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High Talent Team/Weak Supervisor — What Now?


by Larry Sternberg, President at Talent Plus, Inc.

A client asked one of my associates what a senior leader should do when she finds in her organization a team of highly talented employees being supervised by a weak supervisor. Furthermore, what can the team members do?

Let’s talk about some options available to the senior leader. In all cases, the very first activity for the leader should be root cause analysis. Why is this supervisor so weak? One possibility is that this supervisor was recently promoted to his very first supervisory role. He might have great potential, but he hasn’t been trained or coached properly. He’s making rookie mistakes. So the answer is to provide coaching in real time. The senior leader (or her designee) must be willing to give this supervisor a great deal of access. The supervisor must be able to receive just in time coaching about how to handle upcoming situations and to debrief recent situations (whether they went well or not) to extract the lessons learned. The senior leader can also recommend books, blogs, and other learning activities. This is a significant investment of time, but a high talent rookie will grow rapidly, and the organization will enjoy a terrific return on that investment.

Another possibility is that the supervisor in question simply is not a talented supervisor. In this scenario my hypothetical supervisor has been a supervisor long enough to tell whether he has the natural abilities necessary for the role. Low talent supervisors cannot effectively manage high talent employees. Coaching will not yield a return on investment here because the potential for growth doesn’t exist. The coach will be asking the supervisor for behaviors he does not have in his repertoire. In some instances the behaviors suggested by the coach will actually feel unwise to this supervisor. The best option in this scenario is to remove the supervisor. The senior leader should make an effort to understand the talents and strengths of this person and should investigate whether there’s a different role for which this person is better suited. But he must come out of the supervisory role. If the senior leader does not remove him, the talented employees on his team members will leave.

What can the team members do? In the first instance, the talented rookie, they can give the new supervisor a chance. Talented team members can usually spot potential in a new supervisor. They’ll see very quickly that this person cares deeply about them and wants to meet their needs. (These are two characteristics of a highly talented supervisor.) They should help him help them. I’m thankful that a group of executives did this for me in my first assignment as a hotel general manager. Without their generosity of spirit and willingness to help me grow, I would not have succeeded.

In the case of the non-talented supervisor, the team members need to stick together, engage in peer to peer coaching, and mutually support each other. They should remind themselves frequently about the organization’s mission, about the successes they’re having, and about the difference they’re making in their customers’ lives — despite the shortcomings of the supervisor. They must have faith that the senior leader is not deaf, dumb and blind, and they should hang in there.  Because things will change.

One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned is this: Despite the fact that you cannot even imagine how a particular situation might change, it does anyway.

Thanks to my friends Mark Epp and Keith McCleod for independently recommending this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

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