Helping New Managers Shift From Technical Expert to Supervisor in 2021

Brian Blecke and Kelly Smith


It’s an age-old question: how to simultaneously ensure a steady flow of management talent and ensure that work is accomplished as successfully as possible. Many organizations promote into supervisory roles the people with the most vital technical skills — often top performers. However, people who excel in task-specific roles may have little or no supervisory or management experience.  The kicker is that many organizations struggle because they don’t have much formalized training and support for the new supervisors.

Understanding the Skills

This problem is widespread, and there are both informal and formal strategies that organizations can use effectively to train new managers. By recognizing that the employees’ mindset — and skill set — needs to change, organizations can begin to make these transitions more successful. The technical expert who is used to working on projects or tasks (alone or in a team) must learn to pay attention to the needs of others. The superstar becomes a beginner who must develop new skills to thrive in the role, including:

  • Motivating the team.
  • Communicating well.
  • Keeping people up to date on their progress.
  • Delegating responsibility.
  • Effectively disciplining subordinates.

Individuals may have an innate aptitude for leadership, but most new managers must learn these skills. How can we teach our new supervisors how to balance the responsibilities of production, quality and people? What is the best way to help them resist the temptation to just “do it themselves”?

Understanding the Role

The new supervisor has a lot to learn, so providing consistent, engaging and relevant content is important for sustained performance. Focusing our attention on a few areas can produce a significant return on investment (ROI). One clearly defining, up front, the new manager’s job requirements, which should be well differentiated from the technical expert role. To understand desired performance, some focal points include:

  • Financial: Does the supervisor have financial responsibilities and accountabilities?
  • Process: Will there be any process management responsibilities?
  • People: What are the specific people management responsibilities?
  • Environment: Will the supervisor be responsible for managing the work environment?

Understanding the Transition

Developing a robust understanding of the transition to the supervisor role is also valuable. Work with supervisors who were recently promoted into the role and managers who have worked with many new supervisors to understand:

  • Where do new supervisors struggle? (Answers could include things like coaching former peers, giving feedback and delivering difficult messages to employees, and recognizing and diagnosing performance issues.)
  • Dealing with the emotions of the transition from peer to supervisor.
  • Determining what would trigger the need to seek help from another manager.
  • Identifying high-potential talent within the team.

Uncovering the answers to these and other questions can inform a learning strategy that effectively smooths the transition from technical expert to supervisor.

Developing a robust understanding of the transition to the supervisor role is also valuable.

Picking the Right Approach

Developing first-line supervisors and managers is crucial to an organization’s success. The employees who accept the promotion are the foundation of an organization’s leadership pyramid. When they are effectively developed in house, there is less of a need to hire from outside of the organization.

Successful strategies use a combination of the following approaches:

  • Smaller chunks of training, delivered more often, with direct support from a senior manager who can provide coaching and guide decision-making.
  • Setting aside time and space for small-scale, low risk failures and feedback.
  • Tailoring off-the-shelf or existing management training to supervisory-specific scenarios for practice, discussion and feedback.
  • Practice for supervisory performance, including diagnosing situations, making decisions and acting on those decisions.
  • Using multiple training modalities (often leaning heavily on coaching and on-the-job training).
  • Tailoring off-the-shelf training content for the unique circumstances, contexts and expectations (accountabilities) of the organization and role.
  • Identifying situations when new supervisors are intended to be a player-coach: What is the role when they are a player? What is the role when they are a coach? What are the levels of complexity of each role? How do you handle a situation (such as performance appraisal, formal feedback or promotions) when the coach does not have a full supervisory role?

With all of these considerations, it is vital to maintain consistency for each job role and responsibility. In the manufacturing industry, for example, diagnosing and solving problems on the line should be balanced with ensuring that people are adequately prepared for the job at hand. In banking, it involves seeing an issue arise, determining the gap and deciding how to resolve the problem.

Providing Additional Support

In addition to thinking through the training aspect of this critical transition, here are some additional ideas:

  • Have your new supervisors assess themselves to understand areas of improvement, specifically with people skills. Provide an assessment that ties back to the supervisor’s performance.
  • Facilitate a mentoring program so that new managers can receive advice from people who have been in their shoes.
  • Meet with and observe new supervisors regularly; try to keep them away from doing the technical work that they are experts at doing.
  • Encourage new managers to meet with their team to show interest and get to know them. If they have an office, encourage them to leave it to be visible to the team.
  • Help new supervisors understand what their team expects from a leader.
  • Help them accumulate knowledge and skills at a comfortable pace (one that simultaneously works for the supervisor and for the organization).

Shifting the mindset of newly minted supervisors will take time, energy and investment. You can help them understand their new role in many ways, including coaching, formal training and informal learning. Developing and using engaging and relevant content will encourage supervisors as they take on their new responsibilities. The move from a technical expert to a player-coach or supervisor can be daunting. As learning professionals, we can think ahead and anticipate these learners’ needs and reduce friction as they move up and thrive.

Here are a few additional thoughts that you can use as you’re ideating and creating training for this vital transition:

  • Remind them to be humble and not to let the position go to their heads.
  • Encourage them to celebrate the different skills of each team member.
  • Help them to develop a desire for lifelong learning.
  • Accountability is critical, so help them to only say “yes” to what they can do.
  • Foster a culture of character and integrity.
  • Help them trust their own ability to do the job and grow their team.

New supervisors’ success is less about their previous technical expertise and more about their ability to lead. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work in the new role. Help them to augment their existing knowledge and build on it. When their foundation is strong, their new skills will scaffold on top of it.

New supervisors’ success is less about their previous technical expertise and more about their ability to lead.