How to Succeed When Getting a New Supervisor: Tips and Resolutions

A little while ago, I had my first supervisor change in a number of years when a new CIO was hired for the college. We also recently completed a reorganization, and as a result, many staff are adjusting to new reporting relationships. Some of those transitions have gone smoothly and others not as well. While thinking about my own experience and watching the experiences of others, I could see that how one thinks about the transition can make a big difference in making it successful.

In December 2015, the EDUCAUSE Review Professional Development Commons blog had a great piece by Joan Cheverie, EDUCAUSE Director of Professional Development, describing tips and resolutions about how to succeed as a new manager. As a result of my observations and discussions with others about Joan's blog post, I was motivated to write down some thoughts about the other side of the equation: when you find out that you will have a new supervisor.

I know that hearing you will be reporting to someone new can be one of the more stressful times in your career. You've worked hard over the years on the relationship you have with your current supervisor, and now you have to start again. The new person will inevitably bring a different personality and ideas, different ways of approaching things, and different strengths and limitations, experience levels, and expectations. You may be expected to teach your new supervisor about organizational aspects that your previous supervisor knew instinctively.

But this change can also be a fresh start for you. There will be new opportunities. I've seen that with a little work and a refreshed perspective, you can not only survive the transition but also thrive and flourish.

Taking a proactive role in preparing yourself and approaching the situation with your eyes wide open can make the transition a success.

Working through the Transition

Help your new supervisor with his/her transition. It's important to recognize that although this is a big change for you, it's an equally important transition for your new supervisor — and like you, your supervisor wants it to be successful. You've been here for a while, but it's all new to your supervisor: new organization and people, services, minefields, political climate, and much more. In addition, he/she may be new to the area, and even the simple things like figuring out where to get a haircut or the best place to find food is a new experience. By helping your supervisor with the transition, you both benefit. You become someone who has insights and suggestions, and your supervisor gets up to speed that much more quickly.

Work to ensure your supervisor is successful. If your new supervisor is successful, the chances that you will be successful increase significantly. Undoubtedly, your supervisor is being asked to do a lot in the first six months. As issues and situations come up, do what you can to help your supervisor succeed in both the short and the long term. Doing so benefits both of you.

Wear the "big hat." Some changes may impact you personally, not always in the way that you would like. Your new supervisor is going to be managing many different people and dealing with requests and issues from all directions. He/she will be trying to understand the connections, the interdependencies, and the relative importance of the various pieces of the puzzle. Many people will be asking for something or trying to "sell" a pet project. But by wearing the "big hat" and helping your supervisor think about things from a broad perspective, you will assist in making the best decisions and, in the long run, advancing the goals of the unit. At the end of the day you will be most successful if you are seen as someone who is looking out for the unit and not just yourself. That doesn't mean that you should not advocate for your area or what you need, but you should always do so from within the context of what's best in the long run for the overall organization.

Be open to change. New supervisors will bring change to the organization and to your work. Whether these are big changes or small, a new supervisor will bring his/her touch, experiences, and influence to the organization. It is best to be open to the idea of change. By doing so, you are more likely to be part of developing the changes, as opposed to someone who is seen as fighting for things to remain exactly the same.

Be Proactive

Use this as an opportunity to start doing things a new way. This may be the opportune time to try out that idea or concept that you have always wanted to try but may not have had an opportunity to in the past. Your new supervisor may be receptive to ideas and ways of doing things that your previous one was not.

This is not the time to "sit back and see what happens." While it may be tempting at times to simply "duck and cover" or sit back and see how things unfold, it's important that you are actively engaged with your new supervisor: presenting ideas and solutions and helping to shape discussions and approaches. Now is the time to show energy. Your new supervisor will be evaluating everyone and looking for those who are willing to step up and help move things forward.

Bring a problem, along with suggestions for how to address it. There's the old adage of "don't bring up a problem without a solution." Although you don't necessarily need to have a solution for every problem you bring up, your new supervisor will be looking to you for suggestions for how to address issues, since you know the place and situation better than he/she does. When you bring issues to your supervisor, be prepared to answer the questions "How would you suggest we handle it?" or "What do you advise we do?"

Don't overwhelm. Again as tempting as it might be, it's best not to overwhelm your new supervisor at first. Your new supervisor will be dealing with a lot of things, learning the organization, people, and processes. Initially focus on the most important and pressing issues, and provide a "heads-up" or preview of things that he/she will need to deal with down the road. Going into your first meeting with your new supervisor with a long list of problems or issues that need to be solved or addressed will serve only to dilute the most pressing issues that require immediate attention and focus. Show that you can prioritize and help provide perspective as to what's critical and what's not.

Take Care of Yourself

Make time for yourself. It's important during this time of transition and increased stress to ensure that you make the time to take care of yourself. You may find yourself working longer hours or thinking about work at all hours of the day or night. It's important to acknowledge that this is normal and to be expected. So be sure to take care of yourself. Work your network to talk through frustrations and anxieties. Set up regular lunch dates with a friend, colleague, or mentor. Exercise, meditate, go for walks, get plenty of sleep, or do whatever else you can to ensure you are operating at your peak. It's understandable that you may need to work more at first, but it's also important to maintain a work/life balance.

Update your resume. Even if you have no immediate desire to leave your job, the process of updating your resume and looking at the current job market can be beneficial. Whether you actually apply for other positions is not the important part; it's the process of thinking about your career and accomplishments and what matters most to you. Refreshing your resume can give you some perspective about where you've been and where you might want to head with your career. It prepares you for discussions with your new supervisor about your career and aspirations. And looking at the job market can give you a sense of what alternatives might be out there if things don't work out the way you hope. It lessens that feeling of having no control over things.

Know thyself. Understanding — and being able to articulate — your own strengths, limitations, aspirations, and value to the organization will be helpful during the transition. It will help prepare you to share those with your new supervisor and potentially shape your future working environment.

Look to professional organizations (such as EDUCAUSE) for help and advice. This is a perfect time to hone your skills and continue to build your network. Consider participating in an EDUCAUSE Institute program, subscribing to various discussion groups, or attending a conference (for example, the EDUCAUSE Connect conferences are a great place to start making connections). Invest in yourself to refine your skills, get to know yourself better, and prepare yourself to one day be the new supervisor.

Build Your New Relationship

Work to build trust. Building trust with your new supervisor is one of the most important things you can do to succeed in the long run. Understand that it is normal that your new supervisor will be questioning everything and that the trust you had with your previous supervisor will need to be forged again with your new one.

Building trust is a two-way street. Understand that it takes time and is most often achieved as the result of a series of small steps along the way. Provide building blocks for trust by consistently giving your new supervisor information and advice that is sound and in the best interest for the organization. Start small. Trust is about consistency.

Recognize that your new supervisor doesn't have a magic wand. Problems that were there before your new supervisor arrived won't magically go away. Although a new supervisor will bring different perspectives, strengths, and limitations to help address the problems, he/she won't be able to make them magically disappear. This will be the case even if your previous supervisor was seen as the problem. Problems are usually complex with many parts and layers. While a change in personnel "at the top" will have an important impact over time, recognize that changing this one person will not necessarily make the issues and problems go away as well. Particularly challenging problems will still require hard work and energy on everyone's part to address over a long period of time.

Don't gossip. While it might be tempting to talk about all of the goings-on about people in the department over the years, it's best not to offer unsubstantiated opinions about colleagues or issues. Stick to the facts and what's relevant for the supervisor to know. He/she will figure things out quickly enough. By not engaging in gossip, you also build credibility and show that you can be trusted with information shared with you in confidence.

Provide context and history. You've likely been at your job for a while. As discussions come up, help provide your new supervisor with context for why things were done a certain way and offer history with a particular department or colleague. Stick to the facts. It's important that your new supervisor is informed by the past but not be beholden to what has come before. Which leads us to the next point…

Banish the phrase "But that's the way we've always done it." Provide explanations about how a past decision was made and what factors led to it, but be open to a new way. When we hold on to the way we've always done something, we miss opportunities for improvements and rethinking what's important. You become seen as someone who is holding on to the past and not necessarily someone who can help the organization grow and change. Remember, change is going to happen whether you like it or not, so be seen as embracing not hindering it.

Don't rush things. Acknowledge that the process of working through the change, getting to know your new supervisor, building trust, and figuring out your new working relationship and role is going to take time. It can easily take six, twelve, or even eighteen months before you get into a new rhythm. You are both in this for the long haul. Pace yourself.

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In the end, the goal is to establish trust and show value while also taking care of yourself and keeping things in perspective. Show, through words and actions, that you are there to help both your new supervisor and the department succeed. By doing so, you can not only survive the transition but also thrive and flourish.


David Weil (dweil@ithaca.edu) is the Director for Engagement and Implementation at Ithaca College and a class of 2013 Leading Change Institute (LCI) Fellow.

© 2016 David Weil. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.