Saturday, February 6, 2010

The day I learned how to properly supervise troops

I'll never forget the lessons I learned on the day that I was taught how to properly supervise troops. I was stationed at Fort Gordon GA. back in 1981. Being a Sargent in the US Army sometimes you find yourself responsible for after hours clean up "detail." Usually throughout the day several soldiers within your unit will either be reprimanded or fail inspections and their discipline for these infractions would be to work after quitting time. They would be assigned to a work detail that of course required supervision. So it wasn't uncommon for the Sargent's to rotate through as the supervisors of these "details."

Today, was my day to be the supervisor. Even though I wasn't the one doing the work, I still hated the duty because I wanted to go home. I'd rather be anywhere else than here following up on a list of work assignments for the next 3 hours. As the supervisor I was given a list of duties that must be completed prior to going home for the evening. I was instructed to turn in the list of tasks after all the duties had been completed. I was to drop off the completed list in a drop box in the headquarters office after we finished all the work and I was reminded that this list would then be followed up on the next day to see how well the work was done. So it was important for me as the supervisor that we did a good job.

I was assigned 5 men for the evening. My work list included the following tasks;

  • Mow the grass behind the barracks.

  • Weed eat along the front sidewalk and around the headquarters office building.

  • Paint the curb in front of our unit.

  • Paint the large rocks that outlined the flower beds in front of our unit.

I could tell that with 5 troops this was going to take about 3 hours to complete. I immediately called the troops together and explained the tasks for the evening. As I was assigning the task out to each soldier I told them that if we all worked together, myself included, then we could get done much faster and maybe get home at a descent hour this evening. Normally I didn't do the work, but with only five troops here and so much to do, I figured that if I worked as well, then we'd have 6 people working rather than 5 and we'd get done that much sooner. We all agreed to hit it hard and get it done. They were fired up that I was going to help and as I dismissed the troops to get to work we all went our separate ways.

Maybe a half hour into the work I was mowing behind the barracks and I noticed someone coming up behind me. As I turned to see who it was I was shocked to see a Sargent Major walking towards me. I had no idea where he came from, but suddenly he was here and because of his high rank I was a little nervous. He shouted at me, "Who's in charge of this detail?" I replied, "I am Sargent Major!" He said, "Get your troops together Sargent Phillips, I want to talk to them." I immediately ran around and got everyone together and we stood in front of the Sargent Major awaiting his instructions. He simply dismissed the troops from my work detail. He told me to stay where I was but everyone else was free to leave. I had no idea what the problem was... but I was about to find out! After everyone had left he explained to me that while I was mowing behind the barracks, the other soldiers were taking a smoke break on the side of the building. He figured these troops might be taking advantage of their supervisor so he went to find me so that I would be aware of what they were doing. But instead of finding me supervising, he found me working and then he realized why they were taking advantage of me. I can't supervise 5 soldiers while doing the work task myself. He decided that I needed to learn the proper way to supervise troops.

He asked me to give him my work list for the evening. He then said he was going to take over as the supervisor of the work detail and I was now the only soldier assigned to complete all the tasks on the list. He then carefully explained what the expectation was for the first task on the list and then asked me if I understood what I was to do. As I did the work he simply watched me. As I mowed behind the barracks he would correct me if I missed a spot and he'd have me go back and get it. When the task was done he then explained to me the next task on the list. Making sure that I understood what the task was he then sent me off to do the task. Again all he did was watch me work and if I didn't weed eat the grass along the sidewalk as he expected me to then he'd correct me and have me go back and do it better. Finally I finished the weed eating and he then explained the next task and I then began the task of painting the curb in front of our unit. Finally it was time to paint the rocks around the flower beds. The same routine... he explained the task, made sure I understood the task and then he watched me as I completed the task. When all the task were done he took the list and made note that all the tasks were complete and checked off and he told me he would drop off the list making sure it was in the drop box.

As I stood there exhausted and sweating, it was now almost 9:30PM. It had gotten dark a half hour ago. Before he dismissed me from his detail he shared with me some very important truths that I have never forgotten to this day. What I learned then applies to every supervisor anywhere and in any occupation. These are the lessons I learned from that evening with the Sargent Major:

  1. When you are charged with the responsibility to supervise troops, you must supervise troops. Often as leaders we think that if we jump in and do some of the work, then the work will get done faster. That's not always the case. If you supervise 5 people and only 2 or 3 are working productively, then it will always take longer to get the job done than you expected. You scratch your head wondering why with 5 people it took so long? You must ensure everyone is doing their part. We also think that our troops will appreciate our help. The truth is... if you really want to help the troops to get home early, then you'll manage the tasks to ensure that everyone on the team is working efficiently and you'll move people around to other task to ensure the job is getting done quickly.
  2. Supervisors keep their eye on their people to observe their performance to see that the expectations are being met. By taking on a task myself, I had no idea what the other troops were doing. Sure it's great when you can trust your people to do the job without supervision, but in most cases, that's not what you get. Some might see it as an opportunity to slack off knowing that the supervisor will never know. They think... why not make him or her work instead of me? Also if you are not following up regularly as the work is being done then you run the risk of the work not getting done correctly or as expected. You must follow up as the work is being done so you can change the direction if it's not being done as expected. Rarely do others fully understand exactly what you want from then the first time they hear it. It's only after they begin the work do you know they understand completely. If you are not there to correct them, then you waste time redoing the work properly.
  3. Supervisors stay to the end to ensure the task is complete. My Sargent Major stayed with me even into the night. What really impressed me about him was that he never insulted me, he never shouted at me, he never belittled me, he simply did his job as the supervisor and made sure I did mine as the worker. He corrected me as he saw things I did wrong or incomplete. When all was finished he signed off that the job was done. He double checked to ensure all tasks were complete and that they met the expectations required.

I think about this day often. That Sargent Major was just walking along and saw a problem. He could have walked past it and headed to the house himself, but instead, he went to see if he could help solve the problem. When he realized what the problem was he made a quick decision to teach and train the soldier (me) so that going forward I would no longer have this problem. He stayed with me till the end. He had worked the whole evening with me to prove a point and it stuck! This whole experience would not have been as impactful to me if he had just sent everyone home and then told me to finish the list all by myself to teach me a lesson. Instead he took the time to show me how to do my job while making sure I understood how to properly supervise troops from now on. I gained a lot of respect for him that night even though the whole experience was kind of embarrassing for me at the time. He never told my supervisor about this incident, he simply taught me what I needed to know and then put the completed checklist in the drop box as if I had done it. All anyone else would know is that the work got done to perfection as it was expected to be. As for me. I've applied that lesson during all of my years as a leader no matter where I've worked.

Think about your own situations of leadership. Think about times when you have jumped in and taken on some of the tasks yourself instead of assigning them out to everyone else. Sure that one task may have gotten done faster because of your help with the work but while you were doing that... what about all the other tasks that you are equally responsible for? How are they going? We tend to do this when were short handed or under staffed, but the truth is... when your short handed this is the time to step up on following up on every detail of the tasks and ensuring that those on the team are getting it done. The task of the supervisor carries with it the ability to know that you can't delegate yourself the work tasks and expect the team to run on it's own on the other tasks. The supervisor must see the big picture and guide everyone on the team to completing the tasks they are responsible for.

Quote: "You get what inspect, not what you expect."

Be the leader; delegate and follow up constantly throughout the work progress. See it all. Recognize and appreciate the ones that do it right and well, correct and adjust the ones that need to do it better so the work doesn't have to be re-done. Make sure you explain the task, show them the task, and then follow up throughout the task. "Check it off" as you complete tasks and then reassign and move people to other tasks. Your goal is to get all the work done properly through your team. Never forget your role or job. Your job is to get all the tasks done and done correctly. You must lead it, not work it. Whether you have 5 people to supervise or 50, everyone has a job to do, and yours is the most important of all. You have to see that everyone else does theirs. You do anything other than that... then you are not doing your job and the team suffers and the results are always poor.

These are the things I learned that day, "The Hard Way!"