5 more supervision skills

Apr 23, 2013 by

In all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the most popular post I’ve ever written (by a huge margin), was “7 Skills for Supervision Success.” That is very telling to me. It tells me I should write most posts about it because people still need and want them. The role of supervisor remains one of the most important, but under-respected and under-trained in organizations everywhere.

And its not just nonprofits; I recently spoke at the National Association of Government Communicators 2013 Communications School and the folks in my session echoed what so many of you have said to me in the past about your struggles with supervising. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do want to try to provide more support to those of you who have been thrust into supervision without the training and guidance you need or want.

To that end, here are 5 more supervision skills to add to your playbook:5

  1. Allow room for innovation – When a big project or piece of a project comes up and you decide to delegate it to someone you supervise, it can be tempting to give them all sorts of instructions on what to do and how to do it. And occasionally, that’s warranted – like when it’s a financial report or some other thing that has clearly defined rules and polices surrounding it. But, in general, you probably need to back off. Even if you think you know exactly the best and most efficient way to do it, you still have to provide room for the person you supervise to innovate and try something new. They may just figure out a new and better way to do something.
  2. Provide room to learn – How does someone learn to perform a new task or build a skill? Some of us get a bit of training and are then thrust out into the field to put training into practice immediately. Some of us are shown exactly how to do something and told it replicate it exactly. Some of us are asked to do something and then are just expected to figure out with no outside assistance. As a good supervisor, your job is to ensure that those you supervise don’t suffer through any of these ‘methods’, but instead learn through a combination of the best parts of each. You should provide training, actual hands on experience and modeling for those you supervise so that they can learn the way you’ve done it and figure out their own ways of making it work.
  3. Allow room for failure – This one may be the toughest on this list because it requires you to purposely step back and allow someone you probably like and trust to go down. (And it assumes that you can see it coming, not that it snuck up on both of you.) I’m not suggesting that you allow a major, deadline-driven project to tank just so someone you supervise can grow. What I am suggesting is that allowing room for innovation includes the potential for failure and that it’s important for that to happen in order for you both to learn. If you constantly swoop in to ‘fix’ something before it’s run it’s course, the person you supervise will never learn how to fix it him or herself and may feel resentful because you’re always butting in. In other words: butt out.
  4. Encourage positivity – I’m not someone who enjoys cheesy, fake expressions of interest or forced celebrations, but I do know that sometimes you have to grit your teeth and smile – even if you don’t want to. What’s more, if you start smiling, others will too; then they’ll get used to it and might actually start internalizing the positive emotions a smile brings. By creating a little positivity and encouraging others to spread it, you’ll find that your team is generally more happy anyway which will make even dull tasks a little more fun.
  5. Celebrate! – In my 7 Skills post, I mentioned giving credit (and taking responsibility) to others on your team. Celebration is little bit broader and usually involves a few more people too. Nonprofit, mission-focused people are often so focused on the next thing to do that they forget to celebrate victories that have happened, no matter how small. But during the celebration please don’t bring out your speech about how this is only the first step in a longer slog to ultimate victory; you’ll only depress people by making them think of all the work ahead. Instead, just bask in the victory and let them do the same.

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Linking Things Up: Put up or shut up edition

Mar 20, 2013 by

Y’all know I love a good rant and that I also love a call to action that seeks to push people beyond their boundaries and get them thinking in different ways about the work they’ve always done. That’s why I picked each of these posts. Enjoy!

  • Overcoming the Limits of Nonprofit Advocacy on Budget and Tax Issues by Patrick Lester on The Nonprofit Quarterly’s bloglinks – For most of my career, I’ve worked on advocacy efforts; but I’ve seen many nonprofits that will not take a stand either because they’re afraid of offending people or they think they can’t. Patrick Lester calls out some major nonprofits for their short-sighted approach to advocacy and notes that not only are many of our organizations largely funded by government grants/programs, but that the budget fights on Capitol Hill we hear so much about have direct impacts on the clients we serve.
  • Career Resilience: The Four Patterns that Should Guide All Your Career Moves by Michele Martin on the Bamboo Project Blog – Michele always offers insightful posts and this one is no different. She writes about a job market that no longer keeps us held to one company, job or even job role for very long and gently but firmly encourages us start practicing the art of being resilient and bouncing back. This post is for everyone, whether you’re secure in your career or not.
  • Stop Asking and Start Listening by Thaler Pekar on the SSIR Blog – Thaler admits in this post that she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the power of listening exercises. But a unique situation shows her that even the act of asking questions during a conversation can sometimes mean you aren’t listening. And without listening, there can be very little understanding.
  • People are depending on your leadership. So show up. by Allison Jones on her blog – The title says it all. No matter how tired, scared, irritated or shy you are, people are still depending on you to show up and lead. Read the full post for Allison’s great suggestions on how you can push yourself to lead (even when you don’t want to).
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How do you know when it’s time to go?

Dec 18, 2012 by

This is my final guest post of the year for Opportunity Knocks. It’s been a great year and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to share posts with their community – and I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts too!



No matter how much you love your job – or how much you want to love your job – sometimes the bad parts of the job take over the good. Usually it’s either your coworkers/working environment or the work itself (or both) that bring you down. But how do you know when its time to pack up your stuff and leave? Here are three clues:

1. The projects, tasks and responsibilities you have no longer appeal to you – Or even worse, they never appealed to you in the first place. If you are constantly being assigned work that is boring or doesn’t build on your skills or has no relevance to the broader work of the organization, that’s a big red flag. It may mean that your boss/employer has no sense of your skills or doesn’t particularly care to offer you interesting or meaningful work. If they don’t care to offer you interesting work most of the time, then you don’t need to be there.

2. You are angry and/or frustrated most (all?) of the time – One direct consequence of having work that is boring or outside of your skill set may be constant jaw-clenching, teeth-gnashing frustration and anger. And the more you are angry, the more you dislike your job, which makes you even angrier. It’s a vicious cycle that saps your productivity and can ruin even the good days at work.

3. You no longer care – In some ways, I’d argue that this marks the end of the line in terms of how much you can take at a job you don’t like. When you can’t muster the energy to get out of bed and physically go to work in the morning; when you could care less how or even if the work gets done; if all you can muster is a shrug in response to other’s questions or complaints of you, then it really is time to go.

The bottom line is very simple actually whether it comes to relationships or jobs: if the bad times become more frequent than the good, it is time to go.

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Linking things up – Holiday edition!

Dec 10, 2012 by

Somehow, it’s December. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since this has been the fastest year of my life. But somehow, here we are.

And, I’ve been slacking on the blog lately. Our new house is taking up an incredible amount of time and effort – but the ‘end’, at least in terms of unpacking, arranging, buying new furniture, re-arranging, etc. – is in sight! By the end of the year, we’re looking forward to really settling into the home and finally enjoying it, rather than viewing it as a source of work and occasionally, frustration.

I wanted to share some links for great posts from other blogs that I’ve been keeping up in my (limited) free time. Enjoy and stay tuned – I’ve got a lot in store for 2013!

  • Millennials Are Here: 5 Facts Nonprofits and Businesses Need to Know by Colleen Dilenschneider at Know Your Own Bone – As usual, Colleen has taken hard data and provided a clear, thoughtful analysis that even non-data nerds (like myself) can appreciate. In this post, she points out what should be obvious to us all, but apparently isn’t – millennials are the largest generation in history, they are already having a huge amount of influence over pop, intellectual and consumer culture and nonprofits ignore them at their own peril. If you work at a nonprofit, are a data nerd or just appreciate incisive writing, get over there now.
  • 4 Mistakes Employers Are Sure To Notice by Heather Huhman at Glassdoor Blog – Glassdoor’s posts are always concise, to the point and provide great advice for you job-seekers out there. This post is no different. Heather breaks down four mistakes that you need to avoid if you actually want to hired. Take it from Heather Huhman, an experienced hiring manager: you don’t want to get noticed for all the wrong reasons.
  • Foundations Must Get Serious About Multi-Year Grantmaking by Niki Jagpal & Kevin Laskowski at the Stanford Social Innovation Review – I don’t talk about fundraising or foundations much in this space, but it’s something that every nonprofit professional must pay attention to. In this excellent piece, Jagpal and Laskowski highlight the decline in multi-year grantmaking by foundations to nonprofits and the devastating effects it is having and will continue to have in the future. Without a consistent source of funding, nonprofits will continually struggle to make ends meet and will not be able to focus on the mission-based work that the foundations supposedly support. And on a more personal level, any nonprofit professional’s job could be on the line because of that lack of support.
  • Worst-case scenarios. You gotta love ‘em. by Danielle LaPorte on her blog – This elegantly simple post comes pretty close to summing up my philosophy to career risks. To wit: what’s the worst that could happen?
  • What You Pay in Time by Philip Brewer at Wisebread – This post kind of blew my mind. Wisebread’s tagline is “living large on a small budget” and they share all kind of posts about how to value your time, money and stuff appropriately – and how avoid over-valuing the same. This post breaks down, in fairly stark terms, one method of determining what you’re giving up and what you’re getting when you make different choices – in this case, in terms of time. While the focus is framed around time and money in general, it made me think specifically about my career and the growth of my business. How much time am I spending just trying to earn money…in order to spend more time making money. Read it – maybe it will blow you mind too.
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Relationships are all that matter

Oct 2, 2012 by

As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been guest-blogging over at Opportunity Knocks since earlier this year. This is the latest post I’ve written for them so check it out and visit their site to read more great bloggers.


After years of organizing people, events and situations, I’ve learned that relationships are all that matter. Whether you want a job, a promotion, a friend, a drink or to raise some money, you must have good relationships.

Developing good relationships with new people, networks and organizations that can help you get things done is relatively simple – but maybe not easy.

Here are five steps to get that good relationship started:*

  • First, you must catch their attention – through someone they know, a common institution, etc. This can include alumni networks, organizations they’ve worked or volunteered at, neighborhoods they’ve lived in and much more. This is where a resource like LinkedIn or other social and professional networking platforms can come in handy.
  • Second, you must establish an interest in having a conversation. The common thread between you is often not enough to get that conversation going; however, asking someone for advice or to talk specifically about your common interests can get it going. Most people love to talk about themselves – so ask them!
  • Third: exploration. Just because you get together and start talking to someone doesn’t mean that either of you have any value to add to one another. The evaluation/exploration stage (usually during one of your first conversations) is when you ask each other questions, listen to the answers and figure out whether your relationship is going anywhere. The process of developing a relationship can and should end right here if there isn’t any value to it.
  • Fourth: if there is value in the relationship, this is the time to make exchanges – of knowledge, information, etc. Do they know someone you should speak to? Do you have a really interesting article to share with that person? Is there an event you should both attend to learn more about a topic? One note: sometimes it can be hard to determine whether the relationship will have any value to it and you often must proceed to the exchange step before you can figure it out.
  • The fifth step is to make a commitment to continue engaging, basically a promise of shared time or effort (or both). This is the point at which the relationship becomes a separate organism that needs to be fed, watered and nurtured in order to survive past the first few weeks.

Most of the time, these steps happen organically, but they still must be done. If you’ve ever had someone you don’t even know call you and ask for a recommendation, introduction, etc., you know how jarring it is when key steps are skipped. By the same token, if you keep the steps in mind, you’ll have that new job, promotion or a great drink from your local bartender in no time!


*Please note that some of the content for this post came from Professor Marshall Ganz, a long-time organizer and Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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