We don’t know what we don’t know. When Alicia and I started Strengths University in 2017, we’d both been supervisors in Higher Ed for a number of years. We’d had our share of successes, but also frustrations. We knew we wanted to focus on supporting supervisors. Thus began our journey to discover what effective supervisors do, why they do it, and how to teach it to other people.
I’m lucky enough to be able to focus on Strengths University full time. But Alicia is currently working full time at Maryville University in St. Louis, so we don’t always get to collaborate as much as we’d like. We recently sat down to do a podcast episode together focusing on what we wish we knew back then when we were both supervising on campus. Here’s some of that discussion…
Anne: Hello, Alicia!
Alicia: Hello, Anne! We're finally doing this.
Anne: We really are. Welcome to the podcast. And how do you feel about the name of the podcast? Because it seems like I was trying to decide what to call it forever. So how did you feel when I named it “My Circus, My Monkeys?” Because I named it kind of for you, because you always said the actual quotes, which is, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” So, what are your feelings, if you have any on that?
Alicia: My feelings about the quote, or are you naming it or both?
Alicia: Yeah. I think the quote is helpful to let go of things that really are completely out of our control at your control.
And I think it's as far as you naming the podcast. I think it's one of the things that I am grateful about, like our friendship and working partnership that. Like the phrases that each other use, we pick them up because we've known each other and work together for so long. And you know, it just makes me think of the other original four folks that we worked with, so Erin and Rebecca.
Again, just those phrases that become part of your speech, like “something something 2 by 4,” or “you know what time we eat.” You know just those phrases that we end up using that we picked up. And at the end of the day, it's like who even said that first, or where did that come from?
So that was a very long answer to my feelings are it makes me smile and think about how lucky we are to have found each other. And the universe works in funny ways.
Anne: It does.
So, we worked together at the College of Pharmacy. Then we decided we were going to start Strengths University and really focus on supervision. And of course, we were both supervisors back then. You are working full time at Maryville right now, and have been supervising there. What do you wish you knew since we've dove…driven…divin? I know divin is not a word. Well, it is now. Lol.
What do you wish you knew back then about supervising, that we know now?
Alicia: So, you know, when I think back to very first days of supervising a team of students and then being able to supervise different professional staff at different times, I think the quote from Brené Brown is the one that sticks out the most to me. It’s that, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” And I think so often we get caught in this idea of if I say what I really want, or if I say the thing that's bothering me, or if I call out this behavior, or maybe I’ll just like beat around the bush, or I'll make a general announcement about everybody needs to be on time, you know. Or well, I think I might want this thing, but I’ll just put it out more generally as opposed to this is actually the thing that I’m looking at or wanting to happen.
So, clear is kind and unclear is unkind. Just using that as a framework. If people don't know what they're supposed to be doing and they have to spend all that time and energy trying to figure it out, it's wasting everybody's time and energy.
And the other thing that I think of is the person that's supervising, I think, especially in the beginning as a supervisor it can feel like, “Oh, well, I'm in charge now. I'm supposed to be leading and helping these folks. So, I'm supposed to have all the answers, and I'm supposed to know everything.”
I think what I notice the most from the coaching we do. And yes, you have to know what is happening. You have to be able to know things. But what's more important than just knowing everything is knowing your people so that you can help them do the best job and that you can. You're never going to know everything, and you have to build those partnerships to know who to ask if something is unclear.
There's always going to be a new or weird situation that you're going to have to either consult another supervisor on or consult your supervisor on. There's always going to be something. And so again, I just feel like both in my experience, and then also coaching a lot of new supervisors that that pressure to, “Well, now, I'm supposed to know everything and how to handle every single thing.” You're not. And it's honestly a little bit arrogant to think that you can. But what's the most important is knowing your people and helping them, figure out how to manage through what's going on and bring out the best that they have.
Anne: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. And going back to what you said before about “Clear is kind.” I think for myself, one thing that I wish I had known or really understood is, you typically have people on your team who are excelling and doing really well, and we lean into them. We don't worry about them. And then there's you know, one or 2 people on our team who perhaps we maybe regret having hired them, or if we didn't hire them go, “Why are they still here?” But whatever it is, you’re not super happy with how they're doing, and you know, like you were saying, clear is kind. We should be telling them what the issues are.
But for myself, I would make myself feel better about not addressing some of the negative behavior by saying, “Well, you know I have 10 people on my team. Nine of them are doing fantastic, so I guess I'm doing really well.” And so, I would just kind of keep kicking the can down the road as far as addressing it, until you know, one too many things happened. And then, of course, I wasn't even in a very good frame of mind. Then I was just pissed. Then I would have to deal with it, OR just hope they eventually left. And of course, with RAs, eventually they would. But what I didn't understand is from an engagement standpoint is that when I let team members not meet expectations, that was actually negatively impacting the people who are doing their jobs well.
Thinking back to my own experience of being on a team when folks weren’t pulling their weight, I’d think, “Oh, my gosh, what is Brenda even doing? So are you going to say anything to her? Oh, you're not. Nobody's going to talk to Brenda about her doing nothing or doing whatever wrong?”
But, you know, I didn't even put that together when I was supervising. But I remember how my motivation was impacted, “Oh, so I guess I should also do nothing, and not have to worry about anything happening to me.” So, I really wish I had been clear to the folks I was supervising, which is kind to that individual to let them know. But it's also kind to the rest of the team, because everybody's being held to the same standard or at least not being allowed to underperform.
I just thought, since I made you answer that question, I thought I better as well.
Alicia: Yeah. And as you were saying that I think the other thing, and I know that you have heard me say this forever, but it’s also finding a way to document all the things. And when I'm talking about documenting, it's not just so that if people are getting in trouble, you can go back and say, “Oh, well, this is when I told you to do X, Y. And Z, or this is when we had that conversation because you were coming in late.” Or whatever it is. I have Arranger in my strengths. I also have Connectedness. And we all have different strengths that can lead us down rabbit holes or lead us to forget something that we have talked about, right? Adaptability is also really high for me. So, having that accountability to come back to that. “Oh, we talked about this last week. How is that going?” Or again being able to celebrate, “you said that you were really worried about this thing coming up, or your program, or you know, whatever it was. Well, let's take a second to celebrate that.”
Documenting things can be so incredibly powerful in all of those areas. Celebrating. Holding people accountable. And just remembering what it is that you all talked about so that you can again continue conversations that need to be continued.
Anne: Indeed, yes. Alicia has always said, “Document, document, document.” And I can remember often leaving her office, rolling my eyes about it. But she's absolutely correct. It's important, because, for example, I would always get mad at my RAs when things would happen but they didn’t want to write folks up for minor things. I mean I get when these things happen, you don’t want to “officially” write them up, but just write it up so that we know it happened. Because you can't come to me at the end of the semester and say they’ve been doing something the whole time. Like, how do I know this? It’s not that I don't not believe you. But if I need to talk to this individual, what am I supposed to talk to them about? Like in general, anecdotally, we think you're too loud? So, but same thing for your folks now.
Or on the flip side, like you just said, to develop those relationships you said is so important. You have to remember, “Oh, how was little Timmy's operation? How did that go?” Because you know you may be well intentioned, but we're all so busy. If we forget, then all of a sudden that person might think, “I can't believe they didn't ask me how little Timmy’s operation was when I was so worried about it.” And so, it's those small things that end up mattering. And if we're as busy as we are then we need some way to keep track of that.
Okay, Alicia. What is your favorite thing about what we do as Strengths University.
Alicia: Oh, that's a good question. Because there are a lot of things that we do that I really love. I think probably one of the things that is most exciting is to hear people come to a realization or come up with an action or something that they're going to put in place. That is just when they have that insight.
And you know, folks, of course, are absolutely capable of coming up with insights on their own. But I think one of the things that is powerful about what we get to do is we get to ask people to slow down and to reflect. You know, because they're paying for the experience, they feel like they then have the permission to do that, or the expectation to do that. And so, getting to hold that space for people as they are working through whatever their challenge might be. I love getting to see those individuals feel like, “Oh, now that I'm saying this out loud to you, I recognize that XYZ is right.”
Or you know, I was just having coaching conversation with somebody a couple of weeks ago, and it was actually their third call from the spring Institute. So, they had, I think, met with me first, and then you, because we do our round robin scheduling. And you all had talked about some really great things, and she'd put those into action and then she's like, “But there's something that's just still not clicking.”
And so, we talked about how this person that she is supervising had been there for a year at that point but was still very unsure about what they needed to get permission for and what they needed to just do on their own and make a decision about. And the person that I was coaching was like, “Okay, I've had these very clear conversations. I've said, ‘This is what I need permission on. This is the type of stuff I don't.’ But the employee was still having trouble navigating through that.” And it was because they had come from a work experience that you had to have permission for every single thing they've done.
And even though the employee knew that her new supervisor didn’t need or want that, they couldn't get out of the habit. So, I asked them, “Is there a way you can scaffold that for her?” And so that supervisor came up with the idea of, “I'm going to ask her for the next month that before she calls me or comes to my office. We're going to create a list of the topics and things that she needs to get permission about and the topics and things that she doesn't. I'm going to ask her to pause before she comes, and sees me every time to look at the list and see if she can figure out which one of these things it goes into
and see if that helps interrupt the pattern that she's in.” Because that's all it is. It's an old habit from where she was at previously.
So, getting to see the person that I was coaching put it together, “Oh, this doesn't have anything to do with me. It's the old habit that this person has. I feel like I've been clear about what I need and what she should be doing. But it's still not clicking for that person.” And so then again for her to be able to come up with, “Okay, this is how I can even make it more clear and break it down even more, and again recognize that this person is in a pattern that might have existed for a long time.” It helped her let some of that frustration about the employee out. So again, just an example of one of those realizations.
I also really love when we get to help teams grow, whether it's either us coming in and doing team training and providing, you know, strengths language for people to use together. Or if it's hearing from, you know, a supervisor we’ve worked with. They've implemented strengths with their team and hearing back from them about how they're building that culture of trust and strategic partnerships and those things. I love getting to hear about people building their communities and a whole host of different ways
And as you were talking about your example of people having these insights, I'm like, “Oh, my gosh! She’s totally talking about habits! She's talking about systems!” But then you proceeded to steal my thunder and say, “it's just a habit.” Lol.
But I think so often as supervisors we get frustrated because it's like - well, sometimes we're frustrated because we don't verbalize what we want, and that's back to clear is kind. We have to verbalize it. But we're in a hurry. So, we don't understand why they’re not making the changes we want. “I've bleeping, told you to do this, not this!” And we don't appreciate the fact that it has nothing to do with us, and it has nothing to do with them not wanting to do the things that we want. But when you're stuck in a pattern - and we're all stuck in patterns all day long - we have all these habits. It drives our behavior, but we don't think about that. We're like, “Well, I told you once. Now, I've told you twice. Now I’m angry.”
But that's so wonderful that you are able to help them deconstruct that and then reconstruct a plan. What's happening is change is hard. People get stuck in patterns. You verbalized it to them, but then create a structure to help create a new pattern. And that's absolutely what she did, and so that's fantastic.
And I think the other thing that's one of my favorite things, too, is as people start going through the content – because you don't know what you don't know – when they get these new pieces of information and they finally take the time to sit and reflect and go, “Oh, wait! I see how this new information fits. Aha!”
I love that part of the process because so many people get thrown into being a supervisor because, “Oh, you’re so good at doing whatever, you should get this promotion. Or you should apply for this job.” But, now you're in charge of people and all the training you get is well, “Here's the copier codes. Here's how you do payroll. Bye-bye.” So, it's so great to be able to give that to people, and then let them put it together in their own minds to solve their own problems.
Good, answers Alicia.
Alicia: Oh, thank you.
Anne: You did so well, I'm not going to cut this part out. Lol.
Okay, so I do like to keep relatively short, although we may be past that point. What else should I ask you? I know, we are enrolling for the summer Supervisor Strengths Institute. I know you've already said your favorite part of what we do, but what is your favorite part of the Institute?
Alicia: My favorite part of the Institute is getting a group of people from all over the place. We should start an infographic with how many states we've you know gotten from. You know that'd be fun at some point. We'll have all 50, but you know we've had folks from all over the US. Folks from Canada. Folk that are in TRIO programs. We've had new supervisors. We've had VPs. We've had folks come individually. Folks come as a team. Yeah, they're all from education, but it's a whole host of spaces.
It’s so powerful getting those groups together and having people share, “This is what's going really well. This is an insight that I've had, or this is a challenge that I have that I don't know how to work through.” I love that we get to help facilitate those conversations, because, you know, yes, we're subject matter experts in this, right? We this is what we do. We spend a lot of time reading and learning, and all the things about leading others. But there's also a whole host of knowledge and experience and wisdom from the collective group that I love people getting to go through it in that way.
We’ve talked about the possibility of offering this as a stand-alone online course or that kinds of thing. But we haven't made that shift yet, and I think some of it, at least from my perspective, is because that collective experience makes the experience so much more powerful. That's where we're still finding the energy and the joy of getting to bring together people from across all sorts of spaces and having those conversations, both with us facilitating and sharing very specific things to try and to do and things to learn, but also those conversations that people get to talk through and build some connections as well.
Anne: Yeah, I think I, that's one of my favorite parts as well. Because people feel lonely, they feel isolated. They feel like all this weight is on their shoulders, and there's no one that they can confide in. Or at least, that can offer anything to help them feel less so. And so, it's great to see those connections happening. At the beginning, it's always like everybody's being really shy, you know. And then people start to open up and realize, “Oh, my gosh! I'm having that same issue!”
We have lots of experience, but we don't have all the experience in the world. So, it's just a great way to connect with other like-minded folks who want to be a better supervisor, but also just want a better experience for their own life, because the Institute is a holistic experience. I feel like a lot of the folks who go through the Institute bring that back to their institution and just show up better there. But there's also been quite a few people that through this experience have decided, “Oh, I don't belong here anymore. I gots to go.” And I think both of those experiences are valid. It just depends on the individual, the institution, and where they are in life. And that's really what it's all about. And, like you said, sometimes getting that outside opinion that, “Oh, every single institution isn't like mine. Every single experience isn't like mine.” That can give you some additional insight to make whatever decision you need to make as a supervisor, and as an individual.
Alright, so is there anything else you want to say for the good of the order or the good of the whatever? I always ask you this, and you never do, but I'm gonna ask you. Do you want to wrap us out?
Alicia: I will not wrap us out.
Anne: I should say I've never wrapped anything out, either. So, I’m not really being fair to you. Lol
Alicia: Yeah, I think just to wrap up this time together. You know, I think we are lucky that we get to work with people that we like. I mean, we have chosen to work together. And you know again, just why do we do this, and what's important about it? One of the things you said, and I think it's just really true is we just want people to have a good life. And we want people to find what that means for them.
And to have their community, either at work or understanding how to navigate work in a way that's allowing them to have the energy to go and do things after work that also bring them energy and joy. And yeah again, just thinking about why, why does Strengths University exist? And it really is just that that we want folks to have the life that they want – to do good work, and also just to be happy and feel productive and engaged. And you know that we get to do that even just a little bit is what it's all about, I think.
Anne: Awesome. Alright. Well, thanks for joining us today, and we'll do this again sometime.
The summer Supervisor Strengths Institute starts on Wednesday, May 31st with our first group call. If you’d like to join Alicia and I, you can get more information and register here - https://www.strengthsuniversity.org/supervisorstrengthsinstitute
We hope to see you there.