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Supervising Student Employees: Secrets to Success


On March 7, 2005 SELT (Student Employment leadership Team) sponsored a SELT Professional Development session for supervisors of student employees entitled “Supervisor Overview: Secrets to a Win/Win Experience.”  Facilitated by Terry Everson, Vice President of Training for Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, the session addressed supervising student employees effectively, including the use of Everson’s famous need-based management techniques and his nine building blocks for success. 


Terry began the morning laying the groundwork for his 1.5-hour presentation, which included a lunch. Overall, successful supervisors multiply their efforts through others. To do this often involves transitioning to seeing the basic “big picture” again, then working to plan, organize, and control that picture to achieve desired outcomes. He illustrated these ideas with a Situational Model that endorsed directive and supportive activities and the need to adjust your style among them. Next he commented on techniques often used in staff development, including training, coaching, and mentoring. Finally, Terry revealed the long-awaited secrets to success, where the presentation ended.

Why be a supervisor in the first place? Participants cited growth (staff growth and personal growth), a commitment to quality and teamwork, and the need to free up their time as principal reasons to supervise—all positive—while criticism, stress, and time proved negative drawbacks of employee supervision. It’s no wonder: supervision is multi-faceted. It involves guiding others, leading fearlessly, and exercising responsibility. According to Everson, to supervise is to have truly “super vision” in handling the three cornerstones of people skills, directing skills, and technical knowledge at once. To succeed, 90 percent of your power indeed must come from within; very little is ever drawn from your supervisory position itself.

Before launching his Situational Model, Terry encouraged event attendees to set smart, measurable goals, specific to an activity. If these goals are both achievable and timely, they can be a great aid in the situational leadership tasks of planning, organizing, and controlling introduced earlier, which are preferable methods to operating by mere “fads of the month.” With your goals in mind, learn how to 1) plan clear, well-documented policies and procedures, 2) to stay organized, and 3) to control the big picture by dividing it into two categories: the first consisting of people who can manage themselves and the second consisting of the numbers produced that are fed back to staff.

Leader or Manager?

There is a difference, Terry explained, between leaders and managers. Leadership must be learned from staff—that’s power. Leaders work the “white space,” work the system, and play the game where managers without these skills may not.

It was later suggested that third-year students (juniors) can be most effective as leaders in supervising student employees if they are the trainers of new staff, perhaps due to their age and general attitude in relation to trainees who may be up to two years younger in mental or emotional maturity.

Situational Model

Supervisory success, regardless of age, is often driven by staff response as evidenced in Terry’s Situational Model that followed. Whether staff responds better to support or to direction is something to be gauged accordingly. Staff who respond better to supervisors that demonstrate high levels of support but low levels of direction are partial to that supervisor’s cooperating approach, while staff who respond to both high support and direction prefer this selling approach. On the other hand, some employees thrive under “sink or swim” conditions. Those preferring low direction and low support are perfectly happy to be delegated the supervisor’s work, and environments of high direction and low support offer much potential for productivity in the way of a telling approach for staff members. Supervisors are encouraged to identify in which of these four methods they fall most easily, using task-relevant maturity that can determine which leadership style works best.

Directive vs. Supportive Approaches           

No matter which style you identify with, be aware that in a directive approach especially, not all student employees react as directed. In fact, if your directive for them succeeds once, some employees may think they always immediately understand your directions, straight from your perspective, when actually they are quite susceptible to miss the target the next time around. Employees, in this case, have jumped the gun in considering themselves as transitioned from amateurs straight to experts. In reality, of course, they may be only “wise fools.” Be patient. If you are a directive supervisor, according to Terry’s source Hersey and Blanchard, mind the following:

  • Set up goals and objectives.
  •  Plan and organize work in advance.
  • Constantly communicate job priorities, clarifying who leads and who follows
  • Try showing the student employee how to do a specific task.
  • Set realistic time lines
  • Determine methods of evaluation.
  • Check the work that is completed.

Conversely, supportive supervisors should be aware of these tips:

  • Listen to the employee’s job- or nonjob-related problems
  • Praise him or her consistently
  • Ask for suggestions or input
  • Encourage or reassure the employee
  • Communicate info about the organization’s operation as a whole
  • Disclose information about yourself
  • Facilitate employee problem solving

Common behaviors to both styles include goal setting, observing and monitoring performance, and providing constructive feedback.

Building Blocks of Success

Wrapping up, Terry introduced the long-awaited nine building blocks of success. Communication is the first. A key tool that encompasses all others, effective communication binds each of the following together:

2. Planning, organization, control

3. Leadership

4. Skills assessment

5. Change Management

6. Process Management/process mapping

7. Meeting Management

8. Performance Management/Team Development

9. Project Management

Conclusion: Secrets of Success

Finally, Terry let down his guard. He disclosed his bottom line in supervising student employees—the bona fide secrets of success:

  • Rules are friends.
  • Team players have a position.
  • Camaraderie is fun/social affiliation (This, achievement, and power are reasons why people come to work—not just for pay).
  • Don’t talk back to the coach.
  • You can’t win them all. After defeat, don’t take your ball and go home. If it’s a good idea, stick it back in your pocket.
  • Yet, take defeat in stride.
  • Nobody’s perfect.

At the end of the session, participants were asked as a planning measure to list actions they would take to become better supervisors, with target dates for completion.

A-Ha Moments

Most of Terry’s signature “Ah-Ha!” moments, interspersed throughout the presentation, are listed below.

  • Information isn’t power; knowing where to find it is.
  • If it isn’t nailed down, steal it.
  • If it is nailed down, adapt it.
  • Your job is to get it out of them, not put it into them. The fire in the belly must be theirs alone.
  • The least effective way of changing someone is by reprimanding negative behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement, by contrast, is the most effective way of changing someone. First you must catch people doing things right!
  • Sometimes we promote the wrong people. On the “bus” of your department, make sure people are in the right seats (and on the right bus).
  • Develop your staff to their maximum potential.
  • First-class leaders hire first-class staff. Second-class leaders hire third-class staff, always wanting to be in charge. (And when this staff leaves, he or she takes talent with them.)
  • Vision without action is only a dream.
  • When preparation meets opportunity, welcome to success.
  • Don’t put individual performances up on the wall.
  • If you’re not keeping score, it’s only practice.
  • In every team, there are both pioneers and settlers. Delegate accordingly.
  • If every time you go to your toolbox, you find a hammer, then every situation will look like a nail. Find the right tool for the job.