Nicole Matos

Partner at Collegium Consulting at

Superpowers for Supervisors

Full 20140819 superpowers

I recently served a year-long stint as associate dean of my community college’s English department while surviving my five-year-old son’s obsession with superheroes. Given our hour-long commute, I had plenty of time to hear about good guys and bad guys, adamantium claws and power rings. Somewhere along the line, I began to think about my new administrative role in the same fantastical terms. Must fly (from meeting to meeting). Must scale (in an architect’s plan) tall buildings in a single bound.

But if anything, my first experience moving from a faculty to a supervisory role actually taught me that true superpowers for administrators aren’t anything flashy. You don’t need to be Professor X to be a good manager of people and resources. To be successful, you just need to focus on a few very human powers--and acknowledge your own very human limitations.

The power of courtesy. One of the most common problems I dealt with as associate dean, to the tune of several cases a week, was student-faculty disputes. Although the specifics varied, you’d be surprised how often seemingly complex complaints came down to a simple perception of a lack of courtesy on one or both sides. The lesson? One of the easiest ways you can erode morale as a supervisor is simply by being cranky, brusque, or thoughtless in your style of communication.

An unintentional lack of courtesy on the part of supervisors often seems to arise from a sense of SSDD--same (er) stuff, different day. That is, the same issues and concerns tend to repeat, just with different players. Someone is squeezing more than the allowed number of copies out of the staff copy machine … again. A committee member was late on producing a scheduled report … again. A faculty member has a complaint about this year’s in-service speaker--just like somebody had a complaint last year, and the year before that.

But it is easy to forget that only you as supervisor have access to, and thus feel the effects of, that cumulative memory. To fire off a snippy email (“YOU ARE LIMITED TO 50 COPIES!”) to a first-time offender is essentially to punish a man for the sins of his fathers. It is the same ultimately fallacious temptation as being annoyed that this year’s crop of students is no better at comma splices when you taught them so nicely, last year. Treat each person like new, even if the problem is old--that is my best anti-cranky advice.

The power of transparency. BeforeI tried administration, I honestly had no idea how my college operated internally. As far as I knew, for example, the courses I taught were magically scheduled by the flick of a wand. Little did I know that there was actually a master schedule of courses produced about a year ahead of time, then a secondary process where courses were matched to available rooms, all long before faculty members might ask themselves, “What would I like to teach next term?” The result of this opaque process, at least in my department, was a continual, frustrating mismatch between faculty course requests and available courses and/or rooms.

It only took a little bit of extra instruction--essentially, a memo--to explain to faculty members the precise process and timeline by which courses are scheduled. Suddenly disappointments which seemed personal (“What do you mean, there’s no Tuesday section of Medieval Zooplankton?”) became operational (“Oh, I get it, the course requests are locked in in July, the room requests in January, and the priority list goes in seniority order; I’ll plan my request for next time accordingly”).

Never assume that your supervisees “simply won’t be interested” in a transparent accounting of how institutional systems work, or that informing people about process is somehow a diminishment of your managerial control. Yes, making systems transparent opens them up to scrutiny and discussion, but keeping them intentionally or unintentionally secret ultimately serves no one.

The power of apology. Time travel is a pretty desirable superpower. My son informed me that it is actually pretty rare in the superhero universe (“Apocalypse can only do it because he stole Cable’s computer!”), but I know a way to make it much more common in the administrative realm: the power of apology, of simply saying, “Ack, I messed that one up, my fault, let me try that again.”

Rare indeed is the individual who will look down on you for apologizing, and rare is the situation where a redo isn’t possible. Think of it this way: Screwing something up, so long as you fix it afterward, is time travel with the added bonus of an opportunity for an improved relationship. The person who caught your error or who was affected by it has the chance to test your humility and integrity, and you have the chance to prove those qualities sound.

“I don’t know—let me do some research and get back to you” is another wonderful temporal manipulation that combines the power of the present with the resources of the future. It is strange that the same academics who spent eight years probing their field’s thorniest unanswered questions should suddenly become allergic to admitting that they don’t have all the answers. But too often, that is the case. Before you employ some new New Math to produce the exact elusive statistic your compatriot casually requested, consider instead a quick freeze-frame in which you offer, “I want to be sure I have it right, so I’ll get you that info by the end of the day.”

The power of reciprocity. The biggest lesson I took away from my year “on the dark side” is a healthy skepticism over why an administrative role needs to be “the dark side” at all. Both faculty and supervisors, temporary or permanent, could do a much better job avoiding Othering the other side.

Not everyone will want to pull a Mystique, as I did, and transmogrify from one campus role to another (although, I would argue, more people should). But you shouldn’t need X-ray vision to appreciate that both faculty and administration can be everyday superheroes in their own right.

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