Everything I Know as a Supervisor I Learned in Choir

Tips For Applicants of Managerial Positions
Apr 28, 2016
by Gabriel Lucas

 

When I was a graduate student studying math education, I remember reading an article, All I Really Need to Know About Pair Programming I Learned in Kindergarten, which was titled after Robert Fulghum’s famous book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The core principle of the article was that even something as complex as computer programming can draw parallel lessons from the inherently collaborative environment of a classroom full of six-year-olds.

 

Computer programming is not the only discipline that can learn from something that appears on the surface to be its polar opposite. Consider personnel management. Look around and you’ll see almost daily lessons of how to be a better supervisor.

 

Now, when I talk here about management or supervision, I’m referring to oversight of employees, not projects, strategy, technology, or finances. However, it’s worth noting that managing all those things usually boils down to managing people.

 

Moreover, just because the modern work environment is all about innovation, technology, and collaboration, organizations still need traditional managers and traditional management practices. Translation: Your technology may run itself, but the people overseeing it don’t.

 

So for those of you who want to become a supervisor for the first time—but feel that catching your first break is as difficult as an astronaut with no experience getting picked for his or her first space flight—you might consider drawing on your own past experiences, as I have.

 

In my case, I would proffer that everything I know as a supervisor I learned in choir—as the music director. The infighting, the politicking, the Christmas fiascos—we had it all. Whenever I started a new choir position, I faced textbook managerial challenges without even realizing it: rebuilding a fractured team, resolving deep conflicts, soliciting support for a new vision, handling strong personalities, and overcoming initial resistance. Little did I know at the time that my decade of directing choirs would be such a fertile training ground for my subsequent roles as a technology department manager.

 

Not all managerial experiences are created equal

 

Let’s start by examining different kinds of personnel management:

 

  • Writing an annual review for a direct report
  • Meeting weekly with someone to review performance and discuss projects
  • Assigning daily tasks to someone
  • Managing projects that involve multiple people
  • Providing feedback about an employee when prompted to do so
  • Overseeing a program that includes one or more contributors from other departments
  • Coordinating students, temps, volunteers, interns, contractors, or part-time employees

 

If you are applying for a job that involves significant personnel management, and you don’t have any formal experience supervising people, then you must understand and accept that in most circumstances you are an underdog candidate.

 

Being the sole author of a full-time employee’s review on an annual basis is the gold standard for management experience—from a hiring perspective. This tells a prospective employer that you were actively managing that employee, both in terms of developing skills and documenting performance. Other situations are almost always suboptimal because it’s difficult to verify managerial involvement, and the degree of managerial difficulty in those other situations is often much lower.

 

Consider a project manager (PM) who is overseeing a major system upgrade and coordinating with different departments. That PM may even assign tasks to other employees. However, what happens if one of those employees is underperforming?  If direct conversation between the PM and the employee had not solved the problem, the PM (or his or her boss) would have to go to the employee’s supervisor, who would then step in. It’s not that the PM would be incapable of taking more corrective measures, but rather that he or she would not have the authority to do so under a typical organizational structure.

 

Be prepared for battle—both as a supervisor and as a job seeker

 

So why does all this matter? Because one day when you supervise a department, your boss will hold you accountable when someone on your team is underperforming. How will you handle the responsibility of improving that employee’s performance? In most cases this task is more art than science because everyone responds to management intervention differently.

 

If you’ve never been a supervisor before, prepare to face that reality head-on as you seek to move up. Interviewers try to ferret out managerial experience all the time, asking questions such as, “How would you handle a difficult employee?” and “How would you resolve a conflict between two of your direct reports?”

 

Translation: “Prove to us that you are really ready to manage and that you’ve been through these kinds of battlefield scenarios before.”

 

An answer such as, “I’d meet with each person, listen to concerns, and then find common goals that the whole team can buy into,” is unsatisfactory because it shows no depth of management experience. As a recruiter, I hear simplistic answers like this all the time. My advice is to dig deep into your life experiences and find those lessons learned—even if you didn’t realize the significance of them at the time.

 

Management intervention meets the modern workplace

 

So what did I learn as the choir director? Above all else, it’s foolish to avoid conflict resolution. You can’t fire someone from a volunteer church choir. However, you still have to deliver good music every week, so infighting among the choir members is deleterious.

 

Thus, I tackled conflict head-on, drawing on my professional training as a mediator. Sometimes I held ongoing private meetings with singers: some forceful, some not. Other times I mediated dialogues between two parties to get to the root of the conflict, then oversaw a gradual rebuild of the relationship. In other cases, I assigned people to different roles to play up to their strengths while being careful not to hurt their egos. Finally, we frequently broke bread together. As savvy managers out there know well, organizing a shared meal is one of the best ways to (re-)build a team.

 

I’m sure there are skeptics who would argue that the contemporary workplace environment is less about formal supervision and more about individual employee responsibility. The old notion of HR—titles, job descriptions, fixed duties—is breaking down. Perhaps—but, paradoxically, these trends make a supervisor’s proactive involvement all the more important.

 

The more we allow employees to define their own jobs and take on leadership roles, the greater the potential for conflict. Experienced managers are able to address personnel situations fairly, competently, and confidently. Sadly, I see an increasing number of mid-level managers unable or unwilling to step in when the going gets tough. This is certainly true in the education field, where many see performance reviews or intervening conversations as archaic as immovable student desks.

 

As a consultant, I’m always blown away when I see examples of managerial neglect. Two classic examples come to mind:

 

1. Managers who have no idea when an employee works or what that employee does

2. Managers who allow colleagues to refuse to communicate with each other because of a long-standing feud

 

With these examples in mind, let’s return to the comparison between the project manager and the supervisor. A PM does not fix these problems, but rather needs to circumnavigate them. That is the key difference between these two positions in terms of managerial depth. The supervisor who fails to address these problems is derelict in duty, while the PM who does address them is, in nearly all cases, overstepping a boundary. Having worked for conflict avoiders, I know full well the adverse impact of a boss who won’t mediate workplace disputes.

 

Find your kindergarten or choir

 

So if you’re a manager-in-training, think back to your kindergarten or choir-like scenario. If you don’t have one, go find one right away and learn as much as you can from it. In just a short time, you’ll discover that you are much better prepared to answer those battlefield-type interview questions.

 

Finally, don’t be fooled into thinking that the modern workplace is somehow exempt from intentional, hands-on, active personnel management. In the end, your team will be no different from the way some of my choirs started off: The vocalists may all be talented, but if they aren’t singing the same tune at the same time, the whole group just sounds terrible.