Recently while coaching two new clients I was reminded of how critical having a good boss or supervisor is to an employee’s career success.

Both of my clients are bright, capable individuals.  One is a gifted technical specialist who is comparatively new to his company.  By his own admission, “soft skills” are not a strength in his profile.  However, he is fortunate to have a supervisor who is strongly committed to his personal and professional development, and who is prepared to work with him to ensure that he gains the poise and abilities to advance in his career.  The other, sadly, has a supervisor who is new to her role, profoundly disinterested in anything that involves others’ professional development, and feels that responsibility is solely the preserve of each employee.

Some Personal Reflections

Over the course of my forty plus year career I had several supervisors.  Most were average, two were exceptional, and about five were, to put it kindly, less than abysmal.

This begs two key questions:

1)    What makes a good supervisor?

2)    What do you do if your supervisor isn’t the greatest?


Regrettably, not all supervisors are good, and not all of them are sufficiently trained in the proper skills (Photo courtesy of Pixels and Craig Adderley)

Regrettably, not all supervisors are good, and not all of them are sufficiently trained in the proper skills (Photo courtesy of Pixels and Craig Adderley)

Qualities of a Great Boss or Supervisor

The two best supervisors I worked for were different in background, but shared many similar characteristics and qualities.

I worked for Mike for about three years.  Not only was he technically competent in his field of expertise (i.e. compensation), but he was a superb communicator and a great teacher.  A graduate of the London School of Economics he possessed the unique ability to explain technical details in an easy-to-understand manner.  He genuinely cared for the people who worked for him, and during my time he proved to be not only a good tutor but a great friend.  He never missed an opportunity to highlight my work and contributions to others.

I worked for Jim for about eighteen months.  Like Mike, Jim was a decent, caring individual who possessed enormous patience and was a great teacher.  He too was extremely well-educated, but he never flaunted his qualifications or used it to coerce or intimidate others.  When an opportunity came up internally that I was interested in he supported my candidacy and desire to advance my career.

Here, I believe, are some of the qualities that make a great boss or supervisor:

1)    Communication skills:   The ability to communicate isn’t just the ability to be fluent and coherent.  It entails the capacity to convey meaning, context and impact.  Good communication skills are essential if you want to lead and inspire a team, and good supervisors get this.

2)    Teaching ability:  To teach is to share understanding.  It signifies an ability to share and support others.  It inspires loyalty.  It develops trust, and promotes alignment.

3)    Commitment to personal and professional development:  Show me an employee who is happy in their role and I’ll bet that individual is supported by a boss who genuinely believes in their capacity to learn and develop.    Providing avenues and outlets to support the development of your team is a tacit demonstration of the confidence you have in them.

4)    Ability to translate corporate goals into actionable priorities:  Organizational life is complex.  A lot of the time the messaging from senior management is nuanced or distilled.  Having someone who can separate the wheat from the chafe, and can help their team members focus on key priorities, is essential to goal alignment.

5)    Able to provide constructive criticism:  There comes a time in the life of every employee when they mess up.  Sometimes the errors are small, and sometimes they are enormous.  A good supervisor understands that their team learn from their mistakes.  While sometimes it is necessary to discipline their team a good supervisor never misses the chance to use it as a learning opportunity rather than a means of debasing or belittling their staff.

6)    Supportive:  Inevitably there are times in an organization when conflict arises, or where there are issues that get elevated for discussion or resolution.  A good supervisor is one who is prepared to support their staff in cases when they are challenged or threatened. That doesn’t mean to say that they always agree with them, but it does mean that a good supervisor believes in the character and value of each of their team members.

7)    Sense of humour:  The ability to see the funny side of organizational life is a wonderful stress release.  A supervisor who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, who can laugh at their own foibles, and find laughter in the world, is a rarity, and it contributes to significantly to stress reduction.

Getting Stuck in the Mud

What happens if your supervisor isn’t a superstar or, at the very least, isn’t even marginally competent?  What do you do then?

During my career I’ve reported to several bosses who were less than spectacular.  My first boss perfected the art of fudging expense reports in order to secure additional income to pay for his failing part-time business.  One Vice President possessed a violent and unpredictable temper so volatile that even the company President was terrified of her emotional outbursts.  One Director had dyslexia and couldn’t read, which probably explained why he never opened or read any of my e-mails. At least two supervisors were bi-polar.  Many were simply apathetic, and viewed supervision and staff development as secondary, minor aspects of their role.

If you are reporting to someone like this you could just “suck it up”, and resign yourself to your fate, or you could decide to leave the organization.  Depending on the severity of your circumstances both of these are options.  However, if you like your employer, but your boss leaves a lot to be desired, you do have a few other available channels:

1)    Job Post Out:  Many companies have internal job posting systems.  If you like your employer, but your boss isn’t in your corner, then job posting out signifies your desire for growth and change.

2)    Network like Hell:  Connecting with other senior managers in the organization not only helps build your network with hopefully, better qualified potential supervisors, but it also allows you to promote your own candidacy outside of your current position.

3)    Learn the Art of Self-promotion.  If your boss won’t convey your value then you need to find a venue through which you can promote both the quality/quantity of your work and also, your brand.  I’m not suggesting you wear a sandwich board, but at meetings and important events you can drop hints and allude to the fact that the report, or a particular undertaking, was your achievement.

4)    Find a Mentor/Advocate.  If your company doesn’t offer a mentoring program then there is nothing stopping you from connecting with another senior manager or executive and asking them to serve as your sponsor.  Choose wisely, and ensure you identify someone who possesses the skills and qualities of a good supervisor.

5)    Learn to Manage your Boss.  A wise sage once said that “it is easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission”.  On that assumption, take the initiative to schedule quarterly meetings with your boss to review the status of projects, highlight your achievements, and focus on your future career development.  Be clear about what it is you want your boss to do.  If they are reluctant, or unwilling, then generate a Plan B.

A Final Thought…

Repeated studies have shown that the overwhelming reason behind most resignations is the temperament, attitude and behaviour of supervisors.  One would think that sobering reality would be sufficient inducement for companies to invest more time and resources in training and coaching senior employees to become good supervisors.  Sadly, most bosses still get promoted by virtue of their technical training and not their skills in supporting, training and motivating their team.  Until that happens, employees need to develop some practical coping mechanisms, ad that includes being prepared to replace their boss.