Feb. 8, 2024
You've just become a team leader or supervisor for the first time. It can feel both exhilarating and scary to be leading a department. Some days, it might feel like you're drinking straight from a fire hose.
Understanding the role of a leader, however, is an important first step toward calming your nerves and setting up your team (and yourself) for success.
At the most fundamental level, a supervisor is responsible for setting the department's strategic direction. Regardless of your organization's size or your number of direct reports, your role is to clearly communicate priorities to your team, establish and model team culture, remove barriers, and communicate with other departments and policy makers.
It's also part of your job to identify and nurture more leaders within your department and organization. Leaders help to develop other leaders by fostering an atmosphere of curiosity, openness, and respect for new ideas.
A recent Planning Management Learning Circles virtual roundtable hosted by the American Planning Association (APA) provided advice to first-time team leads. The panelists — the authors of this article — described their experiences and lessons, such as navigating relationships, political dynamics, and high-stakes decision-making. Here are a few key takeaways.
1. Bridge the age gaps on your team
Supervising people who are older than you can be daunting, especially for people stepping into a leadership role for the first time. But take comfort in the fact that planners are uniquely equipped to lead diverse teams comprising multiple disciplines, ages, and identities.
Why? Because planners are well trained in the theory and practice of community engagement.
As we learned in planning school, community engagement is founded on the principles of inclusion, collaboration and shared purpose, openness and learning, transparency, and trust. The tactics that planners use to carry out successful community engagement efforts are the same ones that talented leaders use to build trust in relationships. They are essential skills for generating buy-in and respect from your teams.
Regardless of an age gap, productive working relationships are founded on trust and mutual respect. In your new role, leverage your training in community engagement to establish trusting relationships with your team members.
2. Bring your whole self to the position
Throughout our careers, many of us have been conditioned to define "professionalism" by a very specific (and limited) set of behaviors and aesthetic qualities. The traditional view of the professional manager has been characterized by conformance with an organization's dominant culture and detachment from authentic self-expression.
Authenticity is truly a leadership strength. It is associated with honesty and integrity — two attributes that define great leaders. Authenticity allows your team to gain trust in you and your decisions. It also is an essential element in building relationships with direct reports.
As a department leader, it is your responsibility to model the culture you are working to develop — one that is diverse, open to hearing all ideas and perspectives, and inclusive of differences. Diversity is a strength.
Many people struggle with discomfort when stepping into new roles and the magnitude of the new responsibility. It can feed into feelings of imposter syndrome, but achieving your career aspirations can and should be a catalyst for self-reflection. Taking time to identify why you feel out of place is a good place to start building awareness and feeling comfortable with being yourself.
3. Advice for moving from peer to supervisor
There is a common misconception that when we are promoted, we must become a different person at work. While there are important adjustments to make, new leaders must continue to capitalize on the natural leadership strengths we've always had.
The shift from being a peer in the workplace to a supervisor can negatively affect team dynamics. However, there are several things you can do to strengthen your team and minimize disruption.
Be mindful of perceived favoritism toward individuals and teams with which you may be more familiar. Even the perception of favoritism can damage your relationships and hinder team success.
Set boundaries and clear expectations. Learn how individual team members prefer to be coached and openly discuss their preferred communication preferences. Remain highly approachable but set boundaries through your behavior (for example, by limiting social interactions with your team outside of the office).
Having worked with your team members for some time, you might have the advantage of already being aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the shortcomings or challenges of the department overall.
Build up their expertise and maximize team performance by developing the potential in individual contributors, approaching issues openly and collaboratively, identifying opportunities to upskill your team, and demonstrating your willingness to address persistent departmental issues head-on.
There are additional behaviors you can model to gain the trust of their team members and build respectful, productive working relationships — such as demonstrating that you understand, respect, and value your team members' expertise by giving credit where it is due. Also, be transparent. You don't need to share everything but err on the side of overcommunicating the department's direction, vision, and expectations. And follow through if you say you're going to do something.
Lastly, accept that vulnerability is a key element in building trust. This is where authenticity as a leader often is established.
This article was based on the Passport course First Year Directorship: Drinking from the Firehose. This course and many others are available with Passport.