Lessons Learned as a Young Supervisor


I landed my first supervisory job at the age of 29 (considerably young, in HUD years).  While the 3 years of experience definitely resulted in more gray hairs (and more frequent trips to the stylist for highlights), I learned a lot along the way.

Confidence – I remember one of my very first meetings at the new job.  The staff was all in the conference room for a training-type conference call, and I was the only supervisor there.  I was immediately told by one of the staff to sit at the head of the table (What?  There are seating assignments?) and folks were talking when the call started (fortunately we were on mute).  I was a little flustered, and I made the “finger across the throat” hand gesture to signify for everyone to be quiet (I agree, totally wrong signal for the occasion!).  Immediately I grew paranoid that the gesture would be misconstrued as some sort of threat.  Fortunately it amounted to nothing, but it’s crazy that I remember it so clearly years later.  As I gained more experience, my confidence grew.  I didn’t fear being the leader in the room, and I was less afraid of saying things like “please listen” (and I made less mafia hand gestures).  This confidence also translated to situations outside of the office, like meetings with our stakeholders.

Humor – I spent the first year or two being a lot more serious than I normally was away from the office.  Maybe Dr. Phil would say I was compensating for my age.  I finally learned to let loose a bit, joke around, and laugh (when the timing was appropriate).

How to Gain Respect – It is very tough walking into your first supervisory gig and having some of the staff say that they’re old enough to be your mom or dad.  The two things that helped me the most with this were time and my work ethic.  I also learned the importance of admitting when I was wrong or when I didn’t know the answer.  Lastly, I preferred written communication (emails), and sometimes it was much more effective to meet with my staff in person and talk face-to-face.

Unity – A good lesson that my supervisor taught me was that as managers, we could disagree in private, but it was important to have a united front.  Early on, I understood the importance of supporting each other.  But as time progressed, I learned that I needed to talk to my counterpart and my supervisor and address any issues in a timely manner.  It was much better (and more productive) to talk and clear the air than hold something in and let it bother me.

The Importance of Documentation – As a new supervisor, the importance of documenting was ingrained in me by my supervisor and Labor Relations.  I was very diligent about documenting everything and keeping hard files and electronic files.  Also, I maintained an on-going list of progress and accomplishments for each of my staff, and that was a huge help with performance reviews.

Poker Face – My face ends up showing my emotions, as much as I try to mask them.  But over the years I learned it was something I needed to work on, and it has improved.  Take it all in, listen, and breathe.  Luckily I prefer blackjack and not poker.

Appreciation – Even when things were tough, I was very thankful for the job.  The pay, benefits, and hours of a federal job are a definite perk, and I felt a sense of accomplishment from the work I was doing.  Plus I could never complain about being bored!

Celebrate the Successes – I was a pretty big white board fanatic (I have school teacher handwriting and I missed my calling), and we made one of our white boards a success board… complete with an outline of a hand (if you needed a high five) and a fist (if you needed to “knuckle up”).  It’s easy to dwell on mistakes, and it is very important for morale to acknowledge a job well done.  A colleague of mine taught me the value of the “thank you” email.  He always sent enthusiastic thank you emails with the occasional cheerleader clip art.  While it may sound a little corny on the surface, we all appreciate when someone acknowledges our hard work.  We were pretty limited with awards due to budgetary constraints, so I tried to make an extra effort to say thank you.

What advice would you give a rookie supervisor?

Nicole Willingham is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Hannah Moss

Great post! I would add ‘transparency’ to this list. You don’t want to open yourself to criticism from every angle, but you also want to be clear about why you’re making decisions. That’s important for any leader, but especially for younger managers who will be under increased scrutiny.

Amber Hansen

I am right there with you on the poker face! It can be very difficult to tone down reactions that are a normal part of your personality. And your point about humor is a good one. It helps those you lead to see you as human, part of their team, and approachable! Great post.

Sabrina H. DeLay

Authenticity: Like you said you allowed all the sides of your self to show up eventually and I think that really made a difference!

Juana Williams

Great post! It is refreshing to hear from a manager that they experienced trials and tribulations. Goes to acknowledging being human.
I also agree with Hannah and Amber’s comments.
Thank you.

Steve C

Honesty – never, ever lie…you will be caught out by someone at some point and any credibility you had will evaporate in an instance. It is better to say “I don’t know” or “Let me look into that” (but make sure you do) than just run your mouth.

Credibility – if you don’t have experience in an area, keep your mouth shut and let those that do say the words. Nothing will lose you respect from your employees quicker than acting like you know more than they do. Together you can be even better – I have gotten some of my best feedback from people who know nothing about my area and are not trained to think a certain way.

Darcy Ziegler

Great post, Nicole. Something I’ve found very helpful is periodically checking in with my peers (in my case, project managers for other clients). It’s a great opportunity to “practice” management tactics or run ideas by them and have them poke holes in my plan. Then, when I introduce the concept/idea/process to my client team, I am practiced and polished and prepared for questions, resistance, etc. I can be confident in my approach even though I am usually the youngest person in the room.

Paul Alberti

I have been in leadership, manager and supervisory positions from early on in my life; I would add that you never stop learning. Read, be a mentor and a mentee, get out of your office and talk to people (and listen). Curiosity is a cornerstone of being a good leader/manager/supervisor. Curiosity leads one to ask questions, explore new ideas, and improve old processes. It keeps you engaged, involved and younger!


One that I learned

-Always address things quickly. Whether it’s a good thing, say congrats right after the event. Or a miscommunication lurking. Or an employee issue. Time does not heal – handle it quickly.

-Mentally what worked for me is try to strip the emotion out of it. Just do what’s right for the product/problem trying to solve. What would an outsider who is smart, just do to win. What would the Kentucky basketball coach do when his job is to win games and win the NCAA tournament (balancing growing players, short-term wins, growth over year)