First-line supervisors are the heart of a growing business


Last month we discussed the importance of first-line supervisors to a growing wholesale business.  In fact, we said it twice for emphasis. This month we want to reiterate a couple of those points and offer a few other ideas on how a company can build a strong competent first line supervisory team:

Good raw material is where you start: Most companies in our industry promote from within. We fully support this concept with a seemingly minor modification.

We think you should promote the suitable, promotable candidates from within. You must carefully select all employees that come into the company at every level. If someone is coming in to sweep the warehouse, try to find someone who is promotable. Failure to consider an individual’s “promotability” will result in having no internal candidates to promote when there is an opening or, even worse, promoting someone who should not be promoted.

A great, eager beaver attitude is a good trait, but it will not overcome not being able to read. We know it’s nagging but test before you hire.

Look for years of progress and advancement, not years of service: Years of service are not great predictors of success in a new role mainly because there are different ways that individuals can complete their years.

We like to say that some folks have 10 years of progress on the job and that others have one year of progress on the job repeated 10 times. These are two very different scenarios that produce two very different levels of experience and promotability.

Some folks fall into a comfortable rut very early on. They are content to come to work every day, do their job and get paid at the end of the week. Their interests lie outside the company. Make no mistake: These are not bad people. Much of the normal work in a wholesale business is completed every day by these loyal workers. The mistake, however, would be to promote them into a supervisory role.

When there is no one to promote within, go without or go outside: The goal is to find smart, experienced supervisors with industry experience.
Frankly, these individuals are hard to find so if you must compromise, pick a smart candidate with some supervisory experience over all other traits. You can train a smart individual about our industry where the opposite is, in our experience, much tougher.

Reference checks are critical when looking for outsiders to join your team. When a seemingly great person with experience is on the market, it is important to understand the circumstances, in detail.  We like to talk to professional and personal references as a part of the due diligence process.  

Build a supervisor farm club: Just like in major league baseball, great talent doesn’t just show up, fresh out of high school and ready to play professional ball.

This is a conscious process that each team uses to groom those players that exhibit some inclination toward becoming a professional. Unlike professional baseball, few wholesalers have the luxury of a separate organization whose main purpose is to grow talent for the company. The process in wholesaling is often to identify those individuals who show promise, then provide the training and work experiences needed to ready them for an expanded role within the wholesaling company.

Offer good examples: This is a tough one. Giving supervisors, and all of the team, a good example to emulate really does matter.

Some companies do just the opposite. Their “heroes” are the renegade, rascals who are not team players and who sometimes exhibit business and moral values that are the antithesis of what the company needs.  

In other instances, companies perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of bad supervisors begetting the next generation of bad supervisors. Some “old style” supervisors think it’s fun to bully their subordinates as a part of their “butt-kicking” macho management style. If this is the style you want going forward, then you are on the right track. If, however, you want to evolve to a more enlightened style, you need to offer different examples.  

Excellence in one job does not translate to excellence in a different job: The most common failure that we see is extrapolating good performance in one role into an assumption that the individual will perform as well in another role.

For example, a good inside person will not necessarily be a good outside person. A good outside person will not necessarily be a good sales manager.

A good sales manager will not necessarily be a good vice president of sales and marketing.

In some instances, however, crappy sales people can make great sales managers. Each role involves a different set of skills that an individual may or may not possess.

Let’s hope an individual will have shown some aptitude for the skills required in the new role before being put into that new role.  The ideal candidate will have made a personal commitment and investment in his or her own career advancement.

Excellence in one job does not even translate to success in the same job in a different company: Hiring from outside a company has both risks and benefits. Outsiders can bring a fresh and different perspective as well as “best practices” from other companies inside or outside our industry. But outsiders can also bring bad habits and awful practices from inside or outside the industry.    

What makes good supervisors? Good team members. This is an adaptation of a Yogi Berra quote.  When asked what makes a good manager, he replied, “Good players.”

Over the years, we have seen many instances where supervisor after supervisor failed in a troubled department or branch. They were brought in to get the operation shaped up and running right. But they were too inexperienced to – or even worse, not allowed to – make changes to the team. It’s like playing poker without being able to draw; the odds are not with you.

Troubled departments or branches should not be treated as organizational “hot potatoes.” When a supervisor is given this type of assignment, there must be an understanding that the supervisor’s boss will be actively engaged in the situation to help get it fixed. Plus, the options must allow reasonable personal adjustments that may be required to repair the situation.   

Don’t promote people who don’t want to be promoted: Of course, most of us want more money and a better title. The problem is a lot of people don’t want to make the commitment of time and energy required to master their new role. Being a supervisor is not easy. Being a good supervisor is even tougher.    

Don’t promote people who have demonstrated no interest in a supervisory role: Others don’t want to do the functions that are part of the new role.

In a past life, Rich had a conversation with a disgruntled programmer who felt he was passed over for a supervisory role. When Rich pointed out that the programmer had demonstrated no supervisory skills, was considered aloof and unfriendly by his peers, and in conversations had shown a distain for the administrative tasks that were performed by supervisors. The programmer agreed completely with the assessment. He did, however, feel that he deserved the title and money based on his years of service.

When someone will have to do a personal about-face in order to succeed in a supervisory role, the odds are against that person.  

Don’t promote ROADs (people who are Retired On Active Duty): Supervising people is not a place to put someone who has lost their fire and desire. This lack of drive is contagious at any level and in any role, but a ROAD supervisor is highly contagious.

Consider a veteran: The military has developed processes for ingesting unskilled raw talent and turning them into a functional team. We have observed that many military supervisors can successfully translate this process into some parts of our industry, especially operations.  

Mentor Millennials: We hate to generalize. Some have a different take on work and life than other generations. Many come into the workforce with little or no real work experience, an attitude that every situation has a do-over and that nothing goes on their permanent record. Others will tell you that after a couple years on the job they expect to be running the place with a mid-6-figure salary. (And we’re not talking about the owners’ kids.)

Having said all of this, mostly these are really fine people who just need some good mentoring as they grow up. Wholesaling is still a people-intensive industry so they are still the future of our industry. Your challenge will be to get excellent supervisors in place to nurture them into contributing members of your team who are prepared to, eventually, run the place – just not in the two years that they think it will take to master all facets of the business.
Real-time coaching is a critical skill for first-line supervisors: The best first-line supervisors that we have known are actively involved in their department’s activities watching, evaluating, coaching and encouraging their team all day long. Their feedback (good, bad and ugly) is continuous and offered in small doses not long complex lectures. They are always building a trust that their evaluations will be fair and directly related to an individual’s job performance.

It’s a tough job: Remember to appreciate the good ones with compliments and compensation.

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