In the recent rotation, I was given yet another grad to supervise. This one’s a doozy: at our first meeting, she let slip that she’s given herself 20 years to make it to secretary of a department. She’s kind of like a good Donald Trump – she pretty much says everything she’s thinking, and she’s got the bossy part down pat.
I’m trying to get over myself and just let her grow into public sector culture. Is that right? How much of my role as supervisor is about standing back and letting her make her own mistakes, and how much is it about clueing her in to the fact she’s making herself a target with all the big talk? She gets the job done, but she’s so annoying.
“I’m gonna be the best departmental secretary the world’s ever seen. The best.” Photo: Andrew Harrer
She’s annoying to you, for sure. To her, she’s doing everything she can to make her way in the Great Wide World of Work – and on her own terms. So she may be annoying but she’s also heroic, and part of your challenge will be to see that in her, and to gentle the beast without crushing it. Managed well, boastful overachievers can be a boon to the workplace. Managed badly, they can destroy the joint faster than a wrecking ball in a Miley Cyrus video.
The coach: Jacqueline Jago. Photo: Sari Sutton
Good supervisors are a mix of mum, dad, dictator and psychologist. Great ones know which to bring forward, and when; and they put in the effort to work that out, over time, and with a little trial and a lot of error. Good supervisors think supervision is really hard – they remember that the ship of collaborative excellence does not venture often into smooth waters, and they keep right on sailing anyway.
Coaching the supervisor:
If you get lots of grads to supervise, it suggests your people skills are pretty solid and you’re up for the challenge of developing your upstart into an upstanding member of the Australian Public Service – and upping your game on the supervision front at the same time. So let’s venture ahead, irritation notwithstanding.
Your Trumpian grad’s sense of her own capability may in fact match the plan her life has for her – and if everything breaks her way, you don’t want to be a memory of what hindered her rise to the top. My hopes for you are not that you clairvoyantly predict whether she’ll travel the full extent of her current ambition, but rather that you’re remembered as a fantastic supervisor who gave great and highly specific feedback, and wanted for her what she wanted for herself. As far as supervision goes, that’s the holy hrail – it doesn’t get better.
In any case, I’m confident you’ll be able to separate the wheat of your useful feedback from the chaff of your normal human irritation at a subordinate who’s way too “full-on”. I’m confident she’ll learn to moderate her intensity as she gets older.
While I can’t tell if you’re male or female, we’re officially in an age where the word “bossy” sounds a little “off”. “Bossy” has always been a bad, gendered word used to tone down forthrightness in girls but not boys. Fortunately, we’ve reached a cultural and professional moment where it’s no longer possible to call a woman the “b” word without inviting the gentle suggestion (may I?) that your journey towards supervision excellence includes some tender self-confrontation. I’m confident you have the smarts to park all that conditioning you got (we all did) about how powerful girls are allowed to be before they start getting punished for it.
Coaching the direct report:
If she loves to challenge authority (powerful people often do), she’s likely to hate being challenged herself, so be prepared for her to totally hate any feedback that has a critical aftertaste. Hence the suggestion to offer feedback crafted as instructions for exactly how you need her to do something differently, rather than as critique. “When we’re in a meeting, see if you can be the last person to say something – it’ll help you get into a habit of critical listening” rather than “You talked the place down and I was so embarrassed for you.”
Moving into a coaching mode and prompting her to reflect on her performance is going to feel much less painful to her – she gets to figure out for herself, and feel righteous and clever at the same time, where she’s tripping herself up. Amen to that.
Coaching questions to try:
You might try asking questions to prompt her capacity for introspection. Coaching questions are most effective when just-in-time; in other words, when you talk to her in the moment after a meeting or other event: “How did that go?” or “How could you have phrased that differently?” or “I noticed your counterpart speaks very softly. Have you thought about the best way to talk to her?” Ideally, you would make these review chats short, frequent and routine at the end of every meeting or task. Routines for reflection are a key part of growing a coaching culture in your team.
‘Bossy’ is a bad, gendered word used to tone down forthrightness in girls but not boys.
If she’s willing, you might also suggest she record herself when speaking. You can have her listen to/watch the recording later in private and then ask her for her own thoughts about her effects on her audience. This is a terrific coaching manoeuvre, particularly if she highly values “getting to the bottom of things”, as powerful people often do.
Folks who invest a lot in appearing powerful often have lamb-like hearts aching for a cuddle. The chances of her letting this show are probably close to absolute zero. I’m suggesting it’s not always useful to meet directness with a display of strength – so be gentle with your (future) secretary if you want her to actually internalise what you can offer her by way of developmental feedback. In this way, you, too, get to be heroic.