Written by: Ashley Heidebrecht, MSW
When I started working at a mental health non-profit in Kansas, it was 2007 and I was entering the last year of my Undergraduate degree. I started my job there as a work study, providing community-based direct care for children diagnosed with a severe emotional disturbance. After just a few months, I was asked to step into an additional role, acting as transition coordinator, which involved getting all of the children on the waitlist served within a certain number of days of them entering the waitlist, and planning and facilitating group activities with these children and support staff until they were assigned a staff member to their case. During this time I was also continuing my direct care caseload. After the waitlist was reduced to a very manageable level and more staff were hired, the transition program was no longer needed, and I was promoted to Office Assistant/Scheduler and also maintained a reduced caseload for direct care, and just a few months later, I was promoted to Children’s Attendant Care Coordinator. All of this change occurred in less than two-years time. Agency restructuring through the next few years meant that role later evolved to Children’s Support Services Coordinator, encompassing Children’s Psychosocial Group management, parenting classes, and a Continuing Education program.
If you’ve worked in the non-profit world, you know that change and restructuring (often tied to funding) is common and frequent. The experience of transitioning from a peer and friend to many of my co-workers, to their direct supervisor was a challenge that required boundaries, difficult conversations, and at times a level of assertiveness from myself that I wasn’t always comfortable with. However, my experience being their peer is what ultimately led me to becoming a strong supervisor and a fierce advocate on their behalf.
I am going to share with you some of what I learned in managing that transition from peer to supervisor, hoping that should you encounter that change yourself, this information may offer you some guidance in navigating that complex change.
1. Boundaries are Crucial
When I was promoted to the coordinator position, I had to have a candid sit-down with two of my dearest friends and co-workers. Before that sit-down could occur, I requested a meeting with my supervisor and the other coordinator regarding these two individuals. I explained our personal relationship, and that even though it would fall outside of the alphabetic division of direct supervision for employees, I felt it was best for the other coordinator to be their direct supervisor, and that I would be a last resort for any direct supervision they may require. When I spoke directly with my two friends, I explained their supervision set up, and put a strict boundary in place, that I would not discuss any programing issues with them personally, and that they needed to not come to me with complaints about the daily annoyances of co-workers or other supervisors. If they had a legitimate complaint, they needed to go to their direct supervisor or follow the chain of command. At work, I was a supervisor and our interaction needed to reflect that so as not to give any appearance of favoritism, this way, we could continue our friendship outside of work. We stuck by these boundaries, and as we all moved on to our various career and educational goals, have remained friends.
2. Address the Elephant in the Room
I was confident in my ability to do the job, and most of the staff were as well, but a few I could tell were skeptical, maybe even a little resentful of my promotion. And so, rather than pretend like it wasn’t a problem or ignore the concerns and feelings of over 100 people, I chose to address it directly in group supervision. It was a difficult situation to navigate, expressing my understanding of how viewing me as any type of authority may be challenging due to my age and the fact that some of those employees had been working at the agency much longer than I had could be a challenge, and expressing that I am open to any and all feedback, without coming off as patronizing.
I’m sure that I was in some ways awkward in my delivery, but my effort to call out the discomfort was appreciated. I used that moment as an opportunity to emphasize that I may be their supervisor, but I am also their ally, highlighting the fact that I do 100% understand the daily challenges of their job, and the many obstacles to meeting productivity expectations, and maintaining safety. I made sure it was known that my door would always be open, and that I want to hear from them if there are ways they believe their work environment could be improved.
3. Address Insubordination or Disrespect Right Away
I didn’t encounter it often, but when I did, addressing overtly rude behavior or insubordinate behavior was one of the most uncomfortable situations. To me, this situation is a delicate one. Confronting such behavior from staff members can be viewed as the supervisor being either overly sensitive or trying too hard to assert their authority, especially for new supervisors. But, as uncomfortable as it may be to address it, it is always better to tackle it early than let inappropriate behavior continue and the negative feelings fester. The way you choose to address it will likely vary depending on the situation and the personality involved. In these situations, the most important thing it establishing an environment of mutual respect, and that requires honesty, boundaries, and communication.
4. Don’t Forget Where You Came From
It is my view that being a supervisor and program coordinator or director is about 3 things when you break it down: making sure clients are receiving the best service, making sure your staff are experiencing the optimal work environment and support, and making sure your program budget doesn’t have a deficit. That may sound simple, but often those three priorities can seem like competing objectives and not complementary ones. When the time comes that these objectives don’t seem compatible, for example in times of budget cuts, the hourly staff members, the entry-level staff, are most always the group first feeling the negative impacts. In those times, don’t forget where you came from. In those times, advocate for your staff and the important work they do.
And this brings me to my last point:
5. Your Unique Experience Can Make You the Best Advocate
Maybe it’s my Teamsters Union upbringing, but I have a strong believe in solidarity with the hourly employee. That belief in solidarity, combined with my understanding of the direct care work being done by my staff and the incredible importance of that work, led me to advocate for them fiercely. When the Affordable Care Act came into effect, Kansas where I was living was one of the states that opted out of the Medicaid expansion. The events that transpired as a result of that decision were some of the most difficult for me to navigate in my supervisory role. To make a very long story short, our client load decreased dramatically, which meant our funding decreased dramatically as we were a Medicaid funded program. What I have observed that tends to happen from leadership that is removed from the actual service provision is that their response in times of crisis are incredibly reactive, and without a nuanced understanding of the way programing works, decisions are often made which have negative long-term impacts.
I was instructed to drop all of my full-time staff down to part-time so we would no longer have to pay their benefits, and that if they wouldn’t take part-time employment, they would be terminated. My response was complete insubordination, and at times when I reflect back on the events of this period I wonder how I didn’t lose my job. My response to that instruction was “Absolutely not. I will not do that.”. The conversation went on from there, and I brought up points about upper management receiving raises at the same time I am being asked to demolish my employees’ livelihoods. What I ended up doing was saying that I was going to throw the Accounting department’s budget out, and I was going to reformat the budget and programing to save all full-time employment and keep my programs from going into a deficit. And that is exactly what I did. No one lost their benefits, no one lost their jobs, and the program stayed afloat. I was honest with my staff about the situation and worked with my staff in team meetings to develop the restructuring needed to maintain everyone’s employment. By the following year, things had leveled out. There was no need for anyone to have lost their full-time employment at all.
While transitioning from peer to supervisor can present many challenges, ultimately your experience and understanding of the job responsibilities and work environment for those you supervise gives you the opportunity to be a fantastic leader. A leader who truly values the people they work with, and who can build on your own experiences while collaborating with staff to ensure that the services provided, and the environment for the people providing those services, are the most optimal.