Bottom Line: What does a supervisor usually do? What does it mean to be the first line manager of a team if you have one or more supervisors under you whose only job is to "manage the people"

A new management structure is being proposed that includes a supervisor role. We're a software development company. This is an idea from a new VP who is asking for feedback. My director passed on some brief descriptions. But it says that the supervisor is daily assignments, coaching/mentoring the people on the team - but not reviews or any kind of corrective feedback. There could be more than one reporting into a manager. The manager is responsible for the product strategy to implement the vision, the budget and delivering the product. They said specifically that the supervisor not the manager would have the 03's. Then there are Directors who may have several products but could only have one.

I'm a little confused. I've had team leads but never a supervisor. Those leads often did the technical day-to-day assignments for their area like development, testing, etc. I've known supervisors but they were always individual contributors as well. My team only has around 15 but some of the teams are around 20-40. What they've done before now is had multiple managers who coordinated together. Mostly the manager was based on location but it could be a special area of a product. With this, there would be one manager and the others would be supervisors.

I'm trying to be open. But it seems odd. I'd have a hard time doing feedback and reviews with this system. Am I just missing something or closed to how other companies do this?

akinsgre's picture

This sounds, to me, a lot like a Team Lead position. I've worked in organizations that had a Supervisor role. But it was never reporting to a development manager.

Most of the supervisor roles I've seen have a lot of day to day people management responsibilities; but not the full functional management role.

In one organization, I was given the role of Lead Analyst and tasked with doing O3s and daily work assignment. There I was given asked to contribute to reviews and sat in on the delivery with the direct and my boss. Also, in one instance, I was asked to coach an employee while they were on probation.

kklogic's picture

Just wanted to chime in that I agree. This is a Team Lead position by another title.

AManagerTool's picture

I am a supervisor. As such, I am responsible for day to day operations, coaching, feedback, development, reviews and budget. I have positional authority to hire and fire. That said, you have that flashing red sign on your head that Mark talks about. And once again, if you point to it too much you loose your relationships with your team.

Team Leads are usual in a technical environment. I used to be a team leader and as such I was responsible for deliverables being met, assignments being given out, technical direction and other task level details. You rely on relationships and respect to provide power. This is very similar to project management. Performance management, feedback etc are a supervisor/managers responsibility. As a team lead, I lacked the positional authority to hire and fire. Many times, the lack of positional authority leads to conflicts with team leads that do not know the difference between relational and positional authority.

I hope that I have been somewhat helpful.

US41's picture

I was once a team lead. My boss was smart and allowed me full authority over my folks. As I asked for authority, he delegated it. Within a month, I was a "manager."

I had team leads reporting to me. I delegated all of a hiring manager's duties to them, and they do them. I then started delegating MY job to them, and they do that too.

"Team lead" is a dumb idea. Either make someone a manager or don't. Don't expect someone to "lead" someone else and do your job for you without delegating the blinking red sign that goes with it. You rely on it almost completely. Expecting your direct to operate without it - which is actually the most difficult and advanced management behavior there is - is expecting TOO MUCH.

Make them managers and stop withholding the shiny toys.

akinsgre's picture

And if I can iterate US41's statement in another way; as a manager you have tools to help you do your job. Things like feedback, coaching, delegation, reviews, etc... are all complimentary tools that work together to help you craft behavior in your directs.

Sometimes senior managers feel that they can make the job of managing easier by not encumbering their front-line managers with those tools.

lazerus's picture

I just wanted to throw my hat in this ring. I've been a "supervisor" and a manager, and it is exactly as US41 and akinsgre say. Rather than a manager establishing and maintaining relationships with his people, he appoints you the "team lead" or "supervisor" or some title, maybe even "senior widget maker", and you get all the difficult parts of the job like late-stage coaching without the organizational support you need (hiring/firing, compensation, scheduling, etc etc).

Additionally, it's easy to make a scapegoat out of you when something goes wrong. If I can blame the "supervisor" for a poor performing staff, rather than myself, human nature dictates that I will probably do just that.

akinsgre's picture

So let me followup by asking, what type of responsibilities should accompany the "formal" designation of manager.

Say I'm coaching and delegating to my staff. My staff is growing and my company allows me to add a layer of management.

This is a pretty typical reason for the "Team Lead / Supervisor" position.

As a good MT manager, what kind of responsibilities must I be sure to delegate before I ask my new "Team Lead" to accept the risk/stress of being a manager?

US41's picture


Be prepared to delegate absolutely everything involved in managing people. All of it. Hold nothing back.

* Hiring
* Training
* Organizational structure
* Task assignment and delegation
* Setting objectives
* Performance management
* Firing
* Budget Management

Anything you would normally do with those people were they your direct reports they should be doing with him instead, and you should go through your direct in order to use those people - not skip over him to them when it is good news and then through him to deliver bad news.

The skips should not be coming to you. When they do, and it is not a legal issue or something you know you have to handle such as allegations of abuse or misconduct, you redirect them back to THEIR BOSS.

MsSunshine's picture

Thanks for all of your input. It made me jell my question.

What is the purpose of a supervisor role?

Some choices are:
1) Maybe they see it as a "manager in training". In that case, I think it should be made clear how long the training is, what you plan to do when they are trained, etc. It does seem silly to me to have a special title for this. But they also just proposed a "Senior Manager" as well. I poked at that one and was told it was someone flagged as a potential Director. (I'm not sure why you have to have a title for that - but maybe it comes with a bigger raise! :lol:)
2) Maybe it's just the top technical person in each role (development, testing, etc). Our "leads" have traditionally been the more senior people who were effectively mentoring the team or providing technical direction - but didn't want to do the people management side. For me, I wouldn't need it for this because I would go to the person who is most effective. But maybe it's a way to reward them with a promotion which means a bigger raise. It does imply that you can only have one in a group which could be problematic...
3) Maybe it's just a way to divide up a product team because it's too big for one manager. I'm not sure why a special "supervisor" title except to introduce another layer with the manager above them. What that puts is another layer on the product who has the "power" to control the other managers but isn't a director. There are some people here to seem to think there has to be one person with the power or decisions will never get made. I find that a little depressing personally....

AManagerTool's picture

I see supervisors frequently in large shift based organizations. One manager with three shift supervisors. I also see supervisors reporting up to a manager in large organizations of front line workers. The truth is that they are indeed managers and should be empowered as such.

I am a supervisor because my manager and his director wanted to delegate every aspect of the management of the department to me without him loosing his title and benefits as a manager. This is how we position managers for retirement here in a shrinking or flat headcount environment. I suspect that this is true elsewhere. Somehow, adding supervisors and team leads is more palatable to upper management than adding managers. It's something about "Span of Control". Ohh, I gotta add that one to the buzzword

I guess in my case number 1 would probably be applicable. I think they may append layered titles to the management role as an inducement to stay. I think it's like that Cheers episode where Kirsty Alley keeps giving out promotions to the bartenders just to make them happy.

The purpose of a to least it should be.

As far as the power to make the decisions is concerned, if you are making [b]all[/b] the decisions you are a bad manager. I don't think that was anyones implication. Typically, I only want to make the decision if my job or someone else's is at risk, if there is a safety concern or disciplinary/performance issue. My team knows that I will whip out my new "C fingers" (Thank you Mark) on them when they come to me to make a call on something they are empowered to do...which is everything not involving the aforementioned conditions.

It's confusing at times trying to figure out why organizations choose a particular structure. It's easy to criticize though if you have not had to walk into a green field environment and build an organization yourself. Trust me it's not easy. This is where having good team members comes in to play. Even in a flawed organizational structure, a good team gets the job done. Of course, efficiency suffers but....that's why we re-organize.

HMac's picture


Sorry I'm late to this discussion (but others have done the heavy lifting :) ).

My only addition is to consider efficiency, and that splitting a manager's responsibilities between two levels will likely add cost and complexity that your organization can do without (like all the time that comes with "coordinating" between the manager and the supervisor when it's time to promote, develop, warn or remove employees).


bensimo's picture

To manage something, anything, is to make effective use of that resource. Thus we have supply chain management, finance management, production management, people management, etcetera, etcetera.

In each case, it is the manager's responsibility to provide whatever is needed to make effective use of the resource. In the case of people, the manager is responsible for providing the tools, training, direction, discipline, procedures, policies, rules, parts, material, technical documentation, technical advice, information, development and what-have-you to the people so that they can perform their work at the very highest level of excellence.

I call all this "support" and the best way to find out how to provide better support is to ask your employees what they need to do a better job.

Most managers get hung up on direction and spend most of their time on providing lots of orders including goals, targets and visions while ignoring the other elements of support. These managers don't realize it, but their over-direction is considered demeaning and disrespectful by their subordinates, and only serves to convince them that the boss does not care about them so why should they care about the work.

So since we are dealing with humans and not machines, direction is something which is most effective when it is very limited, such as to emergencies or when there is not time for training or development. Because the best employees are self-directed and self-controlled. the best managers spend far more time helping employees to become self-directed than on giving direction. Development not only has a very large payback in terms of productivity, but it does not have any of the negatives of direction.

Hope this helps, though there is a lot more to it. If you want to know more, I am willing to work with you gratis.

Best regards, Ben
Author "Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed"