Get Bad at What You Do (Did)

If you are in charge of people, your goal is to help them get better at what they do, not to do it better than them.

Team leader, manager, foreman, superintendent, supervisor, boss, coordinator; the list goes on and on. These are all titles used to describe the person with the responsibility of getting a job done by directing other people. The key point, regardless of the title, is that this person is tasked with accomplishing an amount of work beyond that which one person is capable of doing. And they are expected to oversee the production of others to get that work done.

Often this person occupies this position of responsibility because of demonstrated proficiency at the task they are supervising. For example, a carpenter may be great with his tools and very efficient at doing his job. One day he is told he will now supervise three other carpenters on a job. He becomes the foreman. No big deal really, as he generally works alongside the three of them, setting the pace, and taking corrective action right away when one of his crew does something wrong.

In fact, this carpenter foreman is often cited for his ability to “make it happen” and his behavior is reinforced with this praise. Those who work for him learn that the close supervision he exercises is the way to succeed in the business. Perhaps this foreman gets promoted to superintendent and then supervises several foremen. He tries to replicate his success but is challenged since he cannot be in three places at once. Every time he visits one of his crews he is showing the right way to do it. After all, he is one of the best carpenters; he can do the task better than most. He steps in and implements the corrective action. The work is executed correctly, the company is happy, the crew may not be.

This situation is not limited to the field. Consider the accounting supervisor who is known for her attention to detail. Nothing got by her when she was a clerk, and now, nothing gets by her as a supervisor. The reason nothing gets by her is that she is basically replicating the work of her team as she very closely rechecks their work. She is putting in some longer hours, but that is what it takes to make the numbers right. Her people can’t get it right, so she will make sure it is right.

As you read the two scenarios, you could probably identify people in your organization. The fundamental problem here is that these people fail to recognize they are no longer getting paid to actually do the work. They are getting paid for the work to get done – by others. By actually doing much of the work they are failing to exercise supervision and they create several bad situations.

The first bad situation is poor morale. The vast majority of people want to do a good job and they want the opportunity to make a contribution. When these supervisors jump in and fix the work themselves they are sending the message that the employee is not capable of doing the work. When the supervisor comes behind the employee and reworks their errors they are saying they don’t trust the employee. Everyone wants to be trusted, from a first day laborer all the way to the seasoned journeyman.

When the supervisor does the work there is no training for the subordinates. In the same breath the superintendent laments that the bench is empty and there are no good employees, they are berating subordinates because they can’t do the work like they are “supposed to.” Of course, how can the employee get better if the supervisor keeps jumping in?

Eventually the supervisor gets tired. They are putting in longer hours to get their job done since they are spending too much time actually doing work. They get burned out. This leads to a number of additional bad situations, such as turnover, low production, and lower morale to name a few.

If the supervisor is too busy jumping in and actually doing work, then they are not actually doing the other things they are supposed to be doing. Often these other things are not directly related to production and they may not be missed initially. For example, time sheets may need to be filled out by the superintendent. He usually gets them done but half the time they are late, and the other half they are inaccurate. This causes payroll to track him down to get things corrected.

Finally, this supervisor is not developing people to move up. By continuing to jump in this person is insuring that the staff doesn’t develop. If there is no one to replace the supervisor, they can’t advance. There are some people who still wrongly think that by not developing their subordinates they are maintaining job security but the fact is they are hurting the company.

How do you overcome this situation? How does a company make sure this situation does not persist? Three basic steps are: a good job description, good leadership from those who oversee the superintendent, and third, training on time management, delegation and profitability.

So, if you are the best in your company at the work you do, let yourself get bad at it. Your supervisors are not getting paid for doing the work; others should become more proficient at it. This is not to say that the leadership of the firm should forget all they learned about the work but it is saying others should learn the task and the leadership should be learning new things. The pace of change is rapid today and employees need to be doing what they are paid to do. Line employees need to be producing; supervisors need to be overseeing the production of line employees and senior leadership should be doing whatever it can to make sure those two people have the right training and resources to do their jobs correctly. If you are in charge of people, your goal is to help them get better at what they do, not to do it better than them.

Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting and the author of No Yelling: The Nine Secrets of Marine Corps Leadership You MUST Know To WIN In Business. He works with contractors to improve productivity. Visit his Web site at