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Vantage Point banner.jpgWilliam Sovich, University of California, Riverside          

William Sovich.jpgA supervisor’s time must often be divided among competing demands, sometimes to the extent that it becomes difficult to identify priorities and strategies for success.  In my role as an advising unit coordinator, for example, I am responsible to the students in my caseload at the same time that I am accountable to my higher administration.  Meanwhile, I must be available to the staff I supervise as I work with them to meet their short-term and long-term training and professional development needs.  With multiple stakeholders vying for my attention, keeping the three themes of rapport building, technical competency, and leading by example at the center of my focus has helped me to promote productivity and healthy working relationships among members of the advising team no matter what the conditions or constraints.

Through exploration of the literature on best practices in training and development, consultation with my own mentors, and reflection on both my successes and struggles as a team leader, I have identified these three themes as the most salient among all I have encountered.  In the words of Dickens, these strategies have served me well during "the best of times" when the unit was robustly staffed and more than adequate resources were available for professional development, as well as during "the worst of times" when budget cuts resulted in staffing shortages and a scarcity of resources.  Even in situations where supervisors feel as though they are staffing "advising outposts" in the wilderness with little support from higher administration, limited time for cross-training, or responsibilities so widespread that their accessibility is compromised, the following tips can be applied to keep a balanced outlook and maintain a positive approach to leadership. 

Build Rapport        

Much of an advisor’s success stems from their ability to establish relationships with students.  Similarly, a supervisor’s success in leading a team stems from their ability to establish relationships with individual team members.  As such, the underlying relational principles that guide my practice in the work I do with my students translate nicely to the work I do with my staff.  When interacting with students I often remind myself that although all advisors in a given unit would be expected to respond to a question regarding academic policy with a similar answer, not all students would receive the information the same way.  Rather than being based on the information itself, much of the students’ reaction would instead be determined by the way the information was relayed and their perceptions of the advisor’s ability to support or validate during the communication process.  It’s not so much what is said but rather how the information is conveyed that makes the difference.  To borrow from psychologist Carl Rogers, empathy, positive regard, and consistent affect on the part of the counselor are among the best predictors of a successful helping relationship (Rogers, as cited in Hill, 2004). 

I most often think of helping relationships as those that exist between university staff and students, but the relationship between supervisor and employee is another kind of helping relationship to which these principles apply.  With the teachings of Rogers in mind, I would assert that the most important activity I do with any new hire on their first day of employment is actually taking them to lunch!  During that time, the last thing I do is mention academic advising.  This is my opportunity to get to know them and to allow them to get to know me.  From that point forward, I make myself as consistently available as possible not only to address work-related issues but also to visit with staff members about their daughter’s upcoming kindergarten graduation, their recent San Diego vacation, or anything else going on in their lives that is important to them.  We celebrate and respect one another as people.  The rest follows.

Promote TOTAL Competency

Once rapport is established, it’s possible to begin assisting new advisors in building the technical skills they need to feel confident in their work.  Recent studies on advisor training and development have indicated that advisors often find the relational competencies required for the position are the most difficult part of the profession to achieve (Beres, as cited in Hughey, 2011).  Many of my staff agree, but they have also found that gaining self-efficacy in the informational and technical realms of the position in turn assists in mastering the interpersonal skills that so often prove to be more challenging.  In order to promote success while new professionals work to strengthen skills in all of these areas, I strive to set clear expectations early in the onboarding process and allow for as long and slow a training experience as possible.  During the process, advisors in training engage in one-on-one coachings with their supervisor each day, shadow veteran advisors in the unit who also serve as peer mentors, and participate in tandem advising sessions.  I use the acronym TOTAL as a reminder of the critical areas during the initial phases of the training period.  With this roadmap in hand to achieve TOTAL competency in the technical areas of the position, new hires become familiar with office standards, get an overview of the training process in advance, and see that they will be supported along the way:

T- transcript analysis and location of student records

O - organization of study materials, advising publications, training tools, and resources for professional development

T - tracking student progress to degree by performing degree audits and data queries

A - assisting with student enrollment to promote timely progress through the degree program and logical selection of coursework that aligns with academic, career, and life goals

L - learning approach that promotes critical thinking, collaboration, effective problem-solving, retention of key information, and the ability to defend one’s choices through data-driven decision making

Lead by Example

Positive behavioral modeling can supplement these rapport building and technical training processes, while poor behavioral modeling can quickly negate strides that have been made in those areas.  In short, following the idiom “do as I say, not as I do” is no way to gain the trust and respect of a work group.  Although I have taken part in campus supervisory competency programming since becoming an advising unit coordinator, I had little training in human resources or organizational leadership before these items became formal pieces of my job description.  To boost my development during my early days in my current role on campus, I reflected on my own former supervisors and in particular on the nonconstructive behaviors they sometimes exhibited.  As a result, I was able to put together a list of opposite behaviors that I believed to be strong managerial habits based on my personal experiences as an employee.  One of the most important of these is to model the behavior that is desired in others and to do so in a way that embodies the culture and vision of the organizational unit.  Managers can inundate staff with pages and pages of personnel policy or send behavioral counseling memos when expectations are not met.  However, the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” quickly comes to mind.  They can instead eliminate much of the need to use these tactics (which staff may often perceive as punitive) if they simply show rather than tell.  When I employ this approach, my staff see that I never ask them to do what I am unwilling to do myself.  The best way to motivate team members to report to work with smiles on their faces for a campus recruiting event at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday is to do so oneself.         

When I left my first advising position in order to transition to my current one, my supervisor at the time asked, "Why would you want to be responsible for other people's mistakes?”  While there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with being a team leader, I also find much joy in having the unique opportunity to influence others' professional growth.  In constructing my own approach to supervision, the most important question I have asked myself is, “What is the legacy that I want to leave?”  It’s not to build zombie clones of myself but to flavor the culture of the next generation of advisors in congruence with the overarching themes that forward the mission of the institution.  Keeping these three supervisory strategies in focus on a day-to-day basis has helped me to do just that.

William Sovich
Assistant Director
College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences Undergraduate Academic Advising Center
University of California, Riverside
william.sovich@ucr.edu

References

Hill, C.E.  (2004). Helping skills: facilitating exploration, insight, and action. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hughey, J.K. (2011). Strategies to enhance interpersonal relations in academic advising. NACADA Journal, 31(2), 22-32.

Cite this article using APA style as: Sovich, W. (2015, September). Three strategies for successful supervision. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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