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Intentional Supervision: Part 1

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Part I: Determining structures and expectations for supervision.

I have worked in the Jewish community, in a variety of roles, for more than two decades. As I look back, some jobs were easier than others. Some were more challenging, some rewarding, some, frankly, soul crushing. The common thread that runs through the jobs that I loved and the roles that propelled me to stay in the field, was excellent supervisors. In my career I have been blessed by supervisors who invested in my success, pressed me to challenge myself and grow professionally, and always had my back. They offered me the respect and grace of straightforward feedback, and enough latitude to try, and fail, and try again. I owe a debt of gratitude to more mentors than I can easily count and I hope I have done them justice by mentoring others when I’ve had the opportunity.

Synagogues are notorious for opaque (or non-existent) organizational charts and supervisory structures. Often one person is “supervised” by three people on paper when, in fact, they simply get task assignments from 3 people, and no supervision at all. Sometimes, staff are expected to supervise others but have little training or understanding of what the work of supervision entails. Often, they are suffering from a lack of quality supervision themselves.

Frankly, and without hyperbole, improving supervisory practices and expectations in synagogues would profoundly impact the Jewish professional universe. Taking steps to systematically address supervision in our organizations can begin immediately with a few simple steps.

Understanding Supervision

Supervision is a professional relationship between two colleagues where the supervisor takes responsibility for providing resources necessary for the supervisee to be successful in their job.

  • In a supervisory relationship the supervisor provides support for the supervisee but does not expect it in return.

  • In a supervisory relationship the supervisor understands the scope of the supervisees job description, assists in prioritizing task lists, and proactively organizes job training and growth opportunities.

  • In a supervisory relationship the supervisor provides ongoing feedback with an eye toward the next steps in their supervisees career trajectory whether that be advancement or job change.

Task Management ≠ Supervision

  • Supervision is not task assignment.

  • Supervision is not micromanagement of task completion.

  • Supervision is not demanding accountability or initiative without providing support.

This is task management; work oversight without regard for the staff member, their participation in the process or their own professional growth. There is absolutely a place for task management (the work does need to get done after all) but in a workplace where there is only task management and no supervision, a fear-based culture will develop with staff feeling unsupported and uncomfortable taking initiative or making decisions independently. Decision bottlenecks will form when all decisions (large and small) are pushed to senior staff members who are then frustrated and overwhelmed. Workflow is slow and inefficient and staff turnover is high as staff members seek other jobs with mentoring and growth opportunities. Investing time in quality supervision is an investment in institutional success on all fronts and well worth the effort.

Taking steps to improve supervision throughout your organization:

Step 1: Evaluating your current system - Does everyone in your organization know who their direct supervisor is? If the answer to this question is not “Absolutely!” then I assure you, not everyone knows who their direct supervisor is.

Create an institutional chart of supervisory relationships in your organization. At RTS we recommend starting not at the “top” with senior clergy or staff but at the “bottom” with staff who don’t supervise anyone themselves.

Start with receptionists, hourly building maintenance staff, junior youth group advisors, etc and determine who is the one person assigned to supervise each of them. One crucial element to successful supervision is that each employee has only one direct supervisor (even if they receive task assignments from multiple people). If the employee receives instruction or tasks from multiple people, their one direct supervisor (ODS) will help them prioritize and organize their work and support them in navigating the necessary multi-tasking in addition to the other benefits of supervision we’ll discuss here. In Step 2. We will discuss the best ways to train and support your supervisors to do their work well and with intention.

Determining who will be a staff person’s ODS should happen thoughtfully.

An ODS should have, at minimum, two qualifications;

1. A clear understanding of the staff person’s task list and responsibilities.

2. A role of superior status in the organizational chart*.

*If language around status feels foreign to your organization, know that you’re not alone. Many congregations feel discomfort articulating managerial levels, however, in practice, it is a helpful tool to organize decision making, supervisory structures, paths for promotion and professional growth.

Once you have determined who is the likely ODS based on the two criteria identified above, the next step is to consider their qualifications for being a good supervisor and consider if they are still the best candidate.

A good supervisor will be able to do these three things successfully:

  1. The ODS will always advocate for their supervisee. The ODS will work to ensure their supervisee has the training, opportunities, and resources they need to be successful in their role and participate in respectful decision making if the supervisee is still unable to achieve success. The ODS will speak on behalf of their supervisees and their work in rooms where their supervisees are not present or where critical decisions are being made.

  2. The ODS will meet with their supervisee on a regular schedule and each meeting will have a predictable agenda. Each meeting will include opportunities for reflection on completed work, troubleshooting current and upcoming work, goal setting, performance feedback, and space for the supervisee to initiate conversations of their choosing. Supervision will also include an annual performance review process lead by the ODS.

  3. The ODS will play an active role during the onboarding process and in moments where new skills are being developed to ensure that their supervisee is prepared and aware of their job expectations. Too often our congregations employ a “sink or swim” mentality to onboarding new staff which doesn’t serve the organization or the staff person. A good ODS recognizes the value of articulated instructions and fostering new skills in low-risk environments with support and encouragement.

Being a good supervisor is a commitment to putting in the time, effort, and patience it takes to help a staffer grow and succeed. Being a supervisor is an honor, a sacred responsibility, and an opportunity to be part of someone’s growth in a unique and powerful way. Simply put - it’s a very big deal.

Sometimes, it’s easy. When we supervise someone of our choosing - in whom we see the spark of potential - this work is a pleasure and we get to see our protege shine. Supervising someone who is struggling, someone we would never have chosen for the role, or with whom we don’t connect personally is more difficult. Good supervisors feel responsible to do that work to its fullest for every supervisee. The superstars and the underdogs alike.

If you have identified an ODS who is not capable of doing this, you must either plan for them to receive training and support to strengthen their supervisory skills, or assign their supervisee to another ODS.

Realizing you have a managerial level staff member who is a poor supervisor presents a challenge of its own. It’s not likely that this can be remedied overnight but we encourage you to prioritize addressing it in the short term. Quality supervision throughout your organization will maximize efficiency, increase job satisfaction amongst your staff, and reduce staff turnover. Good supervision should be a job expectation for managerial level staff and above and an unconditional benefit of employment for all.

In the coming weeks RTS will be sharing a series of articles devoted to supervision and how your community can systematically address and improve supervision for every staff member.

Next installment: Who Should be Supervised by “the Board” and How Does That Work?

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