Company Doctor: Leadership on the front lines is critical

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:45 pm

As owners and managers, we all want to have employees who are productive. We carefully screen all applicants looking for motivated individuals who will contribute to the profitability of our enterprise. We spend a lot of time and money developing customized training programs that provide the basis for high levels of productivity.

But with all of these efforts we overlook one very important element: the role of the frontline supervisor in maximizing the potential of each employee.

As our business grows, and our span of control is stretched, it becomes necessary to hire or promote someone to become our first supervisor. These supervisors are asked to execute and implement our company policies and business strategies. In order to be effective, these candidates must demonstrate a number of key skill sets: the ability to communicate, organize, control, plan and staff. Let’s look at each of these abilities as they pertain to a supervisor’s daily activities.


They need to demonstrate strong inter-personal skills and the ability to clearly communicate with their team members. They also need to show that they can be effective listeners. Supervisors who talk but don’t listen are not effective. Being able to listen to your team members and determine their needs is critical to high levels of productivity. Ongoing employee feedback permits the supervisor to respond to the challenges faced by his or her team members with strategies that will eliminate the obstacles to productivity. As the supervisor removes one or more obstacles, other employees will come forward asking for assistance.


A strong supervisor can organize the daily activities that his or her team must complete each day as part of their weekly plan. Along with the ability to organize is the ability to coordinate these daily and weekly activities with those of the other departments to maximize productivity potential.

When one department is downstream from another and dependent on the flow of work, it is critical that staffing levels be balanced to insure that the planned productivity levels are maintained. When planning the next day’s work, supervisors need to talk to each other and adjust to interruptions in the workflow. They also must be nimble enough to adjust their work schedules to respond to emergencies as they occur.


An effective supervisor leads his or her team and can delegate responsibility to team members. A supervisor who is an effective delegator maximizes the potential of his or her team and also permits team members to self-direct the work, which builds self-esteem and develops the skills of the team. Simple tasks should be delegated and the supervisor should concentrate on the critical tasks at hand.


An effective supervisor has the ability to plan the activities of his or her team in a way that maximizes their potential for productivity. This skill works hand-in-hand with the ability to organize activities in a sequential manner in order to support the activities of the other teams downstream. An effective supervisor should be able to match staffing and material requirements to productivity goals.


In order to maximize a team’s potential, team members need to be recruited, trained and oriented as to the activities they are required to perform. The supervisor functions as a mentor, a coach and a teacher to each member of his or her team. The frontline supervisor should be able to perform every task that his or her team performs. If he or she does not have that capability, then another supervisor should be of assistance. All supervisors should be cross-trained in order to provide continuity during vacations and absences.

An effective supervisor is able to coordinate the activities of his or her team with the other teams that they interact with on a daily basis. Without this effective coordination, each team will act as a separate unit and not be able to maximize the potential of the team. Supervisors should not rely on the next level of management for this function.

Now that you understand how these skill sets impact the ability of a supervisor to function effectively, how do you apply this knowledge to the selection of future supervisors?

You first need to agree that supervisors need all of these skills, and then determine how to test for these skills. The first test you can apply is to review the resumes and applications for past employment that demonstrate that the applicant has one or more of these skills. Secondly, during the interview process, you should pose situational questions, i.e., business related scenarios that require the applicant to apply one or more of these skills when solving the problem being presented. Last, you can ask the applicant to present you with examples of how they applied these skills in actual business situations. This process also pertains to in-house applicants, but with an additional component.

With in-house applicants you have the option of assigning the applicant additional duties, which permits you to evaluate their performance over a period of time. This can be done with a number of applicants to determine who would best fit the needs of the open position. This approach is somewhat like spring training in baseball when a number of players compete for a position on the major league team. Competition can bring out the best, but also identify the flaws in each applicant. The goal is to identify the applicant who will best meet the position’s requirement and the company’s needs.

One red flag that you should be aware of, the danger of the “halo effect,” when an employer gets overly impressed with one or more of the skill sets and ignores the need to evaluate the balance of their abilities. An effective supervisor needs the entire tool box of skills to achieve the results desired by their employer.


Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president and chief executive officer of Fox Point-based Strategic Management Associates LLC. He can be reached at (414) 352-5140 or via e-mail at

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