolling, everything counts: There are no time-outs, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Being well organized and paying close attention to details are keys to time management. This includes being intentional in allocating time for yourself (doing your laundry, time off, etc.) as well as time to perform the tasks required in your position, including such things as observing and evaluating staff, lesson planning, and equipment inspection and repair, etc., as applicable.

4. Maintain emotional balance.

You will have to maintain your emotional balance and self-control to face various situations confidently and successfully. Supervising others isn’t easy, especially when there is conflict or when staff fail to do their job — and it’s normal to experience a range of feelings including stress, disappointment, frustration, and anger. First and foremost, you need to stay in control of your own emotions and respond rationally. To maintain credibility and respect, you cannot demonstrate poor impulse control or be highly emotional and reactionary. Don’t communicate when angry; wait until you are calm and rational to discuss the behavior or incident. If needed, ask for help in developing strategies for dealing with emotional situations and specific solutions for handling staff and camper behavior.

5. Ask for help.

Being a supervisor does not mean you need to have all the answers or are ready to handle all problems alone. Seeking help is not a sign of defeat or inadequacy. No one expects a supervisor to be perfect. You are probably going to make some mistakes. Ask for help. This is especially important when you are unsure of the appropriate action or are unable to deal with a particular situation. Don’t hide it when you are having problems. Camp administrators would rather take the time to answer your questions and provide guidance than to have to deal with poor results

Managing Relationships

6. You are not a peer. You are not a pal. You are a supervisor.

Possibly one of the hardest concepts for young and inexperienced managers is recognizing the need to modify social relationships within the workplace, which can be tricky in the social scene of camp. It’s unrealistic to think you can be everyone’s friend. This does not mean you cannot be friendly, but rather that you need to be intentional in creating and maintaining a professional distance between yourself and those you supervise — including friends from prior summers. In a supervisory role, you may need to separate yourself from the staff you supervise. And, yes, this may include not participating in some of the social aspects of camp. Rather, your social activities and peer group should be appropriate to your position.

7. Make decisions to get the job done — not to be everyone’s friend.

As a supervisor, you will have to make decisions in the best interest of the camp overall, and in a manner to get the job done, which may include making decisions that are unpopular with other staff. When supervising the work of others, you will be required to coach, reprimand, and create positive performance changes with staff and/or in program areas and still be respected — but do not expect to be liked. Don’t take this personally; you are doing your job.

8. Treat everyone equally.

Supervisors must be fair by being consistent in the application and enforcement of policies, in the dissemination of work, and in the discipline applied. Favorable treatment (real or perceived) can lead to problems with staff morale, create trust issues, and may lead to charges of discrimination. It should be clear to all staff that the rules apply to them regardless of their position, number of years they have worked at camp, or their relationship (current or prior) with you.

9. Maintain confidentiality.

Confidentiality should be kept in a way that is sacred. Do not share information regarding an individual staff member with anyone else, other than your supervisor. If there isn’t a specific, work-related reason to do so, do not discuss the personnel issues regarding any staff member. Staff will respect and trust you more if they understand their confidentiality won’t be broken.

10. Remember the Golden Rule.

Always treat the staff (campers, volunteers, etc.) as you want to be treated. Demonstrate that you truly value others; people are any supervisor’s real asset. Don’t use your power or authority to take advantage of situations or people. Remember that a key part of success in your role lies in developing and maintaining positive relationships with staff, and between staff groups.

Managing Successfully

11. Be helpful.

Prevent problems by helping staff learn, grow, and succeed; help them not to fail. Take time to explain, demonstrate, and teach. Share your wisdom, knowledge, skills, and expertise. Sometimes staff are unsure of their ability to excel — help them to discover their talents and encourage them to exceed their own expectations. Staff will be much more receptive and cooperative if you are genuinely concerned about them and their success. And, at the end of the day, their success is your success.

12. Praise success.

“Catch” them doing good things and then praise them. The more you focus on finding the good, the more good you will find — and the more they will do. Reinforced behavior becomes repeated behavior.

13. Be where the action is.

Successful supervisors know what is going on in their organization. You cannot manage the work of others from behind a desk. Get out to where those you are supervising are working. Keep up with how things are going — this will allow you to check the pulse of your areas and help prevent problems. Try to schedule “desk work” tasks during times least likely to impact your ability to be accessible to your staff.

14. Be approachable.

Be visible and accessible. Staff should not hesitate in approaching you with their concerns and problems. Make sure there is enough trust and openness between you and your staff for them come to you with their ideas as well as their grievances.

15. Maintain open communication.

Talk to your staff every day, throughout the day. Staff are more likely to come to you when they are having a problem if you keep good, open communication going. Communicate with them when things are going right, not just when they are going wrong. Make sure staff have the information they need and want. Take special care to offer information on subjects of direct interest to them in getting their jobs done. People feel respected when they’re kept in the loop.

Managing Conflict and Correction

16. It’s work; it’s not personal.

Proper supervision is not a matter of if you like or don’t like a staff member. Deal with correcting staff in ways that focus on the issue(s), rather than on “personalities.” Always focus on the actions — performance, behaviors, conduct, etc. Never reprimand based on personal issues. Don’t discuss personality traits; always focus on performance. Don’t avoid dealing with a staff member because he or she causes you anxiety or annoys you.

17. Got conflict? Deal with it.

There are many misconceptions about conflict, a key one being that most conflicts will resolve themselves over time. Conflicts — specifically personal problems between staff — are not self-repairing. Unlike wine, conflicts that are left alone do not improve with age. They’re much more likely to fester and decay. Don’t ignore or avoid dealing with it — it will just get worse.

18. Give constructive feedback.

Congratulate staff when they meet expectations. Correct staff when they fail to do so — but in a manner where they learn what to do or what not to do the next time. Be a good listener, praise their work, and give constructive feedback. Use mistakes as learning opportunities. Clearly explain what is required for them to become superstars on the team.

19. Be honest when there is a problem.

They can’t change the behavior if they don’t know it is a problem. Staff should know there is a problem as soon as one occurs. Refrain from reprimanding for a list of stuff that occurred days or weeks ago or waiting to reprimand staff for doing/failing to do things they could have easily corrected had they been made aware. (And it is always better not to scold them in front of others.)

20. Use correction as an educational process.

The best opportunities often come in times of adversity. Recognize that problems are a normal part of work and approach them as an effort to find solutions rather than place blame. Whenever possible, correction should be about helping employees understand what’s expected of them, solving problems, achieving desired levels of performance, and getting results. Discipline isn’t an action that you must take against staff for misbehavior. Rather, it can be an educational process to engage staff in meeting their job responsibilities. Remind them of their responsibilities and provide them with the opportunity to correct the problem — focus on what they could or should be doing, give examples, brainstorm solutions, etc.

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Chief Ouray, Granby, Colorado

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, is the director at Camp Motorsport/Chef Camp in Clover, Virginia. She can be reached at diane@campmotorsport.com.