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Technician Versus Supervisor

February 23, 2018

Know your role!  That is

the essence of competence.

 

Why is it that some people can’t make the transition from being a high-performing, experienced technician to becoming a supervisor of technicians?  What is the difference between the roles?  Common sense might suggest that promoting the person most knowledgeable about the equipment or process is a good idea.  But to succeed in their new roles, those individuals must change gears.  Some cannot make the transition.  The higher they go, the more their role changes. 

 

People fail or succeed in their roles based on their level of competence.  To be competent, they must know their role.  People can be smart and experienced but will fail if they don’t know what their duties and responsibilities entail. 

 

When you are hired into a position as an entry level worker (or enlisted soldier), your role will be technical, manual, or process driven.  Initially, you will be responsible for learning a machine, process, or product; and you will be responsible only for yourself.  The acquisition of technical skills over time is assumed.  But the longer you are in that job the more your role changes.  Even if you are never promoted, you may help train or assist newer employees.  Over time, your role will change from technical to leadership. 

 

And if you are promoted, there will be even bigger changes in your role.  You will be directly responsible for training others, helping with issue resolution, and advising on decisions.  Technical skills have been mastered and now you are being graded on your attitude, your interactions with others, your initiative, and your overall contribution to the success of others.  You are being graded on leadership. 

 

The reality is that the more technical skills you have, the less people will focus on them.  Both the military and civilian world recognize that there is a cutoff point where technical skill becomes less relevant than leadership abilities.  On military uniforms, the tradition was that enlisted rank was worn on the arms to symbolize that the enlisted did the brunt of the manual work while officer rank was worn on the shoulders to symbolize that officers bore the responsibility of ensuring the work was done.  That is the difference at that cut line. 

 

There are two examples that highlight that reality.  The first is when someone is promoted out of a technical position to supervise technicians and fail despite their experience.  The second example is when someone is hired in to supervise a task they have no experience in and are successful.  I have seen examples of both and have personally been hired twice into leadership roles with no industry experience. 

 

An employee that has been running a machine for fifteen years may not necessarily have the skills to be a plant supervisor.  A supervisor has a completely different role.  A technician requires a narrow but deep well of knowledge, while a supervisor often has a much broader, if shallower base of knowledge.   A technician can focus solely on their specific task while a supervisor must understand the big picture and how each technician’s role interacts with and supports the main goal of the team.   

 

One of the challenges for a technician promoted to a leadership role is to relinquish their old role and to trust others.  The new leader (who may very well be a better technician than their subordinates) will be tempted to step in and do the job himself or herself or to micromanage; all at the cost of neglecting their new responsibilities and dampening the growth of their subordinates.  Instead of running a machine, the leader should be setting machine priorities and helping employees meet production goals through encouragement, expectation management, and training.  Instead of engaging in a combat with a rifle, the leader should be directing fire, overseeing maneuvers, and communicating with support elements. 

 

I’ve seen examples of experienced soldiers who had previously served as enlisted leaders transition to officer ranks and do poorly.  They try to do the jobs of their enlisted subordinates, getting involved in issues below their level of responsibility, and struggling with their new role that requires a big picture, hands off approach.  The platoon leader may have been a better squad leader than his own squad leaders but that does not make him a good platoon leader.  It is a different role.   

 

A leader’s role is to enable others to be successful at their technical jobs.  Leaders are required to have different skills and be willing to shoulder the responsibility for others’ work.  A leader’s role requires the leader to own the success and failures of others, not just their own work.  When you are a leader, you can fail solely on the actions of someone other than yourself. 

 

Military officer training does give its leaders some degree of technical skills.  As an Infantry officer, I knew weapon systems, I knew basic and advanced tactics, and had more practical experience than most of my junior soldiers.  I even had a small amount of experience as an enlisted soldier.  But my squad leaders all had more experience and better technical skills than I did.  And my role was trust and enable my subordinates to do their job, with and without me being present.  

 

In the civilian world, the roles were more pronounced.  I’ve had to supervise in different industries with zero industrial experience.  In both jobs, I never became competent in the roles of my subordinates.  Experience gave me some general knowledge, but not enough to actually perform the job.  That was difficult as a former military leader.  But it made it very clear that my role was one of enabling and managing through expectations.  The biggest key to my success in those roles was building up a relationship of trust; I had to trust others to do their jobs, and they would not do so unless they trusted me to support them when needed. 

 

Know your role.  As a technician, you must learn to trust your own skills; as a leader you must trust the skills of others. 

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